Optical Illusion / Optical Truth

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-tufte

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-cholera-2

Portion of original dot map by Dr. John Snow, the founding father of epidemiology, showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854. The visual representation of Snow’s data analysis convinced local authorities to shut down the contaminated public well at ground zero of the cholera outbreak, although it would be another 20 years before Snow’s arguments in favor of germ theory and a direct connection between cholera and fecal contamination of water supply would be widely accepted.

John Snow, “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” (1855)

Anscombe’s Quartet: four datasets that appear identical using summary statistical methods (mean, variance, correlation, linear regression), but are completely different in meaning and composition – a difference that is clearly revealed through visual inspection.

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-quartet

Frank Anscombe, “Graphs in Statistical Analysis” American Statistician v.27 no.1 (1973), drawing by Schutz 

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-minard-map

Charles Joseph Minard, “Carte Figurative” of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign (1869)

The Minard Map: a map of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, showing six distinct data dimensions (troop strength, temperature, distance marched, geographic latitude and longitude, direction of travel, location at event dates) in 2-dimensional form.

Mephistopheles:Here too it’s masquerade, I find:
As everywhere, the dance of mind.
I grasped a lovely masked procession,
And caught things from a horror show…
I’d gladly settle for a false impression,
If it would last a little longer, though.
epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-mephistopheles

Edouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles
in Gounod’s opera “Faust” (c. 1880)

So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell,
Blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

– Roger Waters, “Wish You Were Here” (1975)

A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.

– Saul Bellow, “To Jerusalem and Back” (1976)

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

– Upton Sinclair, “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked” (1935)

Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy” (1872)

To find out if she really loved me, I hooked her up to a lie detector. And just as I suspected, my machine was broken.

– Jarod Kintz, “Love Quotes for the Ages. Specifically Ages 19-91” (2013)

Edward Tufte is a personal and professional hero of mine. Professionally, he’s best known for his magisterial work in data visualization and data communication through such classics as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983) and its follow-on volumes, but less well-known is his outstanding academic work in econometrics and statistical analysis. His 1974 book Data Analysis for Politics and Policy remains the single best book I’ve ever read in terms of teaching the power and pitfalls of statistical analysis. If you’re fluent in the language of econometrics (this is not a book for the uninitiated) and now you want to say something meaningful and true using that language, you should read this book (available for $2 in Kindle form on Tufte’s website). Personally, Tufte is a hero to me for escaping the ivory tower, pioneering what we know today as self-publishing, making a lot of money in the process, and becoming an interesting sculptor and artist. That’s my dream. That one day when the Great Central Bank Wars of the 21st century are over, I will be allowed to return, Cincinnatus-like, to my Connecticut farm where I will write short stories and weld monumental sculptures in peace. That and beekeeping.

But until that happy day, I am inspired in my war-fighting efforts by Tufte’s skepticism and truth-seeking. The former is summed up well in an anecdote Tufte found in a medical journal and cites in Data Analysis:

One day when I was a junior medical student, a very important Boston surgeon visited the school and delivered a great treatise on a large number of patients who had undergone successful operations for vascular reconstruction. At the end of the lecture, a young student at the back of the room timidly asked, “Do you have any controls?” Well, the great surgeon drew himself up to his full height, hit the desk, and said, “Do you mean did I not operate on half of the patients?” The hall grew very quiet then. The voice at the back of the room very hesitantly replied, “Yes, that’s what I had in mind.” Then the visitor’s fist really came down as he thundered, “Of course not. That would have doomed half of them to their death.” God, it was quiet then, and one could scarcely hear the small voice ask, “Which half?”

‘Nuff said.

The latter quality — truth-seeking — takes on many forms in Tufte’s work, but most noticeably in his constant admonitions to LOOK at the data for hints and clues on asking the right questions of the data. This is the flip-side of the coin for which Tufte is best known, that good/bad visual representations of data communicate useful/useless answers to questions that we have about the world. Or to put it another way, an information-rich data visualization is not only the most powerful way to communicate our answers as to how the world really works, but it is also the most powerful way to design our questions as to how the world really works. Here’s a quick example of what I mean, using a famous data set known as “Anscombe’s Quartet”.

Anscombe’s Quartet
I II III IV
x y x y x y x y
10.0 8.04 10.0 9.14 10.0 7.46 8.0 6.58
8.0 6.95 8.0 8.14 8.0 6.77 8.0 5.76
13.0 7.58 13.0 8.74 13.0 12.74 8.0 7.71
9.0 8.81 9.0 8.77 9.0 7.11 8.0 8.84
11.0 8.33 11.0 9.26 11.0 7.81 8.0 8.47
14.0 9.96 14.0 8.10 14.0 8.84 8.0 7.04
6.0 7.24 6.0 6.13 6.0 6.08 8.0 5.25
4.0 4.26 4.0 3.10 4.0 5.39 19.0 12.50
12.0 10.84 12.0 9.13 12.0 8.15 8.0 5.56
7.0 4.82 7.0 7.26 7.0 6.42 8.0 7.91
5.0 5.68 5.0 4.74 5.0 5.73 8.0 6.89

In this original example (developed by hand by Frank Anscombe in 1973; today there’s an app for generating all the Anscombe sets you could want) Roman numerals I – IV refer to four data sets of 11 (x,y) coordinates, in other words 11 points on a simple 2-dimensional area. If you were comparing these four sets of numbers using traditional statistical methods, you might well think that they were four separate data measurements of exactly the same phenomenon. After all, the mean of x is exactly the same in each set of measurements (9), the mean of y is the same in each set of measurements to two decimal places (7.50), the variance of x is exactly the same in each set (11), the variance of y is the same in each set to two decimal places (4.12), the correlation between x and y is the same in each set to three decimal places (0.816), and if you run a linear regression on each data set you get the same line plotted through the observations (y = 3.00 + 0.500x).

But when you LOOK at these four data sets, they are totally alien to each other, with essentially no similarity in meaning or probable causal mechanism. Of the four, linear regression and our typical summary statistical efforts make sense for only the upper left data set. For the other three, applying our standard toolkit makes absolutely no sense. But we’d never know that — we’d never know how to ask the right questions about our data — if we didn’t eyeball it first.

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-anscombes-quartet

Okay, you might say, duly noted. From now on we will certainly look at a visual plot of our data before doing things like forcing a line through it and reporting summary statistics like r-squared and standard deviation as if they were trumpets of angels from on high. But how do you “see” multi-variate datasets? It’s one thing to imagine a line through a set of points on a plane, quite another to visualize a plane through a set of points in space, and impossible to imagine a cubic solid through a set of points in hyperspace. And how do you “see” embedded or invisible data dimensions, whether it’s an invisible market dimension like volatility or an invisible measurement dimension like time aggregation or an invisible statistical dimension like the underlying distribution of errors?

The fact is that looking at data is an art, not a science. There’s no single process, no single toolkit for success. It requires years of practice on top of an innate artist’s eye before you have a chance of being good at this, and it’s something that I’ve never seen a non-human intelligence accomplish successfully (I can’t tell you how happy I am to write that sentence). But just because it’s hard, just because it doesn’t come easily or naturally to people and machines alike … well, that doesn’t mean it’s not the most important thing in data-based truth-seeking.

Why is it so important to SEE data relationships? Because we’re human beings. Because we are biologically evolved and culturally trained to process information in this manner. Because — and this is the Tufte-inspired market axiom that I can’t emphasize strongly enough — the only investable ideas are visible ideas. If you can’t physically see it in the data, then it will never move you strongly enough to overcome the pleasant fictions that dominate our workaday lives, what Faust’s Tempter, the demon Mephistopheles, calls the “masquerade” and “the dance of mind.” Our similarity to Faust (who was a really smart guy, a man of Science with a capital S) is not that the Devil may soon pay us a visit and tempt us with all manner of magical wonders, but that we have already succumbed to the blandishments of easy answers and magical thinking. I mean, don’t get me started on Part Two, Act 1 of Goethe’s magnum opus, where the Devil introduces massive quantities of paper money to encourage inflationary pressures under a false promise of recovery in the real economy. No, I’m not making this up. That is the actual, non-allegorical plot of one of the best, smartest books in human history, now almost 200 years old.

So what I’m going to ask of you, dear reader, is to look at some pictures of market data, with the hope that seeing will indeed spark believing. Not as a temptation, but as a talisman against the same. Because when I tell you that the statistical correlation between the US dollar and the price of oil since Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi launched competitive monetary policies in mid-June of 2014 is -0.96 I can hear the yawns. I can also hear my own brain start to pose negative questions, because I’ve experienced way too many instances of statistical “evidence” that, like the Anscombe data sets, proved to be misleading at best. But when I show you what that correlation looks like …

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-bloomberg-1

© Bloomberg Finance L.P., for illustrative purposes only

I can hear you lean forward in your seat. I can hear my own brain start to whir with positive questions and ideas about how to explore this data further. This is what a -96% correlation looks like.

What you’re looking at in the green line is the Fed’s favored measure of what the US dollar buys around the world. It’s an index where the components are the exchange rates of all the US trading partners (hence a “broad dollar” index) and where the individual components are proportionally magnified/minimized by the size of that trading relationship (hence a “trade-weighted” index). That index is measured by the left hand vertical axis, starting with a value of about 102 on June 18, 2014 when Janet Yellen announced a tightening bias for US monetary policy and a renewed focus on the full employment half of the Fed’s dual mandate, peaking in late January and declining to a current value of about 119 as first Japan and Europe called off the negative rate dogs (making their currencies go up against the dollar) and then Yellen completely back-tracked on raising rates this year (making the dollar go down against all currencies). Monetary policy divergence with a hawkish Fed and a dovish rest-of-world makes the dollar go up. Monetary policy convergence with everyone a dove makes the dollar go down.

What you’re looking at in the magenta line is the upside-down price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil over the same time span, as measured by the right hand vertical axis. So on June 18, 2014 the spot price of WTI crude oil was over $100/barrel. That bottomed in the high $20s just as the trade-weighted broad dollar index peaked this year, and it’s been roaring back higher (lower in the inverse depiction) ever since. Now correlation may not imply causation, but as Ed Tufte is fond of saying, it’s a mighty big hint. I can SEE the consistent relationship between change in the dollar and change in oil prices, and that makes for a coherent, believable story about a causal relationship between monetary policy and oil prices.

What is that causal narrative? It’s not just the mechanistic aspects of pricing, such that the inherent exchange value of things priced in dollars — whether it’s a barrel of oil or a Caterpillar earthmover — must by definition go down as the exchange value of the dollar itself goes up. More impactful, I think, is that for the past seven years investors have been well and truly trained to see every market outcome as the result of central bank policy, a training program administered by central bankers who now routinely and intentionally use forward guidance and placebo words to act on “the dance of mind” in classic Mephistophelean fashion. In effect, the causal relationship between monetary policy and oil prices is a self-fulfilling prophecy (or in the jargon du jour, a self-reinforcing behavioral equilibrium), a meta-example of what George Soros calls reflexivity and what a game theorist calls the Common Knowledge Game.

The causal relationship of the dollar, i.e. monetary policy, to the price of oil is a reflection of the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, nothing more and nothing less. And today that narrative is everything.

Here’s something smart that I read about this relationship between oil prices and monetary policy back in November 2014 when oil was north of $70/barrel:

I think that this monetary policy divergence is a very significant risk to markets, as there’s no direct martingale on how far monetary policy can diverge and how strong the dollar can get. As a result I think there’s a non-trivial chance that the price of oil could have a $30 or $40 handle at some point over the next 6 months, even though the global growth and supply/demand models would say that’s impossible. But I also think the likely duration of that heavily depressed price is pretty short. Why? Because the Fed and China will not take this lying down. They will respond to the stronger dollar and stronger yuan (China’s currency is effectively tied to the dollar) and they will prevail, which will push oil prices back close to what global growth says the price should be. The danger, of course, is that if they wait too long to respond (and they usually do), then the response will itself be highly damaging to global growth and market confidence and we’ll bounce back, but only after a near-recession in the US or a near-hard landing in China.

Oh wait, I wrote that. Good stuff.

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-economist

But that was a voice in the wilderness in 2014, as the dominant narrative for the causal factors driving oil pricing was all OPEC all the time. So what about that, Ben? What about the steel cage death match within OPEC between Saudi Arabia and Iran and outside of OPEC between Saudi Arabia and US frackers? What about supply and demand? Where is that in your price chart of oil? Sorry, but I don’t see it in the data. Doesn’t mean it’s not really there. Doesn’t mean it’s not a statistically significant data relationship. What it means is that the relationship between oil supply and oil prices in a policy-controlled market is not an investable relationship. I’m sure it used to be, which is why so many people believe that it’s so important to follow and fret over. But today it’s an essentially useless exercise in data analytics. Not wrong, but useless … there’s a difference!

Of course, crude oil isn’t the only place where fundamental supply and demand factors are invisible in the data and hence essentially useless as an investable attribute. Here’s the dollar and something near and dear to the hearts of anyone in Houston, the Alerian MLP index, with an astounding -94% correlation:

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-bloomberg-2

© Bloomberg Finance L.P., for illustrative purposes only

Interestingly, the correlation between the Alerian MLP index and oil is noticeably less at -88%. Hard to believe that MLP investors should be paying more attention to Bank of Japan press conferences than to gas field depletion schedules, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.

And here’s the dollar and EEM, the dominant emerging market ETF, with a -89% correlation:

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-bloomberg-3

© Bloomberg Finance L.P., for illustrative purposes only

There’s only one question that matters about Emerging Markets as an asset class, and it’s the subject of one of my first (and most popular) Epsilon Theory notes, “It Was Barzini All Along”: are Emerging Market growth rates a function of something (anything!) particular to Emerging Markets, or are they simply a derivative function of Developed Market central bank liquidity measures and monetary policy? Certainly this chart suggests a rather definitive answer to that question!

And finally, here’s the dollar and the US Manufacturing PMI survey of real-world corporate purchasing managers, probably the most respected measure of US manufacturing sector health. This data relationship clocks in at a -92% correlation. I mean … this is nuts.

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-bloomberg-4

© Bloomberg Finance L.P., for illustrative purposes only

Here’s what I wrote last summer about the inexorable spread of monetary policy contagion.

Monetary policy divergence manifests itself first in currencies, because currencies aren’t an asset class at all, but a political construction that represents and symbolizes monetary policy. Then the divergence manifests itself in those asset classes, like commodities, that have no internal dynamics or cash flows and are thus only slightly removed in their construction and meaning from however they’re priced in this currency or that. From there the divergence spreads like a cancer (or like a cure for cancer, depending on your perspective) into commodity-sensitive real-world companies and national economies. Eventually – and this is the Big Point – the divergence spreads into everything, everywhere.

I think this is still the only story that matters for markets.

The good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away. Right now the good Lord’s name is Janet Yellen, and she’s in a giving mood. It won’t last. It never does. But it does give us time to prepare our portfolios for a return to competitive monetary policy actions, and it gives us insight into what to look for as catalysts for that taketh away part of the equation.

epsilon-theory-optical-illusion-optical-truth-may-4-2016-cholera

Most importantly, though, I hope that this exercise in truth-seeking inoculates you from the Big Narrative Lie coming soon to a status quo media megaphone near you, that this resurgence in risk assets is caused by a resurgence in fundamental real-world economic factors. I know you want to believe this is true. I do, too! It’s unpleasant personally and bad for business in 2016 to accept the reality that we are mired in a policy-controlled market, just as it was unpleasant personally and bad for business in 1854 to accept the reality that cholera is transmitted through fecal contamination of drinking water. But when you SEE John Snow’s dot map of death you can’t ignore the Broad Street water pump smack-dab in the middle of disease outcomes. When you SEE a Bloomberg correlation map of prices you can’t ignore the trade-weighted broad dollar index smack-dab in the middle of market outcomes. Or at least you can’t ignore it completely. It took another 20 years and a lot more cholera deaths before Snow’s ideas were widely accepted. It took the development of a new intellectual foundation: germ theory. I figure it will take another 20 years and the further development of game theory before we get widespread acceptance of the ideas I’m talking about in Epsilon Theory. That’s okay. The bees can wait.

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My Passion is Puppetry

Campaign
Company
Launch Date
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-progressive-insurance “Flo” Progressive Insurance 2008
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-geico “Rhetorical Question”
“Happier Than A … ”
“Did You Know?”
“It’s What You Do”
GEICO 2009
2012
2013
2014
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-allstate “Mayhem” Allstate 2010
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-farmers “University of Farmers” Farmers Insurance 2010
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-state-farm-jingle “Magic Jingle” State Farm 2011
2011
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-esurance “That’s Not How It Works” Esurance 2014
epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-nationwide “Chicken Parm You Taste So Good” Nationwide 2014

We are supposedly living in the Golden Age of television. Maybe yes, maybe no (my view: every decade is a Golden Age of television!), but there’s no doubt that today we’re living in the Golden Age of insurance commercials. Sure, you had the GEICO gecko back in 1999 and the caveman in 2004, and the Aflac duck has been around almost as long, but it’s really the Flo campaign for Progressive Insurance in 2008 that marks a sea change in how financial risk products are marketed by property and casualty insurers. Today every major P&C carrier spends big bucks (about $7 billion per year in the aggregate) on these little theatrical gems.

This will strike some as a silly argument, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the modern focus on entertainment marketing for financial risk products began in the Great Recession and its aftermath. When the financial ground isn’t steady underneath your feet, fundamentals don’t matter nearly as much as a fresh narrative. Why? Because the fundamentals are scary. Because you don’t buy when you’re scared. So you need a new perspective from the puppet masters to get you to buy, a new “conversation”, to use Don Draper’s words of advertising wisdom from Mad Men. Maybe that’s describing the price quote process as a “name your price tool” if you’re Flo, and maybe that’s describing Lucky Strikes tobacco as “toasted!” if you’re Don Draper. Maybe that’s a chuckle at the Mayhem guy or the Hump Day Camel if you’re Allstate or GEICO. Maybe, since equity markets are no less a financial risk product than auto insurance, it’s the installation of a cargo cult around Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and Mario Draghi, such that their occasional manifestations on a TV screen, no less common than the GEICO gecko, become objects of adoration and propitiation.

epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-bernanke epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-yellen epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-draghi

For P&C insurers, the payoff from their marketing effort is clear: dollars spent on advertising drive faster and more profitable premium growth than dollars spent on agents. For central bankers, the payoff from their marketing effort is equally clear. As the Great One himself, Ben Bernanke, said in his August 31, 2012 Jackson Hole speech: “It is probably not a coincidence that the sustained recovery in U.S. equity prices began in March 2009, shortly after the FOMC’s decision to greatly expand securities purchases.” Probably not a coincidence, indeed.

Here’s what this marketing success looks like, and here’s why you should care.

This is a chart of the S&P 500 index (green line) and the Deutsche Bank Quality index (white line) from February 2000 to the market lows of March 2009.

epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/6/2009. For illustrative purposes only.

Now I chose this particular factor index (which I understand to be principally a measure of return on invested capital, such that it’s long stocks with a high ROIC, i.e. high quality, and short stocks with a low ROIC, all in a sector neutral/equal-weighted construction across a wide range of global stocks in order to isolate this factor) because Quality is the embedded bias of almost every stock-picker in the world. As stock-pickers, we are trained to look for quality management teams, quality earnings, quality cash flows, quality balance sheets, etc. The precise definition of quality will differ from person to person and process to process (Deutsche Bank is using return on invested capital as a rough proxy for all of these disparate conceptions of quality, which makes good sense to me), but virtually all stock-pickers believe, largely as an article of faith, that the stock price of a high quality company will outperform the stock price of a low quality company over time. And for the nine years shown on this chart, that faith was well-rewarded, with the Quality index up 78% and the S&P 500 down 51%, a stark difference, to be sure.

But now let’s look at what’s happened with these two indices over the last seven years.

epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-bloomberg-2

Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P., as of 3/28/2016. For illustrative purposes only.

The S&P 500 index has tripled (!) from the March 2009 bottom. The Deutsche Bank Quality index? It’s up a grand total of 10%. Over seven years. Why? Because the Fed couldn’t care less about promoting high quality companies and dissing low quality companies with its concerted marketing campaign — what Bernanke and Yellen call “communication policy”, the functional equivalent of advertising. The Fed couldn’t care less about promoting value or promoting growth or promoting any traditional factor that requires an investor judgment between this company and that company. No, the Fed wants to promote ALL financial assets, and their communication policies are intentionally designed to push and cajole us to pay up for financial risk in our investments, in EXACTLY the same way that a P&C insurance company’s communication policies are intentionally designed to push and cajole us to pay up for financial risk in our cars and homes. The Fed uses Janet Yellen and forward guidance; Nationwide uses Peyton Manning and a catchy jingle. From a game theory perspective it’s the same thing.

Where do the Fed’s policies most prominently insure against financial risk? In low quality stocks, of course. It’s precisely the companies with weak balance sheets and bumbling management teams and sketchy non-GAAP earnings that are more likely to be bailed out by the tsunami of liquidity and the most accommodating monetary policy of this or any other lifetime, because companies with fortress balance sheets and competent management teams and sterling earnings don’t need bailing out under any circumstances. It’s not just that a quality bias fails to be rewarded in a policy-driven market, it’s that a bias against quality does particularly well! The result is that any long-term expected return from quality stocks is muted at best and close to zero in the current policy regime. There is no “margin of safety” in quality-driven stock-picking today, so that it only takes one idiosyncratic stock-picking mistake to wipe out a year’s worth of otherwise solid research and returns.

So how has that stock-picking mutual fund worked out for you? Probably not so well. Here’s the 2015 S&P scorecard for actively managed US equity funds, showing the percentage of funds that failed to beat their benchmarks over the last 1, 5, and 10 year periods. I mean … these are just jaw-droppingly bad numbers. And they’d be even worse if you included survivorship bias.

% of US Equity Funds that FAILED to Beat Benchmark

1 Year 5 Years 10 Years
Large-Cap 66.1% 84.2% 82.1%
Mid-Cap 56.8% 76.7% 87.6%
Small-Cap 72.2% 90.1% 88.4%

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices, “SPIVA US Scorecard Year-End 2015” as of 12/31/15. For illustrative purposes only.

Small wonder, then, that assets have fled actively managed stock funds over the past 10 years in favor of passively managed ETFs and indices. It’s a Hobson’s Choice for investors and advisors, where a choice between interesting but under-performing active funds and boring but safe passive funds is no choice at all from a business perspective. The mantra in IT for decades was that no one ever got fired for buying IBM; today, no financial advisor ever gets fired for buying an S&P 500 index fund.

But surely, Ben, this, too, shall pass. Surely at some point central banks will back away from their massive marketing campaign based on forward guidance and celebrity spokespeople. Surely as interest rates “normalize”, we will return to those halcyon days of yore, when stock-picking on quality actually mattered.

Sorry, but I don’t see it. The mistake that most market observers make is to think that if the Fed is talking about normalizing rates, then we must be moving towards normalized markets, i.e. non-policy-driven markets. That’s not it. To steal a line from the Esurance commercials, that’s not how any of this works. So long as we’re paying attention to the Missionary’s act of communication, whether that’s a Mario Draghi press conference or a Mayhem Guy TV commercial, then behaviorally-focused advertising — aka the Common Knowledge Game — works. Common Knowledge is created simply by paying attention to a Missionary. It really doesn’t matter what specific message the Missionary is actually communicating, so long as it holds our attention. It really doesn’t matter whether the Fed hikes rates four times this year or twice this year or not at all this year. I mean, of course it matters in terms of mortgage rates and bank profits and a whole host of factors in the real economy. But for the only question that matters for investors — what do I do with my money?nothing changes. Stock-picking still won’t work. Quality still won’t work. So long as we hang on every word, uttered or unuttered, by our monetary policy Missionaries, so long as we compel ourselves to pay attention to Monetary Policy Theatre, then we will still be at sea in a policy-driven market where our traditional landmarks are barely visible and highly suspect.

Here’s my metaphor for investors and central bankers today — the brilliant Cars.com commercial where a woman is stuck on a date with an incredibly creepy guy who declares that “my passion is puppetry” and proceeds to make out with a replica of the woman.

epsilon-theory-my-passion-is-puppetry-april-6-2016-cars-ad

What we have to do as investors is exactly what this woman has to do: get out of this date and distance ourselves from this guy as quickly as humanly possible. For some of us that means leaving the restaurant entirely, reducing or eliminating our exposure to public markets by going to cash or moving to private markets. For others of us that means changing tables and eating our meal as far away as we possibly can from Creepy Puppet Guy. So long as we stay in the restaurant of public markets there’s no way to eliminate our interaction with Creepy Puppet Guy entirely. No doubt he will try to follow us around from table to table. But we don’t have to engage with him directly. We don’t have participate in his insane conversation. No one is forcing you keep a TV in your office so that you can watch CNBC all day long!

Look … I understand the appeal of a good marketing campaign. I live for this stuff. And I understand that we all operate under business and personal imperatives to beat our public market benchmarks, whatever that means in whatever corner of the investing world we live in. But I also believe that much of our business and personal discomfort with public markets today is a self-inflicted wound, driven by our biological craving for Narrative and our social craving for comfortable conversations with others and ourselves, no matter how wrong-headed those conversations might be.

Case in point: if your conversation around actively managed stock-picking strategies — and this might be a conversation with managers, it might be a conversation with clients, it might be a conversation with an Investment Board, it might be a conversation with yourself — focuses on the strategy’s ability to deliver “alpha” in this puppeted market, then you’re having a losing conversation. You are, in effect, having a conversation with Creepy Puppet Guy.

There is a role for actively managed stock-picking strategies in a puppeted market, but it’s not to “beat” the market. It’s to survive this puppeted market by getting as close to a real fractional ownership of real assets and real cash flows as possible. It’s recognizing that owning indices and ETFs is owning a casino chip, a totally different thing from a fractional ownership share of a real world thing. Sure, I want my portfolio to have some casino chips, but I ALSO want to own quality real assets and quality real cash flows, regardless of the game that’s going on all around me in the casino.

Do ALL actively managed strategies or stock-picking strategies see markets through this lens, as an effort to forego the casino chip and purchase a fractional ownership in something real? Of course not. Nor am I using the term “stock-picking” literally, as in only equity strategies are part of this conversation. What I’m saying is that a conversation focused on quality real asset and quality real cash flow ownership is the right criterion for choosing between intentional security selection strategies, and that this is the right role for these strategies in a portfolio.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. If you want market returns, buy the market through passive indices and ETFs. If you want better than market returns … well, good luck with that. My advice is to look to private markets, where fundamental research and private information still matter. But there’s more to public markets than playing the returns game. There’s also the opportunity to exchange capital for an ownership share in a real world asset or cash flow. It’s the meaning that public markets originally had. It’s a beautiful thing. But you’ll never see it if you’re devoting all your attention to CNBC or Creepy Puppet Guy.

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Snikt

As longtime Epsilon Theory readers know, I’m a big comic book fan. One of the joys of a comic done well is the effective representation of a dynamic multi-dimensional narrative within a static two-dimensional art form. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but occasionally so is a sound. Or rather, a picture of a sound. Whether it’s the “Thwip” of Spiderman shooting his web or the “Snikt” of Wolverine popping his claws, certain classic onomatopoeias (to use the $10 word) communicate immediately everything you need to know about what’s going on and what’s about to happen.

epsilon-theory-snikt-february-9-2016-wolverine

© Marvel Characters, Inc.

So here’s another picture of a sound, another effective representation of a dynamic multi-dimensional narrative within a static two-dimensional form.

epsilon-theory-snikt-february-9-2016-bloomberg

This is the market price of credit default swap (CDS) protection on the senior debt of the largest European banks and insurers over the past 6 months, and the sound you are hearing is the “Snikt” of systemic risk popping out its claws once again.

A month ago I wrote the following:

There were trades available [in 2008] that, in slightly different form, are just as available today. For example, it may surprise anyone who’s read or seen (or lived) “The Big Short” that the credit default swap (CDS) market is even larger today than it was in 2008. I’d welcome a conversation with anyone who’d like to discuss these systemic risk trades.

The susceptibility of credit spreads to systemic risk(s) that I was describing last month was borne out last week. Protection on the ITRAXX senior European financial debt index widened by over 45 bps from 92 bps at the close of January to 137 bps at the close on February 8, as systemic risks emanating from the deflationary hurricane coming out of Asia wreaked havoc on a financial system already reeling from the collapse of the global commodity and industrial complex. I think there’s another 50+ bps of further spread widening to go, but it’s a tougher slog from here. The money in any major market shift is generally made during the discovery phase, and once you get the third WSJ article talking about the issue (much less the thirtieth), many market participants will start trading around the position.

Now the truth is that this outcome worked faster than I thought it would, and I attribute that to two factors. First, everyone and his brother is looking for a massive correlation like this, and once George Soros and Kyle Bass and the rest of the short-the-yuan crew started talking their book on CNBC, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the knock-on effects of their premise might be for global recession risks and investment grade (IG) credit. But second … the speed of this outcome means that things are even worse than I thought. We don’t need a yuan float or announced devaluation to start a 1930s-esque deflationary spiral and the insanely aggressive political response to come. It’s already here.

So Epsilon Theory is ringing the bell, with three big notes over the next month or so.

First, I’ll write about the 1930s-esque deflationary spiral and why I think it’s all happening again. This is “The Thesis”, and here’s the skinny: In 1930, the United States passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, establishing a massive system of protectionist tariffs and quotas that sparked competitive protectionist measures around the world. Within a year, the largest bank in Austria, Credit Anstalt, failed, and the Great Depression was unleashed as global trade finance collapsed. Today I believe that competitive currency devaluations will lead to the failure of another massive bank, perhaps one whose native language is also German and is in fact a direct descendant of Credit Anstalt, as global trade finance collapses once again.

Second, I’ll write about what’s next. This is “Five Easy Pieces (to Wreck the World)”, and here’s the skinny in a visual format that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken the SAT:

Gaussian Copula : 2008     ::     Negative Rates : 2016

If you don’t know what a Gaussian copula is, do yourself a favor and read Felix Salmon’s magisterial Wired article from 2009. The Gaussian copula was the financial innovation that broke the world in 2008, and negative rates will be the financial innovation to break the world today.

Third, I’ll write about what you can do about all this. You already know part of what I’m going to say, because I’ve said it before. Now more than ever you need convexity in your portfolio. Now more than ever you need to focus on the strategies and the assets that will do well in a deflationary hurricane AND the political response to that hurricane. Once the claws of systemic risk pop out with a Snikt, you’re in for a long and bloody fight. It’s time to prepare ourselves for that fight if we’re going to be investment survivors here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

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You Can Either Surf, or You Can Fight

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son.  Nothing else in the world smells like that.

– Apocalypse Now (1979)

Hello, hello, hello, how low? [x3]
– Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991)

Outside the bus the smell of sulfur hit Bond with sickening force.  It was a horrible smell, from somewhere down in the stomach of the world.
– Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever (1956)

There’s more than a whiff of 2008 in the air. The sources of systemic financial sector risk are different this time (they always are), but China and the global industrial/commodity complex are even larger tectonic plates than the US housing market, and their shifts are no less destructive. There’s also more than a whiff of 1938 in the air (hat tip to Ray Dalio), as we have a Fed that is apparently hell-bent on raising rates even as a Category 5 deflationary hurricane heads our way, even as the yield curve continues to flatten.

What really stinks of 2008 to me is the dismissive, condescending manner of our market Missionaries (to use the game theory lingo), who insist that the US energy and manufacturing sectors are somehow a separate animal from the US economy, who proclaim that China and its monetary policy are “well contained” and pose little risk to US markets. Unfortunately, the role and influence of Missionaries is even greater today in this policy-driven market, and profoundly misleading media Narratives reverberate everywhere.

For example, we all know that it’s the overwhelming oil “glut” that’s driving oil prices down and wreaking havoc in capital markets, right? It’s all about OPEC versus US frackers, right?

Here’s a 5-year chart of the broad-weighted US dollar index (this is the index the Fed publishes, which – unlike the DXY index and its >50% Euro weighting – weights all US trading partners on a pro rata basis) versus the price of WTI crude oil. The red line marks Yellen’s announcement of the Fed’s current tightening bias in the summer of 2014.

/wp-content/uploads/epsilon-theory-you-can-either-surf-or-you-can-fight-january-14-2016-bloomberg.jpg

Source: Bloomberg, January 2016.

Ummm … this nearly perfect inverse relationship is not an accident. I’m not saying that supply and demand don’t matter. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that divergent monetary policy and its reflection in currency exchange rates matter even more. Where is the greatest monetary policy divergence in the world today? Between the US and China. What currency is the largest contributor to the Fed’s broad-weighted dollar index? The yuan (21.5%). THIS is what you need to pay attention to in order to understand what’s going on with oil. THIS is why the game of Chicken between the Fed and the PBOC is so much more relevant to markets than the game of Chicken between Saudi Arabia and Texas.

But wait, there’s more.

>My belief is that a garden variety, inventory-led recession emanating from the energy and manufacturing sectors is already here. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I spend too much time in Houston. Maybe low wage, easily fired service sector jobs are the new engine for US GDP growth, replacing the prior two engines – housing/construction 2004-2008 and energy/manufacturing 2010-2014. But I don’t see how you can look at the high yield credit market today or projections of Q4 GDP or any number of credit cycle indicators and not conclude that we are rolling into some sort of “mild” recession.

My fear is that in addition to this inventory-led recession or near-recession, we are about to be walloped by a new financial sector crisis coming out of Asia.

What do I mean? I mean that Chinese banks are not healthy. At all. I mean that China’s attempt to recapitalize heavily indebted state-owned enterprises through the equity market was an utter failure. I mean that China is going to need every penny of its $3 trillion reserves to recapitalize its banks when the day of reckoning comes. I mean that China’s dollar reserves were $4 trillion a year ago, and they’ve spent a trillion dollars already trying to manage a slow devaluation of the yuan. I mean that the flight of capital out of China (and emerging markets in general) is an overwhelming force. I mean that we could wake up any morning to read that China has devalued the yuan by 10-15%.

Look … the people running Asian banks aren’t idiots. They can see where things are clearly headed, and they are going to do what smart bankers always do in these circumstances: TRUST NO ONE. I believe that there is going to be a polar vortex of a credit freeze coming out of Asia that will look a lot like 1997. Put this on top of the deflationary impact of China’s devaluation. Put this on top of an inventory-led recession or near recession in the US, together with high yield credit stress. Put this on top of massive market complacency driven by an ill-placed faith in central banks to save the day. Put this on top of a potentially realigning election in the US this November. Put this on top of a Fed that is tighteningStorm warning, indeed.

So what’s to be done? As Col. Kilgore said in “Apocalypse Now”, you can either surf or you can fight. You can adopt strategies that can make money in this sort of environment (historically speaking, longer-term US Treasuries and trend-following strategies that can go short), or you can slog it out with a traditional equity-heavy portfolio.

Also, as some Epsilon Theory readers may know, I co-managed a long/short hedge fund that weathered the 2008 systemic storm successfully. There were trades available then that, in slightly different form, are just as available today. For example, it may surprise anyone who’s read or seen (or lived) “The Big Short” that the credit default swap (CDS) market is even larger today than it was in 2008. I’d welcome a conversation with anyone who’d like to discuss these systemic risk trades and how they might be implemented today.

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Storm Warning

Unfortunately for mariners, the total amount of wave energy in a storm does not rise linearly with wind speed, but to its fourth power. The seas generated by a forty-knot wind aren’t twice as violent as those from a twenty-knot wind, they are seventeen times as violent. A ship’s crew watching the anemometer climb even ten-knots could well be watching their death sentence.

Sebastian Junger, “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea” (2009)

[the crew watch emergency surgery performed on the ship’s deck]

Able Seaman: Is them ‘is brains, doctor?
Dr. Stephen Maturin: No, that’s just dried blood. THOSE are his brains.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)

[the Konovalov’s own torpedo is about to strike the Konovalov]

Andrei Bonovia: You arrogant ass. You’ve killed *us*!
“The Hunt for Red October” (1990)

Can everyone saying “a 25 bps rate hike doesn’t change anything” or “manufacturing is a small part of the US economy today, so the ISM number doesn’t mean much” or “trade with China is only a few percent of US GDP, so their currency devaluation isn’t important” just stop? Seriously. Can you just stop? Maybe if you were making these statements back in the ‘80s – and by that I mean the 1880s, back when the US was effectively a huge island in the global economy – it would make some sense, but today it’s just embarrassing.

There is a Category 5 deflationary hurricane forming off the Chinese coast as Beijing accelerates the devaluation of the yuan against the dollar under the guise of “reform”. I say forming … the truth is that this deflationary storm has already laid waste to the global commodity complex, doing trillions of dollars in damage. I say forming … the truth is that this deflationary storm has driven inflation expectations down to levels last seen when the world was coming to an end in the Lehman aftermath. And now the Fed is going to tighten? Are you kidding me?

Look, I’m personally no fan of ZIRP and QE and “communication policy”, certainly not the insatiable market devourers they’ve become over the past few years. But you can’t just wish away the Brave New World of globally interlocked, policy-driven, machine-dominated capital markets in some wave of nostalgia and regret for “normalized” days. In an existential financial crisis, emergency government action always becomes permanent government policy, reshaping markets in similarly permanent ways. This was true in the 1930s and it’s true today. It’s neither good nor bad. It just IS. Did QE1 save the market? Yes. Did QE2 and QE3 and all the misbegotten QE children in Europe and Asia break the market? Yes. And in the immortal words of shopkeepers everywhere: you break it, you bought it. The Fed owns capital markets today, like it or not, and raising rates now, as opposed to a year ago when there was a glimmer of a chance to walk back the Narrative of central bank omnipotence, isn’t “brave” or “prudent” or “necessary” or any of the other laudatory adjectives you’ll hear from Fed media apologists after they raise. It’s simply buyer’s remorse. The Fed is sick and tired of owning the market, sick and tired of giving interviews to CNBC every time some jobs report hits the wires, sick and tired of this Frankenstein’s monster called communication policy. So they’re going to raise rates, declare victory, and hope that things go their way.

Am I annoyed by China’s currency actions and their adept use of communication policy to shape the Narrative around devaluation? Not at all. This is exactly what China must do to bolster economic growth while maintaining the pleasant diplomatic fiction that they’re not a command economy. What annoys me is the Fed’s apparent hell-bent intention to force a low-level currency war with China AND whack our own manufacturing and industrial base on the kneecaps with a crowbar, just so they can get out of the communication policy corner they’ve painted themselves into.

Three or four years ago, one of THE dominant market narratives, particularly in the value investment crowd, was the “renaissance of American manufacturing”. Not only was the manufacturing sector going to be the engine of job growth in this country (remember “good jobs with good wages”? me, neither), but this was going to be the engine of economic growth, period (remember the National Export Initiative and “doubling exports in five years”? me, neither). Now we are told that we’re just old fogies to worry about a contracting US manufacturing sector. Now we are told that a global recession in the industrial and commodity complex is well contained here in our vibrant services-led economy. Right. You want some fries with that?

So what’s to be done? You do what you always do in a deflationary, risk-off world – you buy long-dated US Treasuries. Stocks down, USTs up. Of course, if you think that the yield curve is going to steepen after the Fed does whatever it’s going to do this week … you know, because the Fed rate hike is obviously an all-clear sign that we have a robust self-sustaining economic recovery and we’re off to the races … then you want to do the exact opposite, which is to buy stocks and sell the 10-year UST. Yep, time to load up on some bank stocks if that’s your view.

What else can you do? You can read the Epsilon Theory note “I Know It Was You, Fredo” and consider ways to make your portfolio more convex, i.e., more resilient and responsive to both upside and downside surprises in these policy-driven markets. The big institutional allocators use derivative portfolio overlays to inject convexity into their portfolio, and that’s all well and good. But there are steps the rest of us can take, whether that’s adopting strategies that can short markets and asset classes (like some tactical strategies and most trend-following strategies) or whether that’s investing in niche companies and niche strategies that are designed to outperform in either a surprisingly deflationary or a surprisingly inflationary world. The trick really isn’t to choose this fund or that fund. The trick is to broaden your perception of portfolio outcomes so that you don’t have a misplaced faith in either the Fed or econometric models.

I suppose there’s one more thing we should all do. We should all prepare ourselves to perform some emergency surgery on the deck of whatever portfolio ship we’re sailing in 2016. Because with a Fed hike the currency wars will begin in earnest, magnifying the deflationary storm already wreaking havoc in industrials, energy, and materials. No sector or strategy is going to be immune, and we’re all going to suffer some casualties.

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I Know It Was You, Fredo

Sen. Geary: Hey, Freddie, where did you find this place?
Fredo Corleone: Johnny Ola told me about this place. He brought me here. I didn’t believe it, but seeing’s believing, huh? Old man Roth would never come here, but Johnny knows these places like the back of his hand.

“The Godfather, Part II” (1974)

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-godfather

Michael Corleone: C’mon, Frankie… my father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth.
Frank Pentangeli: Your father did business with Hyman Roth, he respected Hyman Roth… but he never *trusted* Hyman Roth!

“The Godfather, Part II” (1974)

There’s no more dramatic moment in all of movies than the Havana club scene in Godfather, Part II, where Michael overhears Fredo blurting out that he’s partied with Johnny Ola, Hyman Roth’s lieutenant, and lied to Michael about knowing him. The look on Michael’s face as he realizes that Fredo has betrayed the family is, for my money, Al Pacino’s finest scene as an actor, and it helped him gain a 1975 Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actor. Unfortunately for Pacino, it was a good year for strong leading man performances, as Jack Nicholson was also nominated that year for his role in “Chinatown”. The winner, of course, was Art Carney from the immortal film “Harry and Tonto”. Thank you, Academy.

But this isn’t going to be a note focused on Michael or Fredo, or even my favorite Godfather character of all time, Hyman Roth. No, this is a note focused on the polite and respected henchman, Johnny Ola.  Johnny Ola is the transmission mechanism, the disease vector, the crucial connection between the schemes of Hyman Roth and the survival of the Corleone family. Without Johnny Ola there is no Fredo betrayal, no path for a misplaced trust in Hyman Roth to infect the Corleone family. Without Johnny Ola there is no movie.

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-fredo

Now bear with me for a moment. There is a Fredo inside all of us. We are, each and every one of us, often betrayed in our actions and decision making by aspects of our own psyches, and our investment actions and decision making are no exception. The Epsilon Theory Fredo is the little voice inside our heads that convinces us to act in what we think is our own self-interest when actually we are acting in the interests of others. The internal Fredo that we all must seek to identify and root out is, like the movie Fredo, not an inherently bad or evil sort, but weak-willed and easily misled by the Johnny Olas of the world.

The Johnny Olas of the world are not so much flesh and blood people as they are idea or concepts. They are the transmission mechanism by which powerful institutions and even more powerful ideas and concepts – the Hyman Roths of the world – wield their most potent influence: the internalized influence of trust. It’s necessary and smart to do business with the Hyman Roths of the world. It’s necessary and smart to respect the Hyman Roths of the world. But as Frankie Pentangeli reminds Michael, you can never trust the Hyman Roths of the world, and that’s what Johnny Ola does … he convinces our internal Fredo to trust Roth and betray our self-interest.

I could write a long note about how the Fed is Hyman Roth and “communication policy” is Johnny Ola. Too easy. Too true, but too easy.

No, this note is about the Hyman Roth that works above even the Fed. It’s a note about the Johnny Ola that sweet talks all of our internal Fredos, even the Fredo inside Janet Yellen.

The Epsilon Theory Hyman Roth is Econometric Modeling.
The Epsilon Theory Johnny Ola is The Central Tendency.

It’s important to respect the power of econometric models. It’s important to work with econometric models. But I don’t care who you are … whether you’re the leader of the world’s largest central bank or you’re the CIO of an enormous pension fund or you’re the world’s most successful financial advisor … it’s a terrible mistake to trust econometric models. But we all do, because we’ve been convinced by modeling’s henchman, The Central Tendency.

What is the The Central Tendency? It’s the overwhelmingly widespread and enticing idea that there’s a single-peaked probability distribution associated with everything in life, and that more often than not it looks just like this:

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-central-tendency

It’s our acceptance of The Central Tendency as The Way The World Works that transforms our healthy respect for econometric modeling into an unhealthy trust in econometric modeling. It’s what creates our unhealthy trust in projections of asset price returns. It’s what creates our unhealthy trust in projections of monetary policy impact.

It also creates an unhealthy trust in the mainstream tools we use to project risk and reward in our investment portfolios.

I’m not saying that The Central Tendency is wrong. I’m saying that it is (much) less useful in a world that is polarized by massive debt and the political efforts required to maintain that debt. I’m saying that it is (much) less useful in a market system where exchanges have been transformed into for-profit data centers and liquidity is provided by machines programmed to turn off when profit margins are uncertain.

These are the two big Epsilon Theory topics of the past year – polarized politics and structurally hollow markets – and I’ll give a few paragraphs on each. Then I’ll tell you what I think you should do about it.

Polarized Politics
The world is awash in debt, with debt/GDP levels back to 1930 levels and far higher than 2007 levels prior to the Great Recession. What’s different today in 2015 as compared to the beginning of the Great Recession, however, is that governments rather than banks are now the largest owners (and creators!) of that debt. Governments have more tools and time than corporations, households, or financial institutions when it comes to managing debt loads, but the tools they use to kick the can down the road always result in a more polarized electorate. Why? Because the tools of status quo debt maintenance, particularly as they inflate financial asset prices and perpetuate financial leverage, always exacerbate income and wealth inequality. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not saying that some alternative debt resolution path like austerity or loss assignment would be more or less injurious to income and wealth equality. I’m just observing that whether you’re talking about the 1930s or the 2010s, whether you’re talking about the US, Europe, or China, greater income and wealth inequality driven by government debt maintenance policy simply IS.

Greater income and wealth inequality reverberates throughout a society in every possible way, but most obviously in polarization of electorate preferences and party structure. Below is a visual representation of increased polarization in the US electorate, courtesy of the Pew Research Center. Other Western nations are worse, many much worse, and no nation is immune.

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-democrats-republicans

There’s one inevitable consequence of significant political polarization: the center does not hold. Our expectation that The Central Tendency carries the day will fail, and this failure will occur at all levels of political organization, from your local school board to a congressional caucus to a national political party to the overall electorate. Political outcomes will always surprise in a polarized world, either surprisingly to the left or surprisingly to the right. And all too often, I might add, it’s a surprising outcome pushed by the illiberal left or the illiberal right.

The failure of The Central Tendency occurs in markets, as well. Below is a chart of 3-month forward VIX expectations in December 2012, as the Fiscal Cliff crisis reared its ugly head, as calculated by Credit Suisse based on open option positions. If you calculated the average expectations of the market (the go-to move of all econometric models based on The Central Tendency), you’d predict a future VIX price of 19 or so. But that’s actually the least likely price outcome! The Fiscal Cliff outcome might be a policy surprise of government shutdown, resulting in a market bearish equilibrium (high VIX). Or it might be a policy surprise of government cooperation, resulting in a market bullish equilibrium (low VIX). But I can promise you that there was no possible outcome of the political game of Chicken between the White House and the Republican congressional caucus that would have resulted in a market “meh” equilibrium and a VIX of 19.

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-fiscal-cliff

If you want to read more about the Epsilon Theory perspective on polarized politics and the use of game theory to understand this dynamic, read “Inherent Vice”, “1914 Is the New Black”, and “The New TVA”.

Hollow Markets
Whatever shocks emanate from polarized politics, their market impact today is significantly greater than even 10 years ago. That’s because we have evolved a profoundly non-robust liquidity provision system, where trading volumes look fine on the surface and appear to function perfectly well in ordinary times, but collapse utterly under duress. Even in the ordinary times, healthy trading volumes are more appearance than reality, as once you strip out all of the faux trades (HFT machines trading with other HFT machines for rebates, ETF arbitrage, etc.) and positioning trades (algo-driven rebalancing of systematic strategies and portfolio overlays), there’s precious little investment happening today.

Here’s how I think we got into this difficult state of affairs.

First, Dodd-Frank regulation makes it prohibitively expensive for bulge bracket bank trading desks to maintain a trading “inventory” of stocks and bonds and directional exposures of any sort for any length of time. Just as Amazon measures itself on the basis of how little inventory it has to maintain for how little a span of time, so do modern trading desks. There is soooo little risk-taking or prop desk trading at the big banks these days, which of course was an explicit goal of Dodd-Frank, but the unintended consequence is that a major trading counterparty and liquidity provider when markets get squirrelly has been taken out into the street and shot.

Second, the deregulation and privatization of market exchanges, combined with modern networking technologies, has created an opportunity for technology companies to provide trading liquidity on a purely voluntary basis. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that liquidity was provided on an involuntary basis in the past or that the old-fashioned humans manning the old-fashioned order book at the old-fashioned exchanges were motivated by anything other than greed. As Don Barzini would say, “after all, we are not Communists”. But there is a massive and systemically vital difference between the business model and liquidity provision regime (to use a good political science word) of humans operating within a narrowly defined, publicly repeatable game with forced participation and of machines operating within a broadly defined, privately unrepeatable game with unforced participation.

Whatever the root causes, modern market liquidity (like beauty) is only skin deep. And because liquidity is only skin deep, whenever a policy shock hits (say, the Swiss National Bank unpegs the Swiss franc from the euro) or whenever there’s a technology “glitch” (say, when a new Sungard program misfires and the VIX can’t be priced for 10 minutes) everything falls apart, particularly the models that we commonly use to calculate portfolio risk.

For example, here’s a compilation of recent impossible market events across different asset classes and geographies (hat tip to the Barclays derivatives team) … impossible in the sense that, per the Central Tendency on which standard deviation risk modeling is based, these events shouldn’t occur together over a million years of market activity, much less the past 4 years.

epsilon-theory-i-know-it-was-you-fredo-december-8-2015-asset-classes.jpg

Source: Barclays, November 2015. 

So just to recap … these market dislocations DID occur, and yet we continue to use the risk models that say these dislocations cannot possibly occur. Huh? And before you say, “well, I’m a long term investor, not a trader, so these temporary market liquidity failures don’t really affect me”, ask yourself this: do you use a trader’s tools, like stop-loss orders? do you use a trader’s securities, like ETFs? If you answered yes to either question, then you can call yourself a long term investor all you like, but you’ve got more than a little trader in you. And a trader who doesn’t pay attention to the modern realities of market structure and liquidity provision is not long for this world.

If you want to read more about the Epsilon Theory perspective on hollow markets and the use of game theory to understand this dynamic, read “Season of the Glitch”, “Ghost in the Machine”, and “Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World”.

Adaptive Investing and Aware Investing 
Okay, now for the big finish. What does one DO about this? How does one invest in a world of bimodal uncertainty and a market of skin-deep liquidity?

Both of these investment goblins – Political Polarization and the Hollow Market – are so thoroughly problematic because our perceptions of both long-term investment outcomes and short-term trading outcomes are so thoroughly infected by The Central Tendency and a quasi-religious faith in econometric modeling. But while their problematic root cause may be the same, their Epsilon Theory solutions are different.  I call the former Adaptive Investing, and I call the latter Aware Investing.

Adaptive Investing focuses on portfolio construction and the failure of The Central Tendency to predict long(ish)-term investment returns. Aware Investing focuses on portfolio trading and the failure of The Central Tendency to predict short(ish)-term investment returns. Each is a crucial concept. Each deserves its own book, much less its own Epsilon Theory note. But this note is going to focus on Adaptive Investing.

Adaptive Investing tries to construct a portfolio that does as well when The Central Tendency fails as when it succeeds. Adaptive Investing expects historical correlations to shift dramatically as a matter of course, usually in a market-jarring way. But this is NOT a tail-risk portfolio or a sky-is-falling perspective. I really, really, really don’t believe in either. What it IS – and the stronger your internal Fredo the harder this concept will be to wrap your head around – is a profoundly agnostic investing approach that treats probabilities and models and predictions as secondary considerations.

I’ll use two words to describe the Adaptive Investing perspective, one that’s a technical term and one that’s an analogy. The technical term is “convexity”. The analogy is “barbell”. In truth, both are metaphors. Both are Narratives. As such, they are applicable across almost every dimension of investing or portfolio allocation, and at almost every scale.

Everyone knows what a barbell is. Convexity, on the other hand, is a daunting term. Let’s un-daunt it.

The basic idea of convexity is that rather than have Portfolio A, where your returns go up and down with a market or a benchmark’s returns in a linear manner, you’d rather have Portfolio B, where there’s a pleasant upward curve to your returns if the market or benchmark does really well or really poorly. The convex Portfolio B performs pretty much the same as the linear Portfolio A during “meh” markets (maybe a tiny bit worse depending on how you’re funding the convexity benefits), but outperforms when markets are surprisingly good or surprisingly bad. A convex portfolio is essentially long some sort of optionality, such that a market surprising event pays off unusually well, which is why convexity is typically injected into a portfolio through the use of out-of-the-money options and other derivative securities. Another way of saying that you’re long optionality is to say that you’re long gamma. If that term is unfamiliar, check out the Epsilon Theory note “Invisible Threads”.

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All other things being equal, few people wouldn’t prefer Portfolio B to Portfolio A, particularly if you thought that markets are likely to be surprisingly good or surprisingly bad in the near future. But of course, all other things are never equal, and there are (at least) three big caveats you need to be aware of before you belly up to the portfolio management bar and order a big cool glass of convexity.

Caveat 1:  A convex portfolio based on optionality must be an actively managed portfolio, not a buy-and-hold portfolio. There’s no such thing as a permanent option … they all have a time limit, and the longer the time limit the more expensive the option. The clock works in your favor with a buy-and-hold portfolio (or it should), but the clock always works against you with a convex portfolio constructed by purchasing options. That means it needs to be actively traded, both in rolling forward the option if you get the timing wrong, as well as in exercising the option if you get the timing right. Doing this effectively over a long period of time is exactly as impossible difficult and expensive as it sounds.

Caveat 2:  A convex portfolio fights the Fed, at least on the left-hand part of the curve where you’re making money (or losing less money) as the market gets scorched. Yes, there are going to be more and more political shocks hitting markets over the next few years, and yes, those shocks are going to be exacerbated by the hollow market and its structurally non-robust liquidity provision. But in reaction to each of these market-wrenching policy and liquidity shocks, you can bet your bottom dollar that every central bank in the world will stop at nothing to support asset price levels and reduce market volatility. Make no mistake – if you’re long down-side protection optionality in your portfolio, you’re also long volatility. That puts you on the other side of the trade from the Fed and the ECB and the PBOC and every other central bank, and that’s not a particularly comfortable place to be. Certainly it’s not a comfortable (or profitable) place to be without a keen sense of timing, which is why, again, a convex portfolio expressed through options and derivatives needs to be actively managed and can’t be a passive buy-and-hold strategy.

Caveat 3:  Top-down portfolio risk adjustments like convexity injection through index options or risk premia derivatives are *always* going to disappoint bottom-up stock-picking investors. I’ve written a lot about this phenomenon, from one of the first Epsilon Theory notes, “The Tao of Portfolio Management”, to the more recent “Season of the Glitch”, so I won’t repeat all that here. The basic idea is that it’s a classic logical fallacy to infer characteristics of the whole (in this case the portfolio) from characteristics of the component pieces (in this case the individual securities selected via a bottom-up process), and vice versa. What that means in more or less plain English is that risk-managing individual positions in an effort to achieve a risk-managed overall portfolio is inherently an exercise in frustration and almost always ends in unanticipated underperformance for stock pickers.

Okay, Ben, those are three big problems with implementing convexity in a portfolio. I thought you said this was a good thing.

You’ll notice that each of these three caveats pertain most directly to the largest population of investors in the world – non-institutional investors who create an equity-heavy buy-and-hold portfolio by applying a bottom-up, fundamental, stock-picking perspective. The caveats don’t apply nearly so much to institutional allocators who apply a systematic, top-down perspective to a portfolio that’s typically too large to engage in anything so time-consuming as direct stock-picking. They have no problem employing a staff to manage these portfolio overlays (or hiring external managers who do), and they’re not terrified by the mere notion of negative carry, derivatives, and leverage. These institutional allocators may not be large in numbers, but they are enormous in terms of AUM. I spend a lot of time meeting with these allocators, and I can tell you this – implementing convexity into a portfolio in one way or another is the single most common topic of conversation I’ve had over the past year. Every single one of these allocators is thinking in terms of portfolio convexity, even if most are still in the exploration phase, and you’re going to be hearing more and more about this concept in the coming months.

So that’s all well and good for the CIO of a forward thinking multi-billion dollar pension fund, but what if it’s a non-starter to have a conversation about the pros and cons of a long gamma portfolio overlay with your client or your investment committee?  What if you’re a stock picker at heart and you’d have to change your investment stripes (something no one should ever do!) and reconceive your entire portfolio to adopt a top-down convexity approach using derivatives and risk premia and the like?

This is where the barbell comes in.

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The basic concepts of Adaptive Investing can be described as placing modest portfolio “weights” or exposures on either side of an investment dimension. This is in sharp contrast to what Johnny Ola has convinced most of us to do, which is to place lots and lots of portfolio weight right in the middle of the bar, with normally distributed tails on either end of the massive weight in the center (i.e., a whopping 5% allocation to “alternatives”). What are these investment dimensions? They are the Big Questions of investing in a world of massive debt maintenace (and are actually very similar to the Big Questions of the 1930s), questions like … will central banks succeed in preventing a global deflationary equilibrium? … is there still a viable growth story in China and in Emerging Markets more broadly, or was it all just a mirage built on post-war US monetary policy? … is there a self-sustaining economic recovery in the US?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, a barbell portfolio around the Biggest of the Big Questions in the Golden Age of the Central Banker: will extraordinarily accommodative monetary policy everywhere in the world spur inflationary expectations and growth-supporting economic behaviors? Like all barbell dimensions, there’s really no middle ground on this. In 2016, either the market will be surprised by resurgent global growth / inflation, or the market will be surprised by anemic growth / deflation despite extraordinary monetary policy accommodation. I want to “be there” in my portfolio with modest exposures positioned to succeed in each potential outcome, as opposed to having a big exposure somewhere in the middle that I have to drag in one direction or another when I end up being “surprised” just like the rest of the market.

Specifically, what might those positions look like? Everyone will have a different answer, but here’s mine:

  • If deflation and low global growth carry the day, then I want to be in yield-oriented securities where the cash flows are tied to real economic activity in geographies with real growth prospects, and where company management is really distributing those cash flows to shareholders directly. 
  • If inflation and resurgent growth carry the day, then I want to be in growth-oriented securities linked to commodities.
  • And yes, there are companies that can thrive in both environments.

Now of course you’ll get push-back to the notion of a barbell portfolio from your client or investment committee (maybe the investment committee inside your own head), most likely in the form of some variation on these three natural questions:

Q:     Wouldn’t you be be better off predicting the winning side of any of these Big Questions and putting all your weight there? 

A:     Yes, if I had a valid econometric model that could predict whether central banks will fail or succeed at spurring inflationary expectations in the hearts and minds of global investors, then I would definitely put all my portfolio weight on that answer. But I don’t have that model, and neither do you, and neither does the Fed or anyone else. So let’s not pretend that we do.

Q:     But if one side of your portfolio barbell ends up being right, that must mean that the other side is wrong. Wouldn’t we be just as well off putting all the weight somewhere in the middle like we usually do?  

A:     No, that’s not how these politically-polarized investment dimensions play out, with one side clearly winning and one side clearly losing. The underlying dynamics of the Big Questions in investing today are governed by the multi-year spiraling back-and-forth of multiple equilibria games like Chicken, not The Central Tendency (read “Inherent Vice” for some examples). Not only is it far more capital efficient to use a barbell approach, but both sides will do relatively better than the middle. That is, in fact, the entire point of using an allocation approach that creates optionality and effective convexity in a portfolio without forcing the top-down imposition of option and derivative overlays.

Q:     But how do we know that you’ve identified the right positions to take on either side of these Big Questions?  

A:     Well, that’s what you hire me for: to identify the right investments to execute our portfolio strategy effectively. But if we’re not comfortable with selecting specific assets and companies, then we might consider a trend-following strategy. Trend-following is profoundly agnostic. Unlike almost any other strategy you can imagine, trend-following doesn’t embody an opinion on whether something is cheap or expensive, overlooked or underappreciated, poised to grow or doomed to failure. All it knows is whether something is working or not, and it is as happy to be short something as it is to be long something, maybe that same thing under different circumstances. As such, a pure trend-following strategy will automatically move on its own accord from weighting one end of a barbell to the other, spending as little time as possible in the middle, depending on which side is working better. That is an incredibly powerful tool for this investment perspective.

A barbell portfolio captures the essence or underlying meaning of portfolio convexity without requiring top-down portfolio overlays that are either impractical or impossible for many investors. The investments described here have a positive carry, meaning that the clock works in your favor, meaning that – unlike convex strategies that are actively trading options and volatility – these strategies fit well in a buy-and-hold, non-Fed fighting, stock-picking portfolio. I think it’s a novel way of rethinking the powerful notions of convexity and uncertainty so that they fit the real world of most investors, and whether these ideas are implemented or not I’m certain that it’s a healthy exercise for all of us to question the conceptual dominance of The Central Tendency.

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You know, Michael Corleone has a great line after he wised up to Fredo’s betrayal and the true designs of Johnny Ola and Hyman Roth: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out … just my enemies.” It’s the same with our portfolios. We don’t have to completely reinvent our investment process to incorporate the valuable notion of convexity into our portfolios. We don’t have to sell out of everything and start fresh in order to adopt an Adaptive Investing perspective. Our investment enemies live inside our own heads. They are the ideas and concepts that we have allowed to hold too great a sway over our internal Fredo, and they can be put in their proper place with a fresh perspective and a questioning mind. Econometric modeling and The Central Tendency don’t need to be eliminated; they need to be demoted from a position of unwarranted trust to a position of respectful but arms-length business relationship. After all, let’s remember the secret of Hyman Roth’s success: he always made money for his partners. I’m happy to be partners with modeling because I think it’s a concept that can make me a lot of money. But I’m never going to trust my portfolio to it.

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Rounders

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Mike McDermott: In “Confessions of a Winning Poker Player,” Jack King said, “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” It seems true to me, cause walking in here, I can hardly remember how I built my bankroll, but I can’t stop thinking of how I lost it.
– “Rounders” (1998)

I know it’s crooked, but it’s the only game in town.
– Canada Bill Jones (c. 1840 – 1880), described as “the greatest three-card monte sharp to ever work the boats”, on being told by his partner George Devol that a Faro game in Cairo, Illinois was rigged.

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David Howard: We’re up!
Linda Howard: We’re still down.
David Howard: How down?
Linda Howard: Down.
David Howard: How down is she?
Desert Inn Casino Manager: Down.
Desert Inn Casino Manager: You’re a nice guy. You make me laugh. But our policy is: we can’t give your money back.

– “Lost in America” (1985) 

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Boredom is the conviction that you can’t change … the shriek of unused capacities.
– Saul Bellow, “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953)


Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.

– Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)


She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris. 

– Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)

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To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull…surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

– David Foster Wallace, “The Pale King” (2011)

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Carl:  This is crazy. I finally meet my childhood hero and he’s trying to kill us. What a joke.
Dug: Hey, I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, “I forgot to store acorns for the winter and now I am dead.” Ha! It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.

– “Up” (2009)

I’m a good poker player. I know that everyone says that about themselves, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m also a good stock picker, which again is something that everyone says about themselves. At least on this point I’ve got a track record from a prior life to make the case. But I don’t consider myself to be a great poker player or a great stock picker. Why not? Because I get bored with the interminable and rigorous discipline that being a great poker player or a great stock picker requires. And I bet you do, too.

To be clear, it’s not the actual work of poker playing or stock picking that I find boring. I could happily spend every waking moment turning over a new set of cards or researching a new company. And it’s certainly not boring to make a bet, either on a hand or a stock. What’s boring is NOT making a bet on a hand or a stock. What’s boring is folding hand after hand or passing on stock after stock because you know it’s the right thing to do. The investment process that makes a great poker player or a great stock picker isn’t the research or the analysis, even though that’s what gets a lot of the attention. Nor is it the willingness to make a big bet when you believe the table or the market or the world has given you a rare combination of edge and odds, even though that’s what gets even more of the attention. No, what makes for greatness as a stock picker is the discipline to act appropriately on whatever the market is giving you, particularly when you’re being dealt one low conviction hand after another. The hardest thing in the world for talented people is to ignore our mental “shriek of unused capacities”, to use Saul Bellow’s phrase, and to avoid turning a low edge and odds opportunity into an unreasonably high conviction bet simply because we want it so badly and have analyzed the situation so smartly. In both poker and investing, we brutally overestimate the edge and odds associated with merely ordinary opportunities once we’ve been forced by circumstances to sit on our hands for a while.

As David Foster Wallace puts it so well, “the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention.” Why do we increasingly suffer from a “terror of silence” where we use electronic information devices to fill the void? Why are most of you reading this note with at least one TV screen showing CNBC or Bloomberg within easy viewing distance? How many of us are bored to tears with the Fed’s Hamlet act on raising rates, and yet have been staring at this debate for so long that we have convinced ourselves that we have a meaningful view on what will transpire, even though it’s a decision where we have zero investing edge and unknowable risk/reward odds. I’m raising my hand as I re-read this sentence.

The biggest challenge of our investing lives is not finding ways to process more information, or even finding ways to process information more effectively. Our biggest challenge is finding the courage to focus on what matters, to admit that more or quicker information will not help our investment decisions, to recognize that our investment discipline suffers mightily at the hands of the impediment of dullness. Because let’s be honest… the Golden Age of the Central Banker is a really, really dull time for a stock-picking investor. I’m not saying that the markets themselves are dull or that market price action is boring. On the contrary, this joint is jumping. I’m saying that stock pickers are being dealt one dull, low conviction hand after another by global Central Banks, even though they’re forced to sit inside a glitzy casino with lots of lights and sounds and exciting gambling action happening all around them. We have little edge in a Reg-FD public market. We have at best unknowable odds and at worst a negatively skewed risk/reward asymmetry in a market where policy shocks abound. And yet we find ways to convince ourselves that we have both edge and odds, making the same concentrated equity bets we made back in happier times when idiosyncratic company fundamentals and catalysts were actually attached to a company’s stock price. Builders build. Drillers drill. Stock pickers pick stocks. We can’t help ourselves, even if the deck is stacked against us here in the only game in town.

Investment discipline suffers under the weight of dullness and low conviction in at least four distinct ways here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

First, just as there’s a winner on every poker hand that you sit out, there’s a winner every day in the markets regardless of whether or not you are participating. The business risk of sitting out too many hands weighs heavily on most of us in the asset management or financial advisory worlds. We can talk about maintaining our investment discipline all we like, but the truth is that all of us, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, gotta serve somebody. If we’re not telling our investors or our board or our CIO that we have high conviction investment ideas … well, they’re going to find someone else who WILL tell them what they want to hear. And for those lucky few of you reading this note blessed with access to more or less permanent capital, I’ll just say that the conversations we have with ourselves tend to be even more pressuring than the conversations we have with others. No one forces me to “make a play” when I have a middle pair and a so-so kicker, but I’ve somehow convinced myself that I can take down a pot just because I’ve been playing tight for the past hour. No one forced Stanley Druckenmiller – one of the truly great investors of our era – to top-tick the NASDAQ bubble when he bought $6 billion worth of Internet stocks in March 2000. Why did he do it?

So, I’ll never forget it. January of 2000 I go into Soros’s office and I say I’m selling all the tech stocks, selling everything. This is crazy at 104 times earnings. This is nuts. Just kind of as I explained earlier, we’re going to step aside, wait for the next fat pitch. I didn’t fire the two gun slingers. They didn’t have enough money to really hurt the fund, but they started making 3 percent a day and I’m out. It is driving me nuts. I mean their little account is like up 50 percent on the year. I think Quantum was up seven. It’s just sitting there.

So like around March I could feel it coming. I just … I had to play. I couldn’t help myself. And three times during the same week I pick up a phone but don’t do it. Don’t do it. Anyway, I pick up the phone finally. I think I missed the top by an hour. I bought $6 billion worth of tech stocks, and in six weeks I had left Soros and I had lost $3 billion in that one play. You asked me what I learned. I didn’t learn anything. I already knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. I was just an emotional basket case and couldn’t help myself. So maybe I learned not to do it again, but I already knew that.

If living in the NASDAQ bubble can make Stan Druckenmiller convince himself that stocks trading at >100x earnings were a high conviction play only a few months after selling out of them entirely, what chance do we mere mortals have in not succumbing to 6-plus years of the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of man?

Second, every facet of the financial services industry is trying to convince you to play more hands, and we are biologically hard-wired to respond. I don’t have a good answer to Wallace’s question about why we all fear the silence and all feel compelled to fill the void with electronically delivered “information”, but I am certain that the business models of the Big Boy information providers all depend on Flow.So you can count on the “information” that we constantly and willingly beam into our brains being geared to convince us to join the casino fun. My favorite character in the wonderful movie “Up” is Dug the dog, who despite his advanced technological tools is a prisoner of his own biology whenever he hears the signal “Squirrel!”. We are all Dug the dog.

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Third, Central Bankers have intentionally sown confusion in our ranks. Like the barkers on CNBC and the sell-side, the Fed and the ECB and the BOJ and the PBOC are determined to force us into riskier investment decisions than we would otherwise choose to make. This is the entire point of extraordinary monetary policy over the past 6 years! All of it. All of the LSAPs, all of the TLTROs, all of the exercises in “Communication Policy” … all of it has been designed with one single purpose in mind: to punish investors who choose to sit on their hands and reward investors who make a bet, all for the laudable goal of preventing a deflationary equilibrium. And as a result we have the most mistrusted bull market in history, a bull market where traditional investment discipline was punished rather than rewarded, and where any investor who hasn’t been totally hornswoggled by Fed communication policy is now rightly worried about having the policy rug pulled out from underneath his feet.

Or to make this point from a slightly different perspective, while there is confusion between the concepts of investing and allocation in the best of times, there is an intentional conflation of the two notions here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. The Fed wants to turn investors into allocators, and they’ve largely succeeded. That is, the Fed doesn’t care about your picking one stock over another stock or one sector over another sector or one company over another company. They just want to push you out on the risk curve, which for the vast majority of investors just means buying stocks. Any stock. All stocks. This is why the quality bias that most investors have – preferring solid management, strong balance sheets, and good cash flow generation to their opposites – has been largely immaterial as an investment factor (if not an outright drag on investment returns) over the past 6 years. If the King is flooding the town with easy credit, the deadbeat tailor will do relatively better than the thrifty mason every time. But try telling a true-believer that quality is just an investment factor, no more (and no less) privileged than any other investment factor. Honestly, I’ll get 50 unsubscribe emails just for writing this down.

Fourth, our small-number brains are good local data relativists, not effective cross-temporal or global data evaluators. Okay, that’s a mouthful. Translation: the human brain has evolved over millions of years and human society has been trained for tens of thousands of years to make sense of highly localized data patterns. Humans are excellent at prioritizing the risks and opportunities that they are paying attention to at any moment in time, and excellent at allocating their behavioral budget accordingly. It’s why we’re really good at driving cars or, in primate days of yore, surviving on the Serengeti plains. But if asked to compare the risks and rewards of a current decision opportunity with the risks and rewards of a decision opportunity last year (much less 10 years ago), or if asked to compare the opportunity we’ve been evaluating for months with something less familiar, we are utterly flummoxed. It’s not that we can’t remember or think on our feet, but there is an overwhelming attention and recency bias in human decision-making. That’s fine so long as we share the market with other humans, much less fine when we share the market with machine intelligences that excel at the information processing tasks we consistently flub. Whether it’s trading or investing, humans are no longer the apex predator in capital markets, but we act as if we are. 

So what’s an investor to do?

I can sum it up in one deceptively simple sentence: You take what the market gives you.

It’s deceptively simple because it implies a totally different perspective on markets than most investors (or allocators, frankly) bring to bear. It means approaching markets from a position of humility, i.e. risk tolerance, rather than from a position of hubris, i.e. return expectations. It’s all well and good to tell your financial advisor or your board or yourself that you’re “targeting an 8% return.” That’s great. I understand that’s your desire. But the market couldn’t care less what your desire might be. I think it’s so important to stop focusing on our “expectations” of the market, as if it were some unruly teenager that needs to get its act together and start doing what it’s told. It’s madness to anthropomorphize the market and believe that we can control it or predict its behavior. Instead, we need to focus on what we CAN control and what we CAN predict, which is our own reaction to what a stochastically-dominated social system like the market is going to throw at us over time. Tell me what your risk tolerance is. Tell me what path you’re comfortable walking. Then we can talk about the uncorrelated stepping stone strategies that will make up that path to get you where you want to go. Then we can talk about sticking to the path, which far more often means keeping risk in the portfolio than taking it out. Then we can talk about adaptively allocating between the stepping stone strategies as the risk they generate today differs from the risk they generated in the past. Maybe you’ll get lucky and one of the strategies will crush it, like US equities did in 2013. Excellent! But aren’t we wise enough to distinguish allocation luck from investment skill? I keep asking myself that rhetorical question, but I’m never quite happy with the answer.

You know, there’s this mythology around poker tournaments that the path to success is a succession of all-in bets where you “read” your opponent and make some seemingly brilliant bluff or call. I’m sure this mythology is driven by the way in which poker tournaments are televised, where viewers see a succession of exactly this sort of dramatic moment, complete with commentary attributing deep strategic thoughts to every action. What nonsense. The goal of great poker players is NEVER to go all-in. Going all-in is a failure of risk management, not a success. I’m exaggerating when it comes to poker, because the nice thing about poker tournaments is that there’s always another one. But I’m not exaggerating when it comes to investing. There’s only one Nest Egg (“Lost In America” is by far my favorite Albert Brooks movie), and thinking about investing and allocation through the lens of risk tolerance rather than return expectations is the best way I know to grow and keep that Nest Egg.

Taking What The Market Gives You has specific implications for each of the four ways in which the Golden Age of the Central Banker weakens investor discipline.

1) For the business risk associated with maintaining a stock-picking discipline and sitting out an equity market that you just don’t trust … it means taking complementary non-correlated strategies into your portfolio, as well as strategies that have positive expected returns but can make money when equities go down (like trend-following strategies or government bonds). It rarely means going to cash. (For more, see “It’s Not About the Nail”)

2) For the constant exhortations from the financial media and the sell-side to try a new game at the market casino … it means taking what you know. It means taking what you know the market is giving you because you have direct experience with it, not taking what other people are telling you that the market is giving you. Here’s my test: if I hear a pitch for a stock or a strategy and I find myself looking around the room (either literally or metaphorically) to see how other people are reacting to the pitch, then I know that I’m being sucked into the Common Knowledge Game. I know that I’m at risk of playing a hand I shouldn’t. (For more, see “Wherefore Art Thou, Marcus Welby?”)

3) For the communication policy of the Fed and the soul-crushing power of a risk-free rate that pays absolutely nothing … it means taking stocks that get as close as possible to real-world economic growth and real-world cash flows in order to minimize the confounding influence of Central Bankers and the game-playing that surrounds them. There’s nowhere to hide completely, as the volatility virus that started with the end of global monetary policy coordination in the summer of 2014 will eventually spread everywhere, but there’s no better place to ride out the storm than getting close to actual cash flows of companies that are determined to return those cash flows to investors. (For more, see “Suddenly Last Summer”)

4) For the transformation of the market jungle into a machine-dominated ecosystem … it means either adopting the same market perspective as a machine intelligence through systematic asset allocation strategies, or it means focusing on niche areas of the market where useful fundamental information is not yet aggregated for the machines. In either case, it means leaving behind the quaint notion that you can do fundamental analysis on large cap public companies and somehow gain an edge or identify attractive odds. (For more, see “One MILLION Dollars”)

One final point, and it’s one that seems particularly apropos after watching some bloodbaths in certain stocks and sectors over the past week or two. Investor discipline isn’t only the virtue of great investors when it comes to buying stocks. It’s also the virtue of great investors when it comes to selling stocks. I started Epsilon Theory a little more than two years ago in the midst of a grand bull market that I saw as driven by Narrative and policy rather than a self-sustaining recovery in the real economy. For about a year, I got widespread pushback on that notion. Today, it seems that everyone is a believer in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. What I find most interesting, though, is that not only is belief in this specific Narrative widespread, but so is belief in the Epsilon Theory meta-Narrative … the Narrative that it is, in fact, Narratives that drive market outcomes of all sorts. My hope, and at this point it’s only a hope, is that this understanding of the power of Narratives will inoculate a critical mass of investors and allocators from this scourge. Because the same stories and Narratives and low conviction hands that shook us out of our investment discipline on the way up will attack us even more ferociously on the way down.

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Season of the Glitch

When I look over my shoulder
What do you think I see?
Some other cat lookin’ over
His shoulder at me.

Donovan, “Season of the Witch” (1966)

epsilon-theory-season-of-the-glitch-september-3-2015-blair-witch

Josh Leonard: I see why you like this video camera so much.
Heather Donahue: You do?
Josh Leonard: It’s not quite reality. It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.

“The Blair Witch Project” (1999)

Over the past two months, more than 90 Wall Street Journal articles have used the word “glitch”. A few choice selections below:

Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s chief executive warned clients that his firm wouldn’t be able to solve all pricing problems caused by a computer glitch before markets open Monday.

“BNY Mellon Races to Fix Pricing Glitches Before Markets Open Monday”, August 30, 2015

A computer glitch is preventing hundreds of mutual and exchange-traded funds from providing investors with the values of their holdings, complicating trading in some of the most widely held investments.

“A New Computer Glitch is Rocking the Mutual Fund Industry”, August 26, 2015

Bank says data loss was due to software glitch.

“Deutsche Bank Didn’t Archive Chats Used by Some Employees Tied to Libor Probe”, July 30, 2015

NYSE explanation confirms software glitch as cause, following initial fears of a cyberattack.

“NYSE Says Wednesday Outage Caused by Software Update”, July 10, 2015

Some TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. customers experienced delays in placing orders Friday morning due to a software glitch, the brokerage said..

“TD Ameritrade Experienced Order Routing, Messaging Problems”, July 10, 2015

Thousands of investors with stop-loss orders on their ETFs saw those positions crushed in the first 30 minutes of trading last Monday, August 24th. Seeing a price blow right through your stop is perhaps the worst experience in all of investing because it seems like such a betrayal. “Hey, isn’t this what a smart investor is supposed to do? What do you mean there was no liquidity at my stop? What do you mean I got filled $5 below my stop? Wait… now the price is back above my stop! Is this for real?”  Welcome to the Big Leagues of Investing Pain.

What happened last Monday morning, when Apple was down 11% and the VIX couldn’t be priced and the CNBC anchors looked like they were going to vomit, was not a glitch. Yes, a flawed SunGard pricing platform was part of the proximate cause, but the structural problem here – and the reason this sort of dislocation WILL happen again, soon and more severely – is that a vast crowd of market participants – let’s call them Investors – are making a classic mistake. It’s what a statistics professor would call a “category error”, and it’s a heartbreaker.

Moreover, there’s a slightly less vast crowd of market participants – let’s call them Market Makers and The Sell Side – who are only too happy to perpetuate and encourage this category error. Not for nothing, but Virtu and Volant and other HFT “liquidity providers” had their most profitable day last Monday since … well, since the Flash Crash of 2010. So if you’re a Market Maker or you’re on The Sell Side or you’re one of their media apologists, you call last week’s price dislocations a “glitch” and misdirect everyone’s attention to total red herrings like supposed forced liquidations of risk parity strategies. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The category error made by most Investors today, from your retired father-in-law to the largest sovereign wealth fund, is to confuse an allocation for an investment. If you treat an allocation like an investment… if you think about buying and selling an ETF in the same way that you think about buying and selling stock in a real-life company with real-life cash flows… you’re making the same mistake that currency traders made earlier this year with the Swiss Franc (read “Ghost in the Machine” for more). You’re making a category error, and one day – maybe last Monday or maybe next Monday – that mistake will come back to haunt you.

The simple fact is that there’s precious little investing in markets today – understood as buying a fractional ownership position in the real-life cash flows of a real-life company – a casualty of policy-driven markets where real-life fundamentals mean next to nothing for market returns. Instead, it’s all portfolio positioning, all allocation, all the time. But most Investors still maintain the pleasant illusion that what they’re doing is some form of stock-picking, some form of their traditional understanding of what it means to be an Investor. It’s the story they tell themselves and each other to get through the day, and the people who hold the media cameras and microphones are only too happy to perpetuate this particular form of filtered reality.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong with allocating rather than investing. In fact, as my partners Lee Partridge and Rusty Guinn never tire of saying, smart allocation is going to be responsible for the vast majority of public market portfolio returns over time for almost all investors. But that’s not the mythology that exists around markets. You don’t read Barron’s profiles about Great Allocators. No, you read about Great Investors, heroically making their stock-picking way in a sea of troubles. It’s 99% stochastics and probability distributions – really, it is – but since when did that make a myth less influential? So we gladly pay outrageous fees to the Great Investors who walk among us, even if most of us will never enjoy the outsized returns that won their reputations. So we search and search for the next Great Investor, even if the number of Great Investors in the world is exactly what enough random rolls of the dice would produce with Ordinary Investors. So we all aspire to be Great Investors, even if almost all of what we do – like buying an ETF – is allocating rather than investing.

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

What we saw last Monday morning was a specific manifestation of the behavioral fallacy of a category error, one that cost a lot of Investors a lot of money. Investors routinely put stop-loss orders on their ETFs. Why? Because… you know, this is what Great Investors do. They let their winners run and they limit their losses. Everyone knows this. It’s part of our accepted mythology, the Common Knowledge of investing. But here’s the truth. If you’re an Investor with a capital I (as opposed to a Trader with a capital T), there’s no good reason to put a stop-loss on an ETF or any other allocation instrument. I know. Crazy. And I’m sure I’ll get 100 irate unsubscribe notices from true-believing Investors for this heresy. So be it.

Think of it this way… what is the meaning of an allocation? Answer: it’s a return stream with a certain set of qualities that for whatever reason – maybe diversification, maybe sheer greed, maybe something else – you believe that your portfolio should possess. Now ask yourself this: what does price have to do with this meaning of an allocation? Answer: very little, at least in and of itself. Are those return stream qualities that you prize in your portfolio significantly altered just because the per-share price of a representation of this return stream is now just below some arbitrary price line that you set? Of course not. More generally, those return stream qualities can only be understood… should only be understood… in the context of what else is in your portfolio. I’m not saying that the price of this desired return stream means nothing. I’m saying that it means nothing in and of itself. An allocation has contingent meaning, not absolute meaning, and it should be evaluated on its relative merits, including price. There’s nothing contingent about a stop-loss order. It’s entirely specific to that security… I want it at this price and I don’t want it at that price, and that’s not the right way to think about an allocation.

One of my very first Epsilon Theory notes, “The Tao of Portfolio Management,” was on this distinction between investing (what I called stock-picking in that note) and allocation (what I called top-down portfolio construction), and the ecological fallacy that drives category errors and a whole host of other market mistakes. It wasn’t a particularly popular note then, and this note probably won’t be, either. But I think it’s one of the most important things I’ve got to say.

Why do I think it’s important? Because this category error goes way beyond whether or not you put stop-loss orders on ETFs. It enshrines myopic price considerations as the end-all and be-all for portfolio allocation decisions, and it accelerates the casino-fication of modern capital markets, both of which I think are absolute tragedies. For Investors, anyway. It’s a wash for Traders… just gives them a bigger playground. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving for Market Makers and The Sell Side.

Why do I think it’s important? Because there are so many Investors making this category error and they are going to continue to be, at best, scared out of their minds and, at worst, totally run over by the Traders who are dominating these casino games. This isn’t the time or the place to dive into gamma trading or volatility skew hedges or liquidity replenishment points. But let me say this. If you don’t already understand what, say, a gamma hedge is, then you have ZERO chance of successfully trading your portfolio in reaction to the daily “news”. You’re going to be whipsawed mercilessly by these Hollow Markets, especially now that the Fed and the PBOC are playing a giant game of Chicken and are no longer working in unison to pump up global asset prices.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as an Investor was to take what the market gives you. Right now the market isn’t giving us much, at least not the sort of stock-picking opportunities that most Investors want. Or think they want. That’s okay. This, too, shall pass. Eventually. Maybe. But what’s not okay is to confuse what the market IS giving us, which is the opportunity to make long-term portfolio allocation decisions, for the sort of active trading opportunity that fits our market mythology. It’s easy to confuse the two, particularly when there are powerful interests that profit from the confusion and the mythology. Market Makers and The Sell Side want to speed us up, both in the pace of our decision making and in the securities we use to implement those decisions, and if anything goes awry … well, it must have been a glitch. In truth, it’s time to slow down, both in our process and in the nature of the securities we buy and sell. And you might want to turn off the TV while you’re at it.

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When the Story Breaks

The Three Types of Fear:
  • The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
  • The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
  • And the last and worst one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there.

Stephen King

Brody: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

“Jaws” (1975)

Back in my portfolio manager days, I was a really good short seller. I say that as a factual observation, not a brag, as it’s not a skill set that’s driven by some great intellectual or character virtue. On the contrary, most short sellers are, like me, highly suspicious of all received wisdom (even when it is, in fact, wise) and have weirdly over-developed egos that feed on the notion of “I’m right even though the world says I’m wrong”. But what set me apart as a short seller were two accidents of experience. First, I didn’t come out of Wall Street, so I wasn’t infected with the long-bias required of those business models. Second, my professional career prior to investing was all about studying mass behaviors and the informational flows that drive those behaviors.

Here’s why that’s important. The biggest difference between shorting and going long is that shorts tend to work in a punctuated fashion. One day I’ll write a full note on the Information Theory basis for this market fact, but the intuition is pretty simple. There’s a constant flow of positive information around both individual stocks (driven by corporate management) and the market as a whole (driven by the sell-side), and as a result the natural tendency of prices is a slow grind up. But occasionally you’ll receive an informational shock, which is almost always a negative, and the price of a stock or the overall market will take a sharp, punctuated decline. The hardest decision for a short seller is what to do when you get this punctuated decline. Do you cover the short, pocket a modest gain, and look to re-establish the position once it grinds higher, as it typically does? Or do you press the short on this informational validation for your original negative thesis? It’s an entirely different mindset than that of most long-only investors, who – because they have the luxury of both time and informational flow on their side – not only tend to add to their positions when the stock is working (my thesis is right, and I’m raising my target price!) but also tend to add when it’s not working (my thesis is right, and this stock is on sale!).

Solving the short seller’s dilemma requires answering one simple question: is the story broken?Is the informational shock sufficient to force long-only investors to doubt not just their facts, but – much more crucially – their beliefs, thus turning them into sellers, too? The facts of the informational shock are almost immaterial in resolving the short seller’s dilemma. Your personal beliefs about those facts are certainly immaterial. The only thing that matters is whether or not the river of information coming out of the sell-side has shifted course in a way that swamps the old belief structures and establishes new Common Knowledge.

The China growth story is now broken. To be clear, I am NOT saying that China’s economy is broken. On the contrary, I’m a China bull. What I’m saying is that what everyone believes that everyone believes about Chinese growth – the Common Knowledge about Chinese growth – has now shifted dramatically for the worse. What I’m also saying is that China-related stocks and markets are going to have a very hard time working until the investors who believed in the China growth story are replaced by investors who believe in a different China story, probably a China value story. That can take a long time and it can be a very painful transition, as any value investor who ever bought a mega-cap tech stock can attest. But it will happen, and that’s a very powerful – and ultimately positive – transformation. Ditto for Emerging Markets in general.

In the meantime, what we’ve been experiencing in markets is the plain and simple fear that always accompanies a broken story. The human reaction to a broken story is an emotional response akin to a sudden loss of faith. It’s a muted form of what Stephen King defined as Terror … the sudden realization that the helpful moorings you took for granted are actually not supporting you at all, but are at best absent and at worst have been replaced by invisible forces with ill intent. The antidote to Terror? Call the boogeyman by his proper name. It’s the end of the China growth story, one of the most powerful investment Narratives of the past 20 years. And that’s very painful, as the end of something big and powerful always is. It will require investors to adapt and adjust if they want to thrive. But it’s not MORE than that. It’s not a sign of the investment apocalypse. It’s the end of one investable story, soon to be replaced with another investable story. Because that’s what we humans do.

Here’s a great illustration of what fear looks like in markets, courtesy of Salient’s Deputy CIO and all-around brilliant guy, Rusty Guinn.

epsilon-theory-when-the-story-breaks-august-25-2015-volatility

These are the cumulative pro forma (i.e., purely hypothetical) returns generated by selling (shorting) the high volatility S&P 500 stocks and buying an off-setting amount of the low volatility stocks (0% net exposure, 200% gross exposure). The factor is up 10% YTD and 15% from the lows in May. Now just to be clear, this is not an actual investment strategy, but is simply a tool we use to identify what factors are working in the market at any point in time. There are any number of ways to construct this indicator, but they all show the same thing – investors have been embracing low volatility (low risk) stocks ever since Greece started to break the European stability story this summer, and that dynamic has continued with the complete breakdown of the China growth story. This is what a flight to safety looks like when you don’t trust bonds because you think the Fed is poised for “lift-off”. This is the fear factor.

Three final Narrative-related points…

First, while the breakdown in the China growth story has reached a tipping point over the past week, this is just the culmination in what has been a two year deterioration of the entire Emerging Market growth story. The belief system around EM’s has been crumbling ever since the Taper Tantrum in the summer of 2013, and it’s the subject of one of the most popular Epsilon Theory notes, “It Was Barzini All Along”. Everything I wrote then is even more applicable today.

Second, I see very little weakness in either the US growth story (best house in a bad neighborhood, mediocre growth but zero chance of recession) or the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. Do I think that the Fed is being stymied in its desire to raise short rates in order to reload its monetary policy gun with conventional ammo? Yes, absolutely. Do I see a significant diminution in the overwhelming investor belief that the Fed and the ECB control market outcomes? No, I don’t. Trust me, I’m keeping my eyes peeled (see “When Does the Story Break?”), because in many respects this is the only question that matters. If this story breaks, then in the immortal words of Chief Brody when he first saw the shark, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Third, while I’m relatively sanguine about the China growth story breaking down, as I’m confident that there’s a value story waiting in the wings here, I’ll be much more nervous if the China political competence story continues to deteriorate. This is a completely different Narrative than the growth story, and it’s the story that one-party States rely on to prevent even the thought of a viable political opposition. In highly authoritarian one-party nations – like Saddam’s Iraq or the Shah’s Iran – you’ll typically see the competence Narrative focused on the omnipresent secret police apparatus. In less authoritarian one-party nations – like Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore or Deng Xiaoping’s China – the competence Narrative is more often based on delivering positive economic outcomes to a wide swath of citizens (not that these regimes are a slouch in the secret police department, of course). From a political perspective, this competence Narrative is THE source of legitimacy and stability for a one-party State. In a multi-party system, you can vote the incompetents (or far more likely, the perceived incompetents) out of office and replace them peacefully with another regime. That’s not an option in a one-party State, and if the competency story breaks the result is always a very dicey and usually a violent power transition. I am seeing more and more trial balloons being floated in the Western media (usually with some sort of Murdoch provenance) that indicate “dissatisfaction” with this or that cadre. And it’s not just a markets story any more, as grumblings over the Tianjin fire disaster appear to me to have grown louder over the past week. I haven’t seen this sort of signaling coming out of China in 20 years, and it certainly bears close watching.

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The New TVA

War is too important to be left to the generals.
Georges Clemenceau (1841 -1929)

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off. … If we call the method regulation, people will hold up their hands in horror and say ‘un-American’ or ‘dangerous.’ But if we call the same process cooperation these same old fogeys will cry out ‘well done.’
Franklin Roosevelt (1882 – 1945)

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epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-jobs

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-new-yorker

The New Yorker magazine’s cartoons of the plump, terrified Wall Streeter were accurate; business was terrified of the president. But the cartoons did not depict the consequences of that intimidation: that businesses decided to wait Roosevelt out, hold on to their cash, and invest in future years.

– Amity Shlaes, “The Forgotten Man” (2007)

Quite possibly the TVA idea is the greatest single American invention of this century, the biggest contribution the United States has yet made to society in the modern world.
John Gunther, “Inside USA” (1947) 

Don Draper: This is the greatest advertising opportunity since the invention of cereal. We have six identical companies making six identical products. We can say anything we want. How do you make your cigarettes?
Lee Garner, Jr.: I don’t know.
Lee Garner, Sr.: Shame on you. We breed insect repellant tobacco seeds, plant them in the North Carolina sunshine, grow it, cut it, cure it, toast it…
Don Draper: There you go. There you go.

[Writes on chalkboard and underlines: “IT’S TOASTED.”]

Lee Garner, Jr.: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.
Don Draper: No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes…is toasted.

“Mad Men: Smoke Gets inYour Eyes” (2007)

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-bicycles

“How the Children Played at Slaughtering,” for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”.
The Guardian, “Grimm Brothers’ Fairytales have Blood and Horror Restored in New Translation” November 12, 2014

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The California Public Employees’ Retirement System said it missed its return target by a wide margin, hurt by a sluggish global economy and an under-performing private equity portfolio. The nation’s largest public pension fund said its investments returned just 2.4% for its fiscal year, ended June 30, far below its 7.5% investment target.
Los Angeles Times, “CalPERS Misses Its Target Return by a Wide Margin” July 13, 2015

As the world moves slowly towards more economic stability, the outlook for gold is more uncertain than ever.
Wall Street Journal, “How the Street is Weighing Up Gold’s Lost Shine” July 20, 2015

When a market malfunctions, the government should not let market sentiment turn from bad to worse. It should use powerful measures to strengthen market confidence.
The People’s Daily (official China newspaper), July 20, 2015

My favorite scene from Mad Men is the picnic scene from Season 2. The Draper family enjoys a lovely picnic at some park, and at the conclusion of the meal Don tosses his beer cans into the bushes and Betty just flicks the blanket and leaves all the trash right there on the grass. Shocking, right? I know this is impossible for anyone under the age of 30 to believe, but this is EXACTLY what picnics were like in the 1960’s, even if a bit over the top in typical Draper fashion. There was no widespread concept of littering, much less recycling and all the other green concepts that are second nature to my kids. I mean … if I even thought about Draper-level littering at a Hunt picnic today my children would consider it to be an act of rank betrayal and sheer evil. I’d be disowned before they called the police and had me arrested.

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-mad-men

Like many of us who were children in a Mad Men world, I can remember the moment when littering became a “thing”, with the 1971 public service commercial of an American Indian (actually an Italian actor) shedding a tear at the sight of all the trash blighting his native land.  Powerful stuff, and a wonderful example of the way in which Narrative construction can change the fundamental ways our society sees the world, setting in motion behaviors that are as second nature to our children as they were unthinkable to our parents. It’s barely noticeable as it’s happening, but one day you wake up and it’s hard to remember that there was a time when you didn’t believe that littering was a crime against humanity.

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-littering

This dynamic of change in meaning is rare, but it takes place more often than you might think. Dueling and smoking are easy examples. Slavery is, too. Myths and legends turned into nursery rhymes and fairy tales is one of my favorite examples, as is compulsory public education … a concept that didn’t exist until the Prussian government invented it to generate politically indoctrinated soldiers who could read a training manual. Occasionally – and only when political systems undergo the existential stress of potential collapse – this dynamic of change impacts the meaning of the Market itself, and I think that’s exactly what’s taking place today. Through the magic of Narrative construction, capital markets are being transformed into political utilities. 

It’s not a unique occurrence. The last time investors lived through this sort of change in what the market means was the 1930s, and it’s useful to examine that decade’s events more closely, in a history-rhyming sort of way. What’s less useful, I think, is to spend our time arguing about whether this transformation in market meaning is a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is, and the last thing I want to be is a modern day version of one of those grumpy old men who railed about how Roosevelt was really the Anti-Christ. What I will say, though (and I promise this will be my last indication of moral tsk-tsking, for this note anyway), is that I have a newfound appreciation for why they were grumpy old men, and I feel keenly a sense of loss for the experience of markets that I suspect my children will never enjoy as I have. I suspect they will never suffer in their experience of markets as I have, either, but there’s a loss in that, as well.

It’s totally understandable why status quo political interests would seek to transform hurly-burly capital markets into a stable inflation-generation utility, as summed up in the following two McKinsey charts.

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-global-debt

epsilon-theory-the-new-tva-july-23-2015-gdp

Both of these charts can be found in the February 2015 McKinsey paper, “Debt and (not much) deleveraging”, well worth your time to peruse. Keep in mind that the data used here is from Q2 2014, back when Greece was still “fixed”, the Fed had not proclaimed its tightening bias, and China was still slowing gracefully. All of these numbers are worse today, not better.

So what do the numbers tell us? Two things. First, there’s more debt in the world today than before the Great Recession kicked off in 2008. All the deleveraging that was supposed to happen … didn’t. Sure, it’s distributed slightly differently, both by sector and by geography – and that’s critically important for the political utility thesis here – but whatever overwhelming debt levels you thought triggered a super-cyclical, structural recession then … well, you’ve got more of it now.  Second, it’s impossible to grow our way out of these debt levels. Japan, France and Italy would have to more than double their current GDP growth rates (and again, these are last year’s more optimistic projections) to even start to grow their way out of debt. Right. Good luck with that. Spain needs a triple. Even the US, the best house in a bad neighborhood, needs >3% growth from here to eternity to start making a dent in its debt. Moreover, every day you don’t achieve these growth levels is a day that the debt load gets even larger. These growth targets are a receding target, soon to be well out of reach for every country on Earth.

The intractable problem with these inconvenient facts is that there are only three ways to get out from under a massive debt. You can grow your way out, you can inflate your way out, or you can shrink your way out through austerity and/or assignment of losses. Door #1 is now effectively impossible for most developed economies. Door #3 is unacceptable to any status quo regime. So that leaves Door #2. The ONLY way forward is inflation, so that’s what it’s going to be. There is no Plan B. What sort of inflation is most amenable to modern political influence? Financial asset inflation, by a wide margin. Inflation in the real economy depends on real investment decisions by real businesses, and just as in the 1930s most business decision makers are sitting this one out, thank you very much. Or just as in the 1930s they’re “investing” in stock buy-backs and earnings margin improvement, which doesn’t help real world inflation at all. What political institutions are most capable of promoting inflation? Central banks, again by a wide margin. Just as in the 1930s, almost every developed economy in the world has a highly polarized electorate and an equally polarized legislature. The executive may be willing, but the government is weak. Far better to wage the inflation wars from within the non-elected walls of the Eccles Building rather than the White House.

Now … how to wage that inflation war with the proper Narrative armament? No one wants inflation in the sense of “runaway inflation”, to use the phrasing of doomsayers everywhere. In fact, unless you’re speaking apparatchik to apparatchik, you don’t want to use the word “inflation” at all. It’s just like Roosevelt essentially banning the word “regulation” from his Cabinet’s vocabulary. Don’t call it “regulation”. Call it “cooperation”, Roosevelt said, and even the grumpy old men will applaud. So today China calls it a “market malfunction” when their stock market deflates sharply (of course, inflating sharply is just fine). Better fix that malfunctioning machine! How can you argue with that language? But at least the political mandarins in the East are more authentic with their words than the political mandarins in the West. Here we now call market deflation by the sobriquet “volatility”, as in “major market indices suffered from volatility today, down almost one-half of one percent”, where a down day is treated as something akin to the common cold, a temporary illness with symptoms that we can shrug off with an aspirin or two. You can’t be in favor of volatility, surely. It’s a bad thing, almost on a par with littering. No, we want good things and good words, like “wealth effect” and “accommodation” and “stability” and “price appreciation”. As President Snow says in reference to The Hunger Games version of a political utility, “may the odds be always in your favor”. Who doesn’t want that?

There are two problems with the odds being always in your favor.

First, the casino-fication of markets ratchets up to an entirely new level of pervasiveness and permanence. By casino-fication I mean the transformation of the meaning of market securities from a partial ownership interest in the real-life cash flows of real-life companies to a disembodied symbol of participation in a disembodied game. Securities become chips, pure and simple. Now there’s nothing new in this gaming-centric vision of what markets mean; it’s been around since the dawn of time. My point is that with the “innovation” of ETF’s and the regulatory and technological shifts that allow HFTs and other liquidity game-players to dominate the day-to-day price action in markets, this vision is now dominant. There’s so little investing today. It’s all positioning And in a capital-markets-as-political-utility world, the State is now actively cementing that view. After World War I, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously said that war was too important to be left to the generals, meaning that politicians would now take charge. Today, the pervasive belief in every capital in the world is that markets are too important to be left to the investors. These things don’t change back. Sorry.

Second, if you’re raising the floor on what you might suffer in the way of asset price deflation, you are also lowering the ceiling on what you might enjoy in the way of asset price inflation. That’s what investing in a utility means – you’re probably not going to lose money, but you’re not going to make a lot of money, either. So to all of those public pension funds who are wringing their hands at this fiscal year’s meager returns, well below what they need to stay afloat without raising contributions, I say get used to it. All of your capital market assumptions are now at risk, subject to the tsunami force of status quo politicians with their backs up against the debt wall. Their market-as-utility solution isn’t likely to go bust in a paroxysm of global chaos, any more than it’s likely to spark a glorious age of reinvigorated global growth. Neither the doomsday scenario nor the happy ending is likely here, I think. Instead, it’s what I’ve called the Entropic Ending, a long gray slog where a recession is as unthinkable as a 4% growth rate. It’s a very stable political equilibrium. Sorry.

As the title of this note suggests, we’ve been down this road before in the 1930s. But the historical rhyming I see is not so much in the New Deal policies that directly impacted the stock market as it is in the policies that established a real-life utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  That’s because the nature of the existential threat posed by overwhelming debt to the US political system was different in the 1930s than it is today. When FDR took office, the flash point of that systemic threat was the labor market, not the capital market. Sure, the stock market took its hits in the Great Depression, but the relevance of the stock market to either the overall economic health of the country or – more importantly to FDR – his ability to remain in office was dwarfed by the relevance of the labor market. It’s another one of those changes in meaning that seems bizarre to the modern eye or ear. What, you mean there wasn’t 24/7 coverage of financial markets in 1932? You mean that most Americans didn’t really know what a stock certificate was, much less own one?  To succeed politically, Roosevelt had to change the meaning of the labor market, not the capital market, and that’s exactly what he did with the creation of the TVA.

The TVA was only one effort in an alphabet soup of New Deal policies that FDR rammed through in his first Administration to change the popular conception of what the labor market meant to Americans. Other famous initiatives included the National Recovery administration (NRA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the common thread in all of these efforts was a VERY active Narrative management embedded in their process from the outset, with photographers and journalists hired by the White House to document the “success” of the programs. Everything I write in Epsilon Theory about today’s pervasive Narrative construction also took place in the 1930s, in amazingly similar venues and formats, down to the specific words used.

The Narrative effort worked. Not necessarily in the permanence of the institutions FDR established (the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935, and the CCC faded into obscurity with the outbreak of World War II), but in the complete reshaping of what the labor market meant to Americans and what government’s proper role within the labor market should be. Yes, there were important things lost in FDR’s political achievements (and plenty of grumpy old men to complain about that), but let’s not forget that he was re-elected THREE times on the back of these labor market policies. If that’s not winning, I don’t know what is. And if you don’t think that lesson from history hasn’t been absorbed by both Clinton™ and Bush™, you’re living in a different world than I am.

One last point on the TVA. It’s still around today as a very powerful and oddly beloved institution, and I think its lasting political success is due in large part to the fact that it – unlike the other alphabet soup institutions – was explicitly a utility. Who doesn’t like the stability of a utility in the midst of vast inequality? Who doesn’t like the odds being ever in their favor? The more that I see today’s policy impact on markets described in utility-like terms – words like “stability” and notions like “volatility is bad and a thing to be fixed” – the more confident I am that the TVA political experience of the 1930s is coming soon to the capital markets of today. Scratch that. It’s already here.

So, Ben, let’s assume you’re right and that current events are rhyming with the historical events of the last time the world wrestled with an overwhelming debt load. Let’s assume that a politically popular shift in the meaning of markets to cement its public utility function is taking shape and won’t reverse itself without a political shock of enormous proportions. What’s an investor or allocator to do, other than become a grumpy old man? Look, the hardest thing in the world is to recognize structural change when you’re embedded in the structure. If reading Epsilon Theory has given you a new set of lenses to see the relationship between State and Market, then you’ve already done the heavy lifting. From here, it’s a matter of applying that open-eyed perspective to your portfolio, not of buying this or selling that! Everyone will be different in their particular application, but I think everyone should have three basic goals:

  1. shake out the category errors in your investment assumptions, understanding that we humans are terrible judges of causality, particularly when something has worked recently;
  2. re-evaluate your capital market assumptions for a further transformation of those markets into state-run casinos and political utilities, understanding that whatever crystal ball you’ve used in the past is almost certainly broken today;
  3. adopt an investment process or find investment strategies that can adapt to the structural changes that are already underway in capital markets, understanding that the patterns of belief and meaning we think are “natural” today can change in the blink of a central banker’s eye.

Put simply, it’s time for some good new thinking on some good old ideas like diversification. It’s time to recognize the world as it is rather than lose ourselves in nostalgia for the world that was. Most of all, it’s time to call things by their proper names and stop demonizing words like “leverage” and “volatility”. These are tools, for god’s sake, neither good nor bad in and of themselves, and they’re tools we are all going to need to learn how to use if we want to be survivors in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. It’s time to get to work.

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Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-freud

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.
Sigmund Freud (1886 – 1939)

To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most useful in times of stress and darkness.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Left Hand of Darkness” (1969)

Is everything connected, so that events create resonances like ripples across a net? Or do things merely co-occur and we give meaning to these co-occurrences based on our belief system? Lieh-tzu’s answer: it’s all in how you think.
“The Liezi”, ancient Taoist text attributed to Lie Yukou (c. 400 BC)

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bladerunner

Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.
Tyrell: How many questions?
Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.
Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?

– “Bladerunner” (1982)

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself.
“Is that all there is to a fire?”
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, “Is That All There Is?”, as recorded by Peggy Lee (1969)

I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.
Edwin A. Abbott, “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions” (1884) 

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-wayans

Homey don’t play that game.

– Damon Wayans, “In Living Color” (1992)

There’s only one question that matters today in markets: why is the government bond market going up and down like a yo-yo? How is it possible that the deepest and most important securities in the world are currently displaying all the trading stability of a biotech stock?

As with all market questions of singular importance and vast attention, these are questions of meaning. We seek the why and we seek the cause because we are desperate to understand what it means. We are – all of us – convinced that this market behavior must mean something profound. Surely this insane quivering within the bond market means that we are on the cusp of a quantum shift in the market landscape. Surely this is the rumbling of a deep tectonic plate that presages a massive earthquake. Surely, as more than one Master of the Universe proclaimed at SALT the other week, the long-awaited bear market in government debt is nigh.

Maybe. Or maybe all those Masters of the Universe are just talking their book. I know … shocking.

We are all market neurotics today, in the Freudian sense of the word, incapable of handling ambiguity in Narrative after 5+ years of global coordination and cooperation among The Monetary Powers That Be, 5+ years of being told by a monolithic Voice of Command how we should think about every single data point that crosses our Bloomberg screen. This is the most hated bull market in history, precisely because we all believe that it is a creature of policy and Narrative, and when the Voices are silent or they say conflicting things, we start to freak out. We run from pillar to post, getting whipsawed at every turn. Importantly, the whipsawing is occurring in the securities that are most closely linked to policy and Narrative – government bonds – and that’s why I believe that what we’re experiencing is more akin to neurosis than some shift in market fundamentals.

Here’s my point: volatility ≠ instability. Or more precisely, a system can be volatile or unstable in a local sense but highly stable in a global sense.

Unfortunately, however, because we live in the local rather than the global … because every bit of our modern financial services system, particularly financial media, is by business necessity focused on the local rather than the global … we are as unaware of our true positioning in the world as Rachael in “Bladerunner”. Or Deckard, who sure seems like a replicant to me. From a local perspective these bond market gyrations make it seem as if we are totally unmoored and markets are on the brink of some life-altering change. From a global perspective, however, this is a tempest in a teacup.Or to paraphrase the late, great Peggy Lee, is that all there is to a bond market fire?

Okay, Ben, that’s quite a mouthful: “unstable in a local sense but highly stable in a global sense”. Translation, please?

The Rosetta Stone here is Information Theory, and to introduce that it’s probably easiest if I quote directly and extensively from one of my very earliest Epsilon Theory notes, “Through the Looking Glass”. I wrote this almost exactly 2 years ago, back when I only had a few hundred readers, so it should be fresh for 99% of the audience. It’s a lot to digest, but I promise that you won’t see markets in the same way once you finish. Information Theory is, in fact, the beating heart of Epsilon Theory. That said, one of the beautiful things about releasing content into the wild is that readers can do with it what they will. For the TLDR / Short Attention Span Theatre crowd, click here to skip to the chase on page 10.

***

Defining the strength of a signal as the degree to which it changes assessments of future states of the world dates back to Claude Shannon’s seminal work in 1948, and in a fundamental way back to the work of Thomas Bayes in the 1700’s.  Here’s the central insight of this work: information is measured by how much it changes your mind. In fact, if a signal doesn’t make you see the world differently, then it has zero information. As a corollary, the more confident you are in a certain view of the world, the more new information is required to make you have the opposite view of the world and the less information is required to confirm your initial view. There’s no inherent “truth” to any signal, no need to make a distinction between (or even think of) this signal as having true information and that signal as having false information. Information is neither true nor false. It is only more or less useful in our decision-making, and that’s a function of how much it makes us see the world differently. As a result, the informational strength of any signal is relative. The same signal may make a big difference in my assessment of the future but a tiny difference in yours. In that case, we are hearing the same message, but it has a lot of information to me and very little to you.

Let’s say that you are thinking about Apple stock but you are totally up in the air about whether the stock is going up or down over whatever your investment horizon might be, say 1 year. Your initial estimation of the future price of Apple stock is a coin toss … 50% likelihood to be higher a year from now, 50% likelihood to be lower a year from now. So you do nothing. But you start reading analyst reports about Apple or you build a cash-flow model … whatever it is that you typically do to gather information about a potential investment decision.

The graph below shows how Information Theory would represent the amount of signal information (generically represented as bits) required to change your initial assessment of a 50% likelihood of Apple stock going up over the next year to a post-signaling assessment of some new percentage likelihood. These are logarithmic curves, so even relatively small amounts of information (a small fraction of a generic bit) will change your mind about Apple pretty significantly, but more and more information is required to move your assessment closer and closer to certainty (either a 0% or a 100% perceived likelihood of the stock going up).

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-new-signal

Of course, your assessment of Apple is not a single event and does not take place at a single point in time. As an investor you are constantly updating your opinion about every potential investment decision, and you are constantly taking in new signals. Each new update becomes the starting point for the next, ad infinitum, and as a result all of your prior assessments become part of the current assessment and influence the informational impact of any new signal.

Let’s say that your initial signals regarding Apple were mildly positive, enough to give you a new view that the likelihood of Apple stock going up in the next year is 60%. The graph below shows how Information Theory represents the amount of information required to change your mind from here. The curves are still logarithmic, but because your starting point is different it now only requires 80% of the information as before to get you to 100% certainty that Apple stock will go up in the next year (0.8 generic bits versus 1.0 generic bits with a 50% starting estimation). Conversely, it requires almost 140% of the same negative information as before to move you to certainty that Apple stock is going down.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-new-signal-2

What these graphs are showing is the information surface of your non-strategic (i.e., without consideration of others) decision-making regarding Apple stock at any given point in time.  Your current assessment is the lowest point on the curve, the bottom of the informational “trough”, and the height of each trough “wall” is proportional to the information required to move you to a new assessment of the future probabilities. The higher the wall, the more information required in any given signal to get you to change your mind in a big way about Apple.

Now let’s marry Information Theory with Game Theory. What does an information surface look like for strategic decision-making, where your estimations of the future state of the world are contingent on the decisions you think others will make, and where everyone knows that everyone is being strategic?

I’m assuming we’re all familiar with the basic play of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and if you’re not just watch any episode of Law and Order. Two criminals are placed in separate rooms for questioning by the police, and while they are both better off if they both keep silent, each is individually much better off if he rats his partner out while the partner remains silent. Unfortunately, in this scenario the silent partner takes the fall all by himself, resulting in what is called the “sucker pay-off”. Because both players know that this pay-off structure exists (and are always told that it exists by the police), the logical behavior for each player is to rat out his buddy for fear of being the sucker.

Below on the left is a classic two-player Prisoner’s Dilemma game with cardinal expected utility pay-offs as per a customary 2×2 matrix representation. Both the Row player and the Column player have only two decision choices – Rat and Silence – with the joint pay-off structures shown as (Row , Column) and the equilibrium outcome (Rat , Rat) shaded in light blue.

The same equilibrium outcome is shown below on the right as an informational surface, where both the Row and the Column player face an expected utility hurdle of 5 units to move from a decision of Rat to a decision of Silence. For a move to occur, new information must change the current Rat pay-off and/or the potential Silence pay-off for either the Row or the Column player in order to eliminate or overcome the hurdle. The shape of the informational surface indicates the relative stability of the equilibrium as the depth of the equilibrium trough, or conversely the height of the informational walls that comprise the trough, is a direct representation of the informational content required to change the conditional pay-offs of the game and allow the ball (the initial decision point) to “roll” to a new equilibrium position. In this case we have a deep informational trough, reflecting the stability of the (Rat , Rat) equilibrium in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibrium

Now let’s imagine that new information is presented to the Row player such that it improves the expected utility pay-off of a future (Silence, Rat) position from -10 to -6. Maybe he hears that prison isn’t all that bad so long as he’s not a Rat. As a result the informational hurdle required by the Row player to change decisions from Rat to Silence is reduced from +5 to +1. 

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibrium-2

The (Rat , Rat) outcome is still an equilibrium outcome because neither player believes that there is a higher pay-off associated with changing his mind, but this is a much less stable equilibrium from the Row player’s perspective (and thus for the overall game) than the original equilibrium.

With this less stable equilibrium framework, even relatively weak new information that changes the Row player’s assessment of the current position utility may be enough to move the decision outcome to a new equilibrium. Below, new information of 2 units changes the perceived utility of the current Rat decision for the Row player from -5 to -7. Maybe he hears from his lawyer that the Mob intends to break his legs if he stays a Rat. This is the equivalent of “pushing” the decision outcome over the +1 informational hurdle on the Row player’s side of the (Rat , Rat) trough, and it is reflected in both representations as a new equilibrium outcome of (Silence , Rat).

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-equilibrium-3

This new (Silence , Rat) outcome is an equilibrium because neither the Row player nor the Column player perceives a higher expected utility outcome by changing decisions. It is still a weak equilibrium because the informational hurdle to return to (Rat , Rat) is only 1 informational unit, but all the same it generates a new behavior by the Row player: instead of ratting out his partner, he now keeps his mouth shut.

The Column player never changed decisions, but moving from a (Rat , Rat) equilibrium to a (Silence , Rat) equilibrium in this two time-period example resulted in an increase of utility from -5 to +10 (and for the Row Player a decrease from -5 to -6). This change in utility pay-offs over time can be mapped as:

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-prisoners-dilemma-row-player

Replace the words “Column Utility” with “AAPL stock price” and you’ll see what I’m going for. The Column player bought the police interrogation at -5 and sold it at +10. By mapping horizontal movement on a game’s informational surface to utility outcomes over time we can link game theoretic market behavior to market price level changes.

Below are two generic examples of a symmetric informational structure for the S&P 500 and a new positive signal hitting the market. New signals will “push” any decision outcome in the direction of the new information. But only if the new signal is sufficiently large (whatever that means in the context of a specific game) will the decision outcome move to a new equilibrium and result in stable behavioral change.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-change

In the first structure, there is enough informational strength to the signal to overcome the upside informational wall and push the market to a higher and stable price equilibrium. In the second structure, while the signal moves the market price higher briefly, there is not enough strength to the signal to change the minds of market participants to a degree that a new stable equilibrium behavior emerges.

All market behaviors – from “Risk-On/Risk-Off” to “climbing a wall of worry” to “buying the effin’ dip” to “going up on bad news” – can be described with this informational structure methodology. 

For example, here’s how “going up on bad news” works. First, the market receives a negative Event signal – a poor Manufacturing ISM report, for example – that is bad enough to move the market down but not so terrible as to change everyone’s mind about what everyone knows that everyone knows about the health of the US economy and thus move the market index to a new, lower equilibrium level.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-change-2

Following this negative event, however, the market then receives a set of public media signals – a Narrative – asserting that in response to this bad ISM number the Fed is more likely to launch additional easing measures. This Narrative signal is repeated widely enough and credibly enough that it changes Common Knowledge about future Fed policy and moves the market to a new, higher, and stable level.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-behavioral-change-3.jpg

So what is the current informational structure for the S&P500? Well, it looks something like this:

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-informational-structure

The market equilibrium today is like a marble sitting on a glass table. It is an extremely unstable equilibrium because the informational barriers that keep the marble from rolling a long way in either direction are as low as they have been in the past five years. Even a very weak signal is enough to push the marble a long way in one direction, only to have another weak signal push it right back. This is how you get big price movements “for no apparent reason”.

Why are the informational barriers to equilibrium shifts so low today? Because levels of Common Knowledge regarding future central bank policy decisions are so low today. The Narratives on both sides of the collective decision to buy or sell this market are extremely weak. What does everyone know that everyone knows about Abenomics? Very little. What does everyone know that everyone knows about Fed tapering? Very little. What does everyone know that everyone knows about the current state of global growth? Very little. I’m not saying that there’s a lack of communication on these subjects or that there’s a lack of opinion about these subjects or that there’s a lack of knowledge about these subjects. I’m saying that there’s a lack of Common Knowledge on these subjects, and that’s what determines the informational structure of a market.

***

I wrote all that right before the Fed’s Taper Tantrum in the summer of 2013, which can be understood using this Information Theory framework as a massive public relations effort by Bernanke et al to create a new Common Knowledge structure that would shape the informational contours of the market. The immediate signal of this initial effort at “communication policy” was a big red arrow pointing left, and almost all asset classes everywhere around the world took a dive as the strong signal sent the equilibrium marble skittering to the downside across the largely flat informational surface. But the longer term effect of communication policy was just as Bernanke hoped (and as he spoke about extensively in his farewell address as Fed Chair): it built an enormous Common Knowledge “wall” off to the downside left of the market informational surface – a Fed put based not on continued asset purchases, but on continued words of Narrative influence

Those words form the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, the overwhelming belief by market participants that central bankers in general, and the Fed in particular, determine market outcomes, and for the past two years this has been the only thing that matters in markets. I’ve been tracking and studying political Narratives for my entire professional career, close to 30 years now, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a heck of a trick that Bernanke started and Draghi perfected and Yellen continues, and it’s the key, I think, to seeing recent bond market turbulence in the most useful perspective.

Everything I wrote about the informational surface of the equity market in early summer 2013 is exactly applicable to the informational surface of the bond market in early summer 2015. The bond market today is like a marble sitting on a glass table. There are very few informational structures or barriers to keep the price of US bonds from skittering this way or that, within a price range as expressed in yield terms of, say, 2.25% and 1.85% on the 10-year bond. This is what always happens when the Fed comes out and says that it’s increasingly “data dependent” …our local equilibria become much less stable when the Fed says that it hasn’t made up its collective mind about the pace or scale of monetary policy shifts.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond

With an informational structure like this, the 10-year bond could trade anywhere on this segment of the price line. Moreover, it takes a signal with precious little information to change people’s minds about whether the US 10-year should yield 1.90% today or 2.20% tomorrow. Precious little information means just that – precious little information – and it’s a classic mistake to infer grand theories or reach sweeping conclusions on the basis of precious little information. Don’t do that.

Because here’s the thing: the informational surface is only flat in this immediate vicinity of current bond prices. There are enormous Common Knowledge walls just off to the left and just off to the right of the price line segment shown above, Common Knowledge structures created by the entirely successful efforts by central bankers to mold investor behaviors and by the entirely unsuccessful efforts by central bankers to fix the real economy.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond-3

I really can’t emphasize this point too strongly – monetary policy since March 2009 has created a phenomenally stable global equilibrium in both markets and the real economy, an equilibrium that since the summer of 2013 no longer depends on massive asset purchases by the Fed. 

Does the stability of the global equilibrium require someone to be making asset purchases, if not the Fed then the ECB or BOJ? To some degree I’m sure it does. But then I remember that Draghi’s mere words and an OMT program constructed out of whole cloth were sufficient to save the Euro in the summer of 2012. My strong sense is that the launching of central bank asset purchase programs may move the entire informational structure farther along to the right of the price line (higher prices, lower yields), and vice versa leftwards along the price line if the programs stop, but they don’t diminish the Common Knowledge structures themselves. Maybe the locally unstable price range of the US 10-year as expressed in yield terms goes to 2.75% – 2.35% if the ECB were to summarily stop its asset purchase program, but I still think you have an extremely stable global informational structure on either side of that new range, whatever it is. Among market participants today there is almost unanimity of belief that central bankers Will. Not. Allow. a global recession to occur, much less a deflationary equilibrium. But at the same time there is also almost unanimity of belief that central bankers Can. Not. Create. a global recovery, much less an inflationary equilibrium. That unanimity of belief establishes a global informational equilibrium of unparalleled strength and stability, or at least unparalleled in my experience.

And that leads me to my other main point: a highly stable equilibrium cuts both ways, for good and for bad. Another way of saying that you’re in a highly stable equilibrium is to say that you’re well and truly stuck. Yes, there are HUGE informational barriers to prevent economic behaviors that would create a recession in the US or horribly crush any major market or asset class. But by the same token, there are also HUGE informational barriers to prevent economic behaviors that would spark robust growth in the US or wildly elevate any major market or asset class. I’m not saying that the doomsday or heavenly scenarios are impossible. I’m saying that it would take an almost unimaginably large amount of new information to change people’s minds about what everyone knows that everyone knows about markets today, for either scenario to occur. Could happen. But I really don’t think that’s how you want to place your bets. My money is on the long grey slog of the Entropic Ending.

I know it sounds weird for me to say that we’re living in a deep, deep valley with giant mountains on both sides of us when it feels like we’re a marble sitting on a glass table, but that’s exactly the mixed metaphor that I think accurately describes our lives as investors here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.  I know it sounds weird to think that we could be living in that deep, deep valley and yet be completely oblivious to its existence, completely convinced that the narrow field of view foisted on us day in and day out by the business imperatives of the financial services industry, especially financial media, is the only possible field of view. But myopically focused on what we are told to focus on is exactly how we humans (and replicants, too, I suppose) tend to live out our lives. Shifting our perspective to take a more global view, whether that’s on the dimension of time or emotion or, yes, asset price levels, is probably the most difficult thing any of us can hope to achieve, and it will always be an imperfect shift at best. Yet it’s never been more important to make that effort, else we allow our innate search for meaning to be subverted by mass-mediated, faux-authentic signalers that profit from making us look over here rather than over there. And I’m not just talking about market signals. It’s EVERY expression of power in the modern age – financial, political, legal, medical, etc. – that suffers from this mass-mediated form of social control, this manipulation of the Common Knowledge game. The human animal is a social animal. We are biologically evolved over millions of years to infer meaning from social signals. We swim in a sea of socially constructed signals, and we can no more ignore the words of Yellen or CNBC or a Master of the Universe than an ant can ignore the pheromones of her queen. We can’t ignore the words. But we can recognize them for what they are. We can ask ourselves “Is that all there is?” and take a more global view.

Sometimes there’s significance in signs and portents. Sometimes there’s real meaning to be gleaned from careful study of localized phenomena, from the interpretation of immediate events to generate far-reaching conclusions. Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and that’s how I’m thinking about recent gyrations in the bond market.

One final point, perhaps the most important one I’ve got, and it’s addressed to everyone who asks questions like “so, Ben, when do you think the Fed is going to raise rates?” or “so, Ben, where do you think the price of oil goes from here?” The answer: I don’t know and I don’t really care. Seriously. These are unanswerable, entirely over-determined-in-retrospect questions, and the worst possible thing you can do with an unanswerable, entirely over-determined-in-retrospect question is to try to answer it in deterministic fashion! The popular fetish with demanding an Answer with a capital A to this sort of question is a crystallization of the market neurosis that afflicts us in the Golden Age of the Central Banker, and it’s the quickest path I know to poor investing. 

What I DO care about is Adaptive Investing. What I DO care about is understanding the informational structures of the market that determine the likely market price reaction to some new signal, whether that’s a Yellen speech, an earnings report, or technical trading data. Trying to predict what that signal is going to be or when that signal is going to come is a losing proposition. Sorry, but I don’t play that game. And neither should you. My god, we need more pundit predictions about the Fed or oil prices like we need an asteroid to crash into the Earth. What we need is an investment and allocation STRATEGYfor whatever comes down the pike, whenever it occurs. That’s exactly what an Information Theory perspective on markets can provide. Take another look at this informational surface.

epsilon-theory-sometimes-a-cigar-is-just-a-cigar-may-22-2015-bond-2

This graph says nothing about when and what the Fed will do. It says everything about how to THINK about the bond market in a dynamic, non-myopic way, about how to prepare for probabilistic waves of new signals and how to react once they hit. There’s an entire investment and asset allocation strategy embedded in this graph, and I think it’s the most useful contribution I can make with Epsilon Theory, far more than adding one more voice to the cacophony of Fed “predictions” that drive our collective market neurosis. We are slowly being driven nuts by the paradoxes and ambiguities of the Golden Age of the Central Banker, a maddening time in the truest sense of the word, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s coping mechanisms or business models for dealing with this clinically insane market environment. I submit, however, that our mental health and financial health are best served by taking a strategic view of markets, a view that engages with the game without succumbing blindly to it. That and a regular dose of Epsilon Theory.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

The more I practice, the luckier I get.epsilon-theory-the-talented-mr-ripley-april-27-2015-gary-player
– Gary Player (b. 1935)

Luck is the residue of design.
– Branch Rickey (1881 – 1965)

epsilon-theory-the-talented-mr-ripley-april-27-2015-ted-williamsI’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit.
– Ted Williams (1918 – 2002)

They say that nobody is perfect. Then they say that practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.
– Wilt Chamberlain (1936 – 1999)

They say that nobody is perfect. Then they say that practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.
– Wilt Chamberlain (1936 – 1999)

It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.
– Hank Aaron (b. 1934)

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.
– Stephen King (b. 1947)

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that – the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.
– William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)

Talent is its own expectation, Jim: you either live up to it or it waves a hankie, receding forever.
– David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest” (1996)

What is most vile and despicable about money is that it even confers talent. And it will do so until the end of the world.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881)

Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.
– Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
– Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891)

epsilon-theory-the-talented-mr-ripley-april-27-2015-murder-she-wrote

Sheriff Metzger: Mrs. Fletcher! Can I see you for a minute? [pause] Do me a favor, please, and tell me what goes on in this town!
Jessica Fletcher: I’m sorry, but …
Sheriff Metzger: I’ve been here one year, and this is my fifth murder. What is this, the death capital of Maine? On a per capita basis this place makes the South Bronx look like Sunny Brook farms!
Jessica Fletcher: But I assure you, Sheriff …
Sheriff Metzger: I mean, is that why Tupper quit? He couldn’t take it anymore? Somebody really should’ve warned me, Mrs. Fletcher. Now, perfect strangers coming to Cabot Cove to die? I mean look at this guy! You don’t know him, I don’t know him. He has no ID, we don’t know the first thing about this guy.

– “Murder, She Wrote: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Part 1” (1989)

epsilon-theory-the-talented-mr-ripley-april-27-2015-manchurian-candidate

Dr. Yen Lo: His brain has not only been washed, as they say … It has been dry cleaned.
– “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

Dickie Greenleaf: Everyone should have one talent. What’s yours?
Tom Ripley: Forging signatures, telling lies … impersonating practically anybody.
Dickie Greenleaf: That’s three. Nobody should have more than one talent.

– “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

My singular talent is seeing patterns that others don’t. That’s not a boast, but a fact, and frankly it’s been as much a source of alienation in my life as a source of success. As my father was fond of saying, “You know, Ben, if you’re two steps ahead it’s like you’re one step behind.” I can’t explain how I see the patterns – they just emerge from the fog if I stare long enough. It’s always been that way for me, for as far back as I have memories, and whether I’m 5 years old or 50 years old I’m always left with the same realization: I only see the pattern when I start asking the right question, when I allow myself to be, as Faulkner said, “ruthlessly intolerant” of anything that proves false under patient and curious observation.

For example, I think the wrong question for anyone watching “Murder, She Wrote” is: whodunit? The right question is: how does Jessica Fletcher get away with murder this time? Once you recognize that it’s a Bayesian certainty that the woman is a serial killer, that she controls the narrative of Cabot Cove (both figuratively as a crime novelist and literally as a crime investigator) and thus the behavior of everyone around her, you will discover a new appreciation for both the subliminal drivers of the show’s popularity as well as the acting genius of Angela Lansbury. Seriously, go back and watch the original “Manchurian Candidate” and focus on Lansbury. She’s a revelation.

Or take the Masters tournament earlier this month. I was lucky enough to attend Wednesday’s practice round, and I was sitting in a shady spot on the 10th green watching the players come by and try their luck at 15 foot putts. At first, like the other spectators, my question was: how are they such good putters? This was “the obvious fact,” to quote Sherlock Holmes, and I watched for any clues that I could adopt for my laughable game – a forward tilt of the wrist, a stance adjustment … anything, really. We all watched carefully and we all dutifully oohed and aahed when the ball occasionally dropped in the cup. But suddenly, a new pattern emerged from the fog, and I realized that we were all asking the wrong question. Instead, I started to ask myself, why are they such poor putters? 

Now I realize that I just alienated at least half of the reading audience, but bear with me. I’m not saying that professional golfers are poor putters compared to you or me. Of course not. They are miracle workers compared to you or me. But it’s a stationary ball with a green topography that never changes. The speed of the greens is measured multiple times a day to the nth degree. These players have practiced putting for thousands of hours. They have superior eyesight, amazing muscular self-awareness, and precision equipment. And yet … after charting about 50 putts in the 12 – 15 foot range, the pattern of failure was unmistakable. These professional golfers were aiming at a Point A, but they would have sunk exactly as many putts if the cup had actually been located 6 inches to the right. Or 6 inches to the left. Or 12 inches back. Or 12 inches forward. The fact that a putt actually went in the hole from a distance of 12 – 15 feet was essentially a random event within a 15 x 30 inch oval, with distressingly fat probabilistic tails outside that oval. This from the finest golf players in the world. I saw Ben Crenshaw, a historically great putter who was playing in something like his 44th Masters and probably knows the 10th green better than any other living person, miss a long putt by 6 feet.

But here’s the thing. When a player took a second putt from the same location, or even close to the same location, his accuracy increased by well more than an order of magnitude. Suddenly the ball had eyes. So I went to the practice green, where I saw Jordan Spieth putt ball after ball from exactly the same location about 10 feet from the hole. He made 50 in a row before I got tired of watching. Now granted, Spieth is a wizard with the putter, a lot like Tiger was at the same age. See it; make it. But then I watched one of the no-name amateurs for a while, a guy who had no chance of making the cut, and it was exactly the same thing – putt after putt after putt rolled in from the same spot at a considerable distance.

The best golfers in the world are surprisingly poor aimers. Surprising to me, anyway. They are pretty miserable predictors of where a de novo putt is going to end up, even though we all believe that they are wonderful at this activity. But they are phenomenally successful and adaptive learners, even though we rarely focus on this activity. 

I think the same pattern exists in other areas of the sports world. Take basketball free throws. I’d be willing to make a substantial bet that whatever a professional’s overall free throw shooting percentage might be – whether it’s DeAndre Jordan at 50% or Steph Curry at 90% – their shooting percentage on the second of two free throws is better at a statistically significant level than their shooting percentage on the first of two free throws. I have no idea where to access this data, but with the ubiquitous measurement of every sports function and sub-function I’m certain it must exist. Someone give Nate Silver or Zach Lowe a call!

I think the same pattern exists in the investing world, too. We are remarkably poor aimers and predictors of market outcomes, even though we collectively spend astronomical sums of money and time engaged in this activity, and even though we collectively ooh and aah over the professional who occasionally sinks one of these long putts. True story … in 2008 the long/short equity hedge fund that I co-managed was up nicely, and we were deluged by investors and allocators asking the wrong question: how did you have such a great year? At no point did anyone ask the right question: given your fundamental views and avowed process, why weren’t you up twice as much? Most investors, just like the spectators at Augusta, are asking the wrong questions … questions that conflate performance with talent, and questions that underestimate the role of process and learning in translating talent into performance. 

I’m not saying that idiosyncratic talent doesn’t exist or that it isn’t connected to performance or that it can’t be identified. What I’m saying is that it’s as rare as Jordan Spieth. What I’m saying is that the talents that are most actionable in the investment world are not found in the predictions and the aiming of a single person. They are found within the learned and practiced behaviors that exist across a broad group of investment professionals. Jordan Spieth is a very talented putter and he works very hard at his craft. But there is no individual golf pro, not even Jordan Spieth, who I would trust with my life’s savings to make a single 15 foot putt. On the other hand, I would absolutely put my life’s savings on the line if I could invest in the process by which all golf pros practice their putting. I am far more interested in identifying the learned behaviors of a mass of investment professionals than I am in identifying a specific investment professional who might or might not be able to sink his next long putt.

What’s the biggest learned behavior of professionals in the investing world right now? Simple: QE works. Not for the real economy– I don’t know any professional investor who believes that the trillions of dollars in Fed balance sheet expansion has done very much at all for the real economy – but for the inflation of financial asset prices. This is what I’ve called the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, the overwhelmingly powerful common knowledge that central bank policy determines market outcomes. The primary manifestation of this learned behavior today is to go long Europe financial assets … stocks, bonds, whatever. QE worked for US markets – that’s the lesson – and everyone who learned that lesson is applying it now in Europe. China, too. Here’s a great summary of this common knowledge position from a market Missionary, Deutsche Bank’s Chief International Economist Torsten Slok:

epsilon-theory-the-talented-mr-ripley-april-27-2015-market-pricing

In my view, every asset allocation team in the world should have this chart hanging on their wall. Based on forward OIS curves the market expects the Fed to hike in March 2016 and the ECB to hike in December 2019. A year ago, the expectation was that the Fed and the ECB would both hike in November 2016. This discrepancy has significant relative value implications for FX, equities and rates. EURUSD should continue to go down and European equities will look attractive for many more years. Another consequence of this chart is that with ECB rates at zero for another five years, many European housing markets should continue to do well. The investment implication is clear: Expect that the benefits we have seen of QE in the US over the past 3 to 5 years will be playing out in Europe over the coming 3 to 5 years. – Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank Chief International Economist, April 9, 2015

Just as a recap on how to play the Common Knowledge Game effectively, the goal here is to read Torsten’s note for its description and creation of common knowledge (information that everyone thinks that everyone has heard), not to evaluate it for Truth with a capital T. That’s the mistake many investors make when they read something like this … they start thinking about whether or not they personally agree with the Fed hike expectations embodied in forward OIS curves, or whether or not they personally agree with Torsten’s macroeconomic predictions on things like the European housing market, or whether or not they personally agree with the social value of the Fed or ECB policies that are impacting markets. In the Common Knowledge Game, fundamentals – whether they are of the stock-picking sort or the macroeconomic sort – don’t matter a whit, and your personal view of those fundamentals matters even less. The only thing that matters is whether or not the QE-works lesson has been absorbed by the learning process of investment professionals, and that’s driven by the lesson’s transformation into common knowledge by Missionaries like Torsten. From that perspective I don’t think there’s any doubt that what Torsten is saying is true, not with a capital T but with a little t, and that the long-Europe-because-of-ECB-QE trade has got a lot of behavioral life left to it.

One last point … I know that I’m a broken record in the fervency and persistence of my belief that Big Data is going to rock the foundations of the investment world, but this topic of talent, learning, and asking the right question is just too on-point for me to let it slide. I started this note with the alienating observation that I don’t believe that professional golfers are particularly good putters, certainly not in their ability to size up and sink a de novo putt from 15 feet or more. On the other hand, I am pretty certain that with a few months and a few million dollars, it’s possible to build a mobile robotic system with the appropriate sensors and mechanical tolerances that would sink pretty much every de novo putt it took from a distance of 15 feet. Or a robotic system that would hit 99% of its free throws. Machines are far more accurate aimers and more precise estimators of the environment than humans, and that’s a useful observation whether we’re talking about sports or investing.

But that’s not my point about Big Data. My point about Big Data is that such systems are ALSO better than humans at learning. They are ALSO better than humans at pattern recognition. I can remember when this wasn’t the case. As recently as 20 years ago you could read artificial intelligence textbooks that praised the computer’s ability to process information quickly with various backhanded compliments … yes, isn’t it amazing how wonderfully a computer can sort through a list, but of course only a human brain can perform tasks like facial recognition … yes, isn’t it amazing how many facts a computer can store in its memory chips, but of course only a human brain can truly learn those facts by placing them within the proper context. We have entire social systems – like sports and markets – that are designed to reward humans who are superior learners and pattern recognizers. Why in the world would we believe that clever and observant humans will continue to maintain their primacy in these fields when challenged by non-human intelligences that are, quite literally, god-like in their analytical talents and ruthless intolerance of what is false? At least in sports it’s illegal to have non-human participants … honestly, I can see a day where investing is reduced to sport, where we maintain human-only markets as part of a competitive entertainment system rather than as a fundamental economic endeavor. In some respects I think we’re already there.

I’ll close with a teaser. There’s still a path for humans to maintain an important role, even if it’s not a uniformly dominant role, within markets that we share with non-human intelligences. Humans are more likely than non-human intelligences to ask the right question within social systems, like markets, that are dominated by strategic interactions (i.e., games). That’s not because non-human intelligences are somehow thinking in an inferior fashion or aren’t asking questions at all. No, it’s because Big Data systems are giant Induction Machines, designed to ask ALL of the questions. The distinction between asking the right question and asking all of the questions is always interesting and occasionally vital, depending on the circumstances. More on this to come in future notes, and hopefully in a future investment strategy …

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It’s Still Not About the Nail

Reader reaction to the March 31 Epsilon Theory note, “It’s Not About the Nail”, was probably the strongest and most positive for any note to date. The message in a nutshell: financial advisors of all stripes and sizes would be well-served to do more than serve up old-school diversification platitudes in this Brave New World of a bull market that everyone hates, and the behavioral insights of regret minimization are an effective framework for making that adaptation.

This is a message that bears repeating, and thanks to Institutional Investor that’s what’s happening. A condensed version of “It’s Not About the Nail” can be found on the Institutional Investor website here, that piece will appear in the print magazine later this month in their “Unconventional Wisdom” column, and I’ve appended it below.

I think the reason this message strikes a chord is that it not only puts into words what a lot of people are feeling in an inchoate fashion, but also suggests a toolkit for improving the strained dialog between advisors and investors. It’s possible to take our tried and tested (but tired) notions of portfolio construction and energize them with the tools of game theory and behavioral economics, so that we get to the meaning of words like “diversification” and “de-risking”.

In the note I presented one way of thinking about all this in simple graphical terms, by taking the historical risk and reward of a portfolio or a subset of a portfolio and just seeing what the impact of a diversifying strategy would actually have been as seen in risk/reward space.

epsilon-theory-its-still-not-about-the-nail-april-14-2015-historical-risk-reward

The goal here is to move the original portfolio (the gold ball) up and to the left into the green triangle that marries both the traditional meaning of diversification (maximization of reward per unit of risk) and the behavioral meaning of de-risking in a bull market (minimization of the risk of underperformance). There ARE strategies that accomplish this goal, but the trick is finding the strategies that do this for the actual portfolio you have today, not some hypothetical portfolio or index.

We’ve built a set of tools at Salient within our systematic strategies group to analyze the historical impact of a wide range of diversifying strategies from a wide range of asset managers on actual portfolios, and then to map the impact of various diversifying strategies in risk/reward space. It’s not rocket science, and I’m sure any number of Epsilon Theory readers could develop a similar toolkit, but we’ve found it to be a very useful process for not only evaluating, but also communicating how diversifying strategies can make an existing portfolio better for an investor’s needs. Sometimes Salient strategies show up well in this analysis; sometimes they don’t. If you’re familiar with the Progressive Car Insurance commercials with Flo, you get the idea.

If you’re an investment professional and/or financial advisor with a portfolio you’d like to have analyzed in this manner, reply to this email or drop me a note at bhunt@salientpartners.com , and I’d be delighted to set it up for you.

As with all things Epsilon Theory-related, there’s no fee or obligation associated with this analysis. Thanks again to my partners and colleagues here at Salient for their commitment to releasing useful intellectual property into the wild. I think it’s a smart, non-myopic view of what it means to be an asset manager in the modern age, but a rare bird nonetheless.

All the best,
Ben


There’s a massive disconnect between advisors and investors today, and it’s reflected in both declining investment activity as well as a general fatigue with the consultant-client conversation. Consultants continue to preach the faith of diversification, and their clients continue to genuflect in its general direction. But diversification as it’s currently preached is perhaps the most oversold concept in financial advisor-dom, and the sermon isn’t connecting. Fortunately, behavioral economics offers a fresh perspective on portfolio construction, one that lends itself to what we call Adaptive Investing.

Investors aren’t asking for diversification, which isn’t that surprising after six years of a bull market. Investors only ask for diversification after the fire, as a door-closing exercise when the horse has already left the burning barn. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking, similar in some respects to diversification but different in crucial ways. What’s also surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking rather than re-risking, which is what you’d typically expect at this stage of such a powerful bull market.

Why is this the most mistrusted bull market in recorded history? Because no one thinks it’s real. Everyone believes that it’s a by-product of outrageously extraordinary monetary policy actions rather than the by-product of fundamental economic growth and productivity — and what the Fed giveth, the Fed can taketh away.

This is a big problem for the Federal Reserve, as its efforts to force greater risk-taking in markets through large-scale asset purchases and quantitative easing have failed to take hold in investor hearts and minds. Yes, we’re fully invested, but just because we have to be. To paraphrase the old saying about beauty, risk-taking is only skin deep for today’s investor, but risk-aversion goes clear to the bone.

It’s also the root of our current adviser-investor malaise. How so? Because de-risking a bull market is a very different animal than de-risking a bear market. As seen through the lens of behavioral economics, de-risking is based on regret minimization (not risk–reward maximization like diversification), and the simple fact is that regret minimization is driven by peer comparisons in a bull market. In a bear market your primary regret — the thing you must avoid at all costs — is ruin, and that provokes a very direct physical reaction. You can’t sleep. And that’s why de-risking Rule No. 1 in a bear market is so simple: Sell until you can sleep at night. Go to cash.

In a bull market, your primary regret is looking or feeling stupid, and that provokes a very conflicted, very psychological reaction. You want to de-risk because you don’t understand this market, and you’re scared of what will happen when the policy ground shifts. But you’re equally scared of being tagged “a panicker” and missing “the greatest bull market of this or any other generation.” And so you do nothing. You avoid making a decision, which means you also avoid the consultant-client conversation. Ultimately everyone — advisor and investor alike — looks to blame someone else for their own feelings of unease. No one’s happy, even as the good times roll.

So what’s to be done? Is it possible to both de-risk a portfolio and satisfy the regret minimization calculus of a bull market?

In fact, our old friend diversification is the answer, but not in its traditional presentation as a cure-all bromide. Diversification can certainly de-risk a portfolio by turning down the volatility, and it’s well suited for a bull market because it can reduce volatility without reducing market exposure. The problem is that diversification can take a long time to prove itself, and that’s rarely acceptable to investors who are seeking the immediate portfolio impact of de-risking, whether it’s the bear market or bull market variety.

What we need are diversification strategies that can react quickly. That brings me back to adaptive investing, which has two relevant points for de-risking in a bull market.

First, your portfolio should include allocations to strategies that can go short. If you’re de-risking a bull market, you need to make money when you’re right, not just lose less money. Losing less money pays off over the long haul, but the path can be bumpy.

Second, your portfolio should include allocations to trend-following strategies, which keep you in assets that are working and get you out of those that aren’t. The market is always right, and that’s never been more true — or more difficult to remember — than now in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

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It’s Not About the Nail

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-yoda

Do, or do not. There is no try.”

– Yoda, “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.
Soren Kierkegaard, “Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” (1843)

The only victories which leave no regret are those which are gained over ignorance.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
Arthur Miller, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan” (1991)

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)

One can’t reason away regret – it’s a bit like falling in love, fall into regret.
Graham Greene, “The Human Factor” (1978)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-cash.jpg

I bet there’s rich folks eatin’

In a fancy dining car.

They’re probably drinkin’ coffee

And smokin’ big cigars.

Well I know I had it comin’.

I know I can’t be free.

But those people keep-a-movin’

And that’s what tortures me.

– Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-paul-anka

Regrets…I’ve had a few.

But then again, too few to mention.

– Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra “My Way” (1969)

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Omar Khayyam, “Rubaiyat” (1048 – 1141)

You can tell it any way you want but that’s the way it is. I should of done it and I didn’t. And some part of me has never quit wishin’ I could go back. And I can’t. I didn’t know you could steal your own life. And I didn’t know that it would bring you no more benefit than about anything else you might steal. I think I done the best with it I knew how but it still wasn’t mine. It never has been.”
Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men” (2005)

Jesse: Yeah, right, well, great. So listen, so here’s the deal. This is what we should do. You should get off the train with me here in Vienna, and come check out the capital.
Celine: What?
Jesse: Come on. It’ll be fun. Come on.
Celine: What would we do?
Jesse: Umm, I don’t know. All I know is I have to catch an Austrian Airlines flight tomorrow morning at 9:30 and I don’t really have enough money for a hotel, so I was just going to walk around, and it would be a lot more fun if you came with me. And if I turn out to be some kind of psycho, you know, you just get on the next train.

Alright, alright. Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you’re married. Only your marriage doesn’t have that same energy that it used to have, y’know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you’ve met in your life and what might have happened if you’d picked up with one of them, right? Well, I’m one of those guys. That’s me, y’know, so think of this as time travel, from then, to now, to find out what you’re missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband to find out that you’re not missing out on anything. I’m just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you’re really happy.

Celine: Let me get my bag.

Richard Linklater, “Before Sunrise” (1995)

For it falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
While it was ours.
William Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing” (1612)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30” (1609)

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-nirvana

No, I don’t have a gun.

– Nirvana, “Come As You Are” (1992)

I spend a lot of my time speaking with investors and financial advisors of all stripes and sizes, and here’s what I’m hearing, loud and clear. There’s a massive disconnect between advisors and investors today, and it’s reflected in both declining investment activity as well as a general fatigue with the advisor-investor conversation. I mean “advisor-investor conversation” in the broadest possible context, a context that should be recognizable to everyone reading this note. It’s the conversation of a financial advisor with an individual investor client. It’s the conversation of a consultant with an institutional investor client. It’s the conversation of a CIO with a Board of Directors. It’s the conversation of many of us with ourselves. The wariness and weariness associated with this conversation runs in both directions, by the way.

Advisors continue to preach the faith of diversification, and investors continue to genuflect in its general direction. But the sermon isn’t connecting. Investors continue to express their nervousness with the market and dissatisfaction with their portfolio performance, and advisors continue to nod their heads and say they understand. It reminds me of Jason Headley’s brilliant short film, “It’s Not About the Nail”, with the advisor reprising Headley’s role. Yes, the advisor is listening. But most find it impossible to get past what they believe is the obvious answer to the obvious problem. Got a headache? Take the nail out of your head. Nervous about the market? Diversify your portfolio. But there are headaches and then there are headaches. There is nervousness and then there is nervousness. It’s not about the nail, and the sooner advisors realize this, the sooner they will find a way to reconnect with their clients. Even if it’s just a conversation with yourself.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-nail

Investors aren’t asking for diversification, which isn’t that surprising after 6 years of a bull market. Investors never ask for diversification after 6 years of a bull market. They only ask for it after the Fall, as a door-closing exercise when the horse has already left the burning barn. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking, similar in some respects to diversification but different in crucial ways. What’s surprising is that investors are asking for de-risking rather than re-risking, which is what you’d typically expect at this stage of such a powerful bull market.

Investors are asking for de-risking because this is the most mistrusted bull market in recorded history, a market that seemingly everyone wants to fade rather than press. Why? Because no one thinks this market is real. Everyone believes that it’s a by-product of outrageously extraordinary monetary policy actions rather than the by-product of fundamental economic growth and productivity, and what the Fed giveth … the Fed can taketh away.

This is a big problem for the Fed, as their efforts to force greater risk-taking in markets through LSAP and QE (and thus more productive risk-taking, or at least inflation, in the real economy) have failed to take hold in investor hearts and minds. Yes, we’re fully invested, but only because we have to be. To paraphrase the old saying about beauty, risk-taking is only skin deep for today’s investor, but risk-aversion goes clear to the bone.

It’s also the root of our current advisor-investor malaise. De-risking a bull market is a very different animal than de-risking a bear market. And neither is the same as diversification.

Let’s take that second point first.

Here’s a simple representation of what diversification looks like, from a risk/reward perspective.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-rewardFor illustrative purposes only.

The gold ball is whatever your portfolio looks like today from a historical risk/reward perspective, and the goal of diversification is to move your portfolio up and to the left of the risk/reward trade-off line that runs diagonally through the current portfolio position. Diversification is all about increasing the risk/reward balance, about getting more reward per unit of risk in your portfolio, and the goodness or poorness of your diversification effort is defined by how far you move your portfolio away from that diagonal line. In fact, as the graph below shows, each of the Good Diversification outcomes are equally good from a risk/reward balance perspective because they are equally distant from the original risk/reward balance line, and vice versa for the Poor Diversification outcomes.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-2

For illustrative purposes only.

Diversification does NOT mean getting more reward out of your portfolio per se, which means that some Poor Diversification changes to your portfolio will outperform some Good Diversification changes to your portfolio over time (albeit with a much bumpier ride).

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-3

For illustrative purposes only.

It’s an absolute myth to say that any well-diversified portfolio will outperform all poorly diversified portfolios over time. But it’s an absolute truth to say that any well-diversified portfolio will outperform all poorly diversified portfolios over time on a risk-adjusted basis. If an investor is thinking predominantly in terms of risk and reward, then greater diversification is the slam-dunk portfolio recommendation. This is the central insight of Harry Markowitz and his modern portfolio theory contemporaries, and I’m sure I don’t need to belabor that for anyone reading this note.

The problem is that investors are not only risk/reward maximizers, they are also regret minimizers (see Epsilon Theory notes “Why Take a Chance” and “The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld” for more, or read anything by Daniel Kahneman). The meaning of “risk” must be understood as not only as the other side of the reward coin, but also as the co-pilot of behavioral regret. That’s a mixed metaphor, and it’s intentional. The human animal holds two very different meanings for risk in its brain simultaneously. One notion of risk, as part and parcel of expected investment returns and the path those returns are likely to take, is captured well by the concept of volatility and the toolkit of modern economic theory. The other, as part and parcel of the psychological utility associated with both realized and foregone investment returns, is captured well by the concepts of evolutionary biology and the toolkit of modern game theory.

The problem is that diversification can only be understood as an exercise in risk/reward maximization, has next to nothing to say about regret minimization, and thus fails to connect with investors who are consumed by concerns of regret minimization. This fundamental miscommunication is almost always present in any advisor-investor conversation, but it is particularly pernicious during periods of global debt deleveraging as we saw in the 1870’s, the 1930’s, and today. Why? Because the political consequences of that deleveraging create investment uncertainty in the technical, game theoretic sense, an uncertainty which is reflected in reduced investor confidence in the efficacy of fundamental market and macroeconomic factors to drive market outcomes. In other words, the rules of the investment game change when politicians attempt to maintain the status quo – i.e., their power – when caught in the hurricane of a global debt crisis. That’s what happened in the 1870’s. That’s what happened in the 1930’s. And it’s darn sure happening today. We all feel it. We all feel like we’ve entered some Brave New World where the old market moorings make little sense, and that’s what’s driving the acute anxiety expressed today by investors both large and small. Recommending old-school diversification techniques as a cure-all for this psychological pain isn’t necessarily wrong. It probably won’t do any harm. But it’s not doing anyone much good, either. It’s not about the nail.

On the other hand, the concept of de-risking has a lot of meaning within the context of regret minimization, which makes it a good framework for exploring a more psychologically satisfactory set of portfolio allocation recommendations. But to develop that framework, we need to ask what drives investment regret. And just as we talk about different notions of volatility-based portfolio constructions under different market regimes, so do we need to talk about different notions of regret-based portfolio constructions under different market regimes.

Okay, that last paragraph was a bit of a mouthful. Let me skip the academic-ese and get straight to the point. In a bear market, regret minimization is driven by existential concerns. In a bull market, regret minimization is driven by peer comparisons.

In a bear market your primary regret – the thing you must avoid at all costs – is ruin, and that provokes a very direct, very physical reaction. You can’t sleep. And that’s why Rule #1 of de-risking in a bear market is so simple: sell until you can sleep at night. Go to cash. Here’s what de-risking in a bear market looks like, as drawn in risk/reward space.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-4

For illustrative purposes only.

Again, the gold ball is whatever your portfolio looks like today from a historical risk/reward perspective. De-risking means moving your portfolio to the left, i.e. a lower degree of risk. The question is how much reward you are forced to sacrifice for that move to the left. Perfect De-Risking sacrifices zero performance. Good luck with that if you are reducing your gross exposure. Average De-Risking is typically accomplished by selling down your portfolio in a pro rata fashion across all of your holdings, and that’s a simple, effective strategy. Good De-Risking and Poor De-Risking are the result of active choices in selling down some portion of your portfolio more than another portion of your portfolio, or – if you don’t want to go to cash – replacing something in your portfolio that’s relatively volatile with something that’s relatively less volatile.

In a bull market, on the other hand, your primary regret is looking or feeling stupid, and that provokes a very conflicted, very psychological reaction. You want to de-risk because you don’t understand this market, and you’re scared of what will happen when the policy ground shifts. But you’re equally scared of being tagged with the worst possible insults you can suffer in our business: “you’re a panicker” … “you missed the greatest bull market of this or any other generation”. Again, maybe this is a conversation you’re having with yourself (frankly, that’s the most difficult and conflicted conversation most of us will ever have). And so you do nothing. You avoid making a decision, which means you also avoid the advisor-investor conversation. Ultimately everyone, advisor and investor alike, looks to blame someone else for their own feelings of unease. No one’s happy, even as the good times roll.

So what’s to be done? Is it possible to both de-risk a portfolio and satisfy the regret minimization calculus of a bull market?

Through the lens of regret minimization, here’s what de-risking in a bull market looks like, again as depicted in risk/reward space:

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-5

For illustrative purposes only.

Essentially you’ve taken all of the bear market de-risking arrows and moved them 45 degrees clockwise. What would be Perfect De-Risking in a bear market is only perceived as average in a bull market, and many outcomes that would be considered Good Diversification in pure risk/reward terms are seen as Poor De-Risking. I submit that this latter condition, what I’ve marked with an asterisk in the graph above, is exactly what poisons so many advisor-investor conversations today. It’s a portfolio adjustment that’s up and to the left from the diagonal risk/reward balance line, so you’re getting better risk-adjusted returns and Good Diversification – but it’s utterly disappointing in a bull market as peer comparison regret minimization takes hold. It doesn’t even serve as a Good De-Risking outcome as it would in a bear market.

Now here’s the good news. There are diversification outcomes that overlap with the bull market Good De-Risking outcomes, as shown in the graph below. In fact, it’s ONLY diversification strategies that can get you into the bull market Good De-Risking area. That is, typical de-risking strategies look to cut exposure, not replace it with equivalent but uncorrelated exposure as diversification strategies do, and you’re highly unlikely to improve the reward profile of your portfolio (moving up vertically from the horizontal line going through the gold ball) by reducing gross exposure. The trick to satisfying investors in a bull market is to increase reward AND reduce volatility. I never said this was easy.

epsilon-theory-its-not-about-the-nail-march-31-2015-historical-risk-reward-6

For illustrative purposes only.

The question is … what diversification strategies can move your portfolio into this promised land? Also (as if this weren’t a challenging enough task already), what diversification strategies can work quickly enough to satisfy a de-risking calculus? Diversification can take a long time to prove itself, and that’s rarely acceptable to investors who are seeking the immediate portfolio impact of de-risking, whether it’s the bear market or bull market variety.

What we need are diversification strategies that can act quickly. More to the point, we need strategies that can react quickly, all while maintaining a full head of steam with their gross exposure to non-correlated or negatively-correlated return streams. This is at the heart of what I’ve been calling Adaptive Investing.

Epsilon Theory isn’t the right venue to make specific investment recommendations. But I’ll make three general points.

First, I’d suggest looking at strategies that can go short. If you’re de-risking a bull market, you need to make money when you’re right, not just lose less money. Losing less money pays off over the long haul, but the long haul is problematic from a regret-based perspective, which tends to be quite path-sensitive. Short positions are, by definition, negatively correlated to the thing that they’re short. They have a lot more oomph than the non-correlated or weakly-correlated exposures that are at the heart of most old-school diversification strategies, and that’s really powerful in this framework. Of course, you’ve got to be right about your shorts for this to work, which is why I’m suggesting a look at strategies that CAN go short as an adaptation to changing circumstances, not necessarily strategies that ARE short as a matter of habit or requirement.

Second, and relatedly, I’d suggest looking at trend-following strategies, which keep you in assets that are working and get you out of assets that aren’t (or better yet, allow you to go short the assets that aren’t working). Trend-following strategies are inherently behaviorally-based, which is near and dear to the Epsilon Theory heart, and more importantly they embody the profound agnosticism that I think is absolutely critical to maintain when uncertainty rules the day and fundamental “rules” change on political whim. Trend-following strategies are driven by the maxim that the market is always right, and that’s never been more true – or more difficult to remember – than here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

Third, these graphs of portfolio adjustments in risk/reward space are not hypothetical exercises. Take the historical risk/reward of your current portfolio, or some portion of that portfolio such as the real assets allocation, and just see what the impact of including one or more liquid alternative strategies would be over the past few years. Check out what the impact on your portfolio would be since the Fed and the ECB embarked on divergent monetary policy courses late last summer, creating an entirely different macroeconomic regimeSeriously, it’s not a difficult exercise, and I think you’ll be surprised at what, for example, a relatively small trend-following allocation can do to de-risk a portfolio while still preserving the regret-based logic of managing a portfolio in a bull market. For both advisors and investors, this is the time to engage in a conversation about de-risking and diversification, properly understood as creatures of regret minimization as well as risk/reward maximization, rather than to avoid the conversation. As the old saying goes, risk happens fast. Well … so does regret. 

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Ghost in the Machine, Part 1

  The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?
― Confucius (551 – 479 BC)

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
― Nyogen Senzaki, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings” (1957)

In 1995, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.253 to .250)
In 1996, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.321 to .314)
In 1997, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.329 to .291)
Yet from 1995 – 1997, Derek Jeter had a superior batting average to David Justice (.300 to .298)
― example of Simpson’s Paradox, aka The Yule-Simpson Effect (1951)

A student says, “Master, please hand me the knife,” and he hands the student the knife, blade first. “Please give me the other end,” the student says. And the master replies, “What would you do with the other end?”
― Alan W. Watts, “What Is Zen?” (2000)

Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.” I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category mistake.
― Gilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976) 

The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.
― Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946) 

Dr. Malcolm:     Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
― “Jurassic Park” (1993) 

It’s a big enough umbrella
But it’s always me that ends up getting wet.
― The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” (1981)  

Everyone who lost money on the SNB’s decision to reverse course on their three and a half year policy to cap the exchange rate between the CHF and the Euro made a category error. And by everyone I mean everyone from Mrs. Watanabe trading forex from her living room in Tokyo to a CTA portfolio manager sitting in front of 6 Bloomberg monitors to a financial advisor answering a call from an angry client. It will take me a bit of verbiage to explain what I mean by a category error and why it’s such a powerful concept in logic and portfolio construction. But I think you’ll find it useful, not just for understanding what happened, but also (and more importantly) to protect yourself from it happening again. Because this won’t be the last time the markets will be buffeted by a forex storm here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.

A year and a half ago, when I was just starting Epsilon Theory, I wrote a note called “The Tao of Portfolio Management.” It’s one of my less-downloaded notes, I think largely because its subject matter – problems of misunderstood logic and causality in portfolio construction – doesn’t exactly have the sexiness of a rant against Central Bank Narrative dominance, but it’s one of my personal favorites. That note was all about the ecological fallacy – a pervasive (but wrong-headed) human tendency to infer qualities about the individual from qualities of the group, and vice versa. Today I’ve got the chance to write once again about the logic of portfolio construction AND work in some of my favorite Zen quotes AND manage something of a Central Bank screed … a banner day!

I’ve titled this note “The Ghost in the Machine” because it starts with another pervasive (but wrong-headed) human tendency – the creation of a false dualism between mind and body. I know, I know … that sounds both really daunting and really boring, but bear with me. What I’m talking about is maybe the most important question of modern philosophy – is there a separate thing called “mind” or “consciousness” that humans possess, or is all of that just the artefact of a critical mass of neurons firing within our magnificent, but entirely physical, brains? I’m definitely in the “everything is explained by neurobiology” camp, which I’d say is probably the more widely accepted view (certainly the louder view) in academic philosophy today, but for most of the 19th and 20th centuries the dualist or Cartesian view was clearly dominant, and it was responsible for a vast edifice of thought, a beautiful cathedral of philosophical constructs that was … ultimately really disappointing and empty. It wasn’t until philosophers like Gilbert Ryle and Van Quine started questioning what Ryle called “the ghost in the machine” – this totally non-empirical but totally accepted belief that humans possessed some ghostly quality of mind that couldn’t be measured or observed but was responsible for driving the human machine – that the entire field of philosophy could be reconfigured and take a quantum leap forward by incorporating the insights of evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and linguistics.

Unfortunately, most economists and investors still believe in ghosts, and we are a long way from taking that same quantum leap. There is an edifice of mind that dominates modern economic practice… a beautiful cathedral where everything can be symbolized, where everything can be securitized, and where everything can be traded. We have come to treat these constructed symbols as the driver of the economic machine rather than as an incomplete reflection of the real world things and real world activities and real world humans that actually comprise the economy. We treat our investment symbols and thoughts as a reified end in themselves, and ultimately this beautiful edifice of symbols becomes a maze that traps us as investors, just as mid-20th century philosophers found themselves trapped within their gorgeous constructs of mind. We are like Ekido in the Zen koan of the muddy road, unable to stop carrying the pretty girl in our thoughts and trapped by that mental structure, long after the far more sensible monk Tanzan has carried the girl safely over the real world mud without consequence, symbolic or otherwise.

The answer to our overwrought edifice of mind is not complex. As Confucius wrote in The Analects, the door is right there in front of us. Exiting the maze and reducing uncompensated risk in our portfolios does not require an advanced degree in symbolic logic or some pretzel-like mathematical process. It requires only a ferocious commitment to call things by their proper names. That’s often not an easy task, of course, as the Missionaries of the Common Knowledge Game – politicians, central bankers, famous investors, famous economists, and famous journalists – are dead-set on giving things false names, knowing full well that we are hard-wired as social animals to respond in ant-like fashion to these communication pheromones. We are both evolved and trained to think in terms of symbols that often serve the purposes of others more than ourselves, to think of the handle rather than the blade when we ask for a knife. The meaning of a knife is the blade. The handle is not “the other end” of a knife; it is a separate thing with its own name and usefulness. The human animal conflates separate things constantly … maybe not a big deal in the kitchen, but a huge deal in our portfolios. Replace the word “knife” with “diversification” and you’ll get a sense of where I’m going with this.

Here’s what I mean by calling things by their proper names. The stock ticker “AAPL” or the currency ticker “CHF” are obviously symbols. Less obviously but more importantly, so are the shares of Apple stock and the quantities of Swiss francs that AAPL and CHF represent. Stocks and bonds and commodity futures and currencies are symbols, not real things at all, and we should never forget that. The most common category error that investors make (and “category error” is just a $10 phrase for calling something by the wrong name) is confusing the symbol for what it represents, and as a result we forget the meaning of the real world thing that’s been symbolized.

A share of stock in, say, Apple is a symbol. Of what? A limited liability fractional ownership position in the economic interests of Apple, particularly its free cash flows.

A futures contract in, say, copper is a symbol. Of what? A commitment to receive or deliver some amount of real-world copper at some price at some point in the future.

A bond issued by, say, Argentina is a symbol. Of what? A commitment by the Argentine government to repay some borrowed money over an agreed-upon period of time, plus interest.

A currency issued by, say, Switzerland is a symbol. Of what? Well, that’s an interesting question. There’s no real world commitment or ownership that a currency symbolizes, at least not in the same way that stocks, bonds, and commodity contracts symbolize an economic commitment or ownership stake. A currency symbolizes government permission. It is a license. It is an exclusive license (which makes it a requirement!) to use that currency as a medium for facilitating economic transactions within the borders of the issuing government, with terms that the government can impose or revoke at will for any reason at all. That’s it. There’s no economic claim or right inherent in a piece of money. As Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, there’s no there there.

Why is this examination of underlying real world meaning so important? It’s important because there is no positive long-term expected return from trading one country’s economic license for another country’s economic license. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for stock. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for bonds. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for commodities and other real assets. But there is no positive long-term expected return from trading money for money.

Unfortunately, we’ve been trained and encouraged – often under the linguistic rubric of “science” – to think of ANY new trading vehicle or security, particularly one that taps into as huge a market as foreign exchange, as a good thing for our portfolios. We are deluged with the usual narratives that alternatively seek to tempt us and embarrass us into participation. On an individual level we are told stories of savvy investors who look and act like we want to look and act, taking bold advantage of the technological wizardry (look! it’s a heat map! that changes color while I’m watching it!) and insanely great trade financing now at our fingertips in this, the best of all possible worlds. On an institutional level we are told stories of liquidity and non-correlation (what? you don’t understand what an efficient portfolio frontier is? and you call yourself a professional?), both good and necessary things, to be sure. But not sufficient things, at least not to cast the powerful magic that is diversification.

There are only a few sure things in investing. First, taxes and fees are bad. Second, compound growth is a beautiful thing. Third, portfolio diversification works. At Salient we spend a lot of time thinking about what makes diversification work more or less well for different types of investors, and if you’re interested in questions like “what’s the difference between de-risking and diversification?” I heartily recommend our latest white paper (“The Free Lunch Effect”) to you. One thing we don’t do at Salient is include currency trading within our systematic asset allocation or trend-following strategies. Why not? Because Rule #1 for tapping into the power of portfolio diversification is that you don’t include things that lack a long-term positive expected return. Just because we can trade currency pairs easily and efficiently doesn’t mean that we should trade currency pairs easily and efficiently, any more than cloning dinosaurs because they could was a good idea for the Jurassic Park guys. The point of adding things to your portfolio for diversification should be to create a more effective umbrella, not just a bigger umbrella. I like a big umbrella just as much as the next guy, but not if I’m going to get wet every time a forex storm whips up.

So if not for diversification, why do smart people engage in currency trading? There’s a good answer and a not-as-good answer to that question.

The good answer is that you have an alpha-driven (i.e. private information-driven) divergent view on the terms of the government license embedded within any modern currency. This is why Stanley Druckenmiller is an investing god, and it’s why anyone who put money with him before, during, and after he and George Soros “broke the Bank of England” in 1992 has been rewarded many times over.

The not-as-good answer is that you have identified a predictive pattern in the symbols themselves. I say that it’s not as good of an answer, but I’m not denying that there is meaning in the pattern of market symbols. On the contrary, I think there is real information regarding internal market behaviors to be found in the inductive study of symbolic patterns. This information is alpha, maybe the only consistent source of alpha left in the world today, and acting on these patterns is what good traders DO. But because it’s inductively derived, anyone else can find your special pattern, too. Or if they can’t, it’s because you’ve carved out a nice little parasitic niche for yourself that’s unlikely to scale well. More corrosively, the natural human tendency is to ascribe meaning to these patterns beyond the internal workings of the market, something that makes no more sense than to say that goose entrails have meaning beyond the internal workings of the goose. The meaning of the Swiss franc didn’t change just because you had a consistent pattern of market behavior around the EURCHF cross. Deviation in the expected value of the Swiss franc in Euro terms did not become normally distributed just because you can apply statistical methodology to the historical exchange rate data. I get so annoyed when I read things like “this wasn’t just the greatest shock in the history of forex, it was the greatest shock in the history of traded securities! a 30 standard deviation event!” Please. Stop it. Just because you can impose a normal distribution on the EURCHF cross doesn’t mean that you should. And if you’re making investment decisions because you think that this normal distribution and the internal market stability it implies is somehow “real” or has somehow changed the fundamental nature of what a currency IS … well, eventually that category error will wipe you out. Sorry, but it will.

I don’t mean to be snide about any of this (although sometimes I can’t help myself). The truth is that an aggregation of highly probabilistic entities will always surprise you, whether you’re building a baseball team or an investment portfolio. Portfolio construction – the aggregation of symbols and symbols of symbols, all of which are ultimately based on massive amounts of real world activities that may have vastly different meanings and underlying probabilistic natures – is a really difficult task under the best of circumstances for a social animal that evolved on the African savanna for an entirely different set of challenges. And these are not the best of circumstances. No, the rules always change as the Golden Age of the Central Banker begins to fade. The SNB decision was a wake-up call, whether or not you were directly impacted, to re-examine portfolios and investment behavior for category errors. We all have them. It’s only human. The question, as always, is whether we’re prepared to do anything about it.

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The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil

epsilon-theory-the-unbearable-over-determination-of-oil-november-24-2014-giant

Jett Rink: Everybody thought I had a duster. Y’all thought ol’ Spindletop Burke and Burnett was all the oil there was, didn’t ya? Well, I’m here to tell you that it ain’t, boy! It’s here, and there ain’t a dang thing you gonna do about it! My well came in big, so big, Bick and there’s more down there and there’s bigger wells. I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ‘un. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you ever *thought* you could have – you and all the rest of you stinkin’ sons of … Benedicts!

Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill.
― “Giant” (1956)

epsilon-theory-the-unbearable-over-determination-of-oil-november-24-2014-syriana

Mussawi: Bob, what do you know about the torture methods used by the Chinese on the Falun Gong? Huh? Method number one. What’s your guess?

[pause]

Water dungeon. Did you guess water dungeon? Number two method? Number two, twisting arm and putting face in feces. Not interested in two? Number three. Number three is called ‘pulling nails from fingers’. What do you think, Bob? Number three sound good to you? The purpose is to get the monks or whatever to recant their beliefs. What if I had to get you to recant? That would be pretty difficult right? Because if you have no beliefs to recant then what? Then you’re f****d is what.

― “Syriana” (2005) 

And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.
― Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

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Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well.

― Rene Magritte

9 Down Clue: Market Leader
Answer: T-H-E-F-E-D

– New York Times Crossword Puzzle, Saturday November 16

You know you’re in trouble when the Fed’s Narrative dominance of all things market-related shows up in the New York Times crossword puzzle, the Saturday uber-hard edition no less. It’s kinda funny, but then again it’s more sad than funny. Not a sign of a market top necessarily, but definitely a sign of a top in the overwhelming belief that central banks and their monetary policies determine market outcomes, what I call the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. 

There is a real world connected to markets, of course, a world of actual companies selling actual goods and services to actual people. And these real world attributes of good old fashioned economic supply and demand – the fundamentals, let’s call them – matter a great deal. Always have, always will. I don’t think they matter nearly as much during periods of global deleveraging and profound political fragmentation – an observation that holds true whether you’re talking about the 2010’s, the 1930’s, the 1870’s, or the 1470’s – but they do matter.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at some market outcome – the price of oil declining from $100/bbl to $70/bbl, say – and dividing up the outcome into some percentage of monetary policy-driven causes and some percentage of fundamental-driven causes. These market outcomes are always over-determined, which is a $10 word that means if you added up all of the likely causes and their likely percentage contribution to the outcome you would get a number way above 100%.Are recent oil price declines driven by the rising dollar (a monetary policy-driven cause) or by over-supply and global growth concerns (two fundamental-driven causes)? Answer: yes. I can make a case that either one of these “explanations” on its own can account for the entire $30 move. Put them together and I’ve “explained” the $30 move twice over. That’s not very satisfying or useful, of course, because it doesn’t help me anticipate what’s next. Should I be basing my risk assessment of global oil prices on an evaluation of monetary policy divergence and what this means for the US dollar? Or should I be basing my assessment on an evaluation of global supply and demand fundamentals? If both, how do I weight these competing explanations so that I don’t end up overweighting both, which (not to get too technical with this stuff) will have the effect of sharply increasing the volatility of my forward projections, even if I’m exactly right in the ratio of the relative contribution of the potential explanatory factors.

Here’s the short answer. I can’t. As a social animal in the financial services ecosystem I can’t avoid some overweighting of the explanatory factors. The longer answer is that I believe I can reduce the naïve overweighting by a rigorous focus on Narrative formation and dissemination, a process that I’ll describe below. But before we get to that let’s examine the consequences of an investment world where the overwhelming majority of market participants are not even thinking about mitigating the naïve overweighting of the various explanatory factors for oil price movements that are rolling through their heads, and where the entire financial services sector is designed to magnify this overweighting behavior.

What do I mean by that last bit? I mean that when there’s a large move in an important aspect of the market – and a $30 plunge in the price of oil certainly qualifies on that score! – it creates an overwhelming demand from global investors, from trillions of dollars of investment capital, for an answer to a single question: WHY? Anyone in the financial services world, from the smallest FA to the largest institutional allocator, must supply an answer to that question of Why, or else the capital that you advise or allocate for will start looking for a new advisor or allocator. The rarest answer in the financial services world is “I don’t know”, even though that’s almost always the most honest answer, because the business risk of “I don’t know” is overwhelming during large market moves. Global capital creates a multi-trillion dollar demand for The Answer, and financial service providers (or at least successful financial service providers) will always provide it.

When there’s a multi-trillion dollar market for The Answer, it should surprise no one that there is competition around the supply of The Answer. Many, many, many answers with a small-a will be supplied, each vying for contention for a slice of The Answer market. Not only is every advisor or allocator in the world today an answer-supplier in his or her own right, but also there are layers upon layers of answer supply and demand within the financial services world itself. The result is an artillery barrage of answers raining down on every market participant, including guys like me who have our own howitzers. ALL of us are caught in this barrage, and it’s LOUD.

All of us may be caught in the barrage, but very few of us have an independently grounded view of what’s going on in oil markets or a process for assimilating the answers. Unfortunately, without that independent grounding or process the sheer volume of the shouted answers becomes a form of torture.

The vast majority of market participants are like George Clooney’s CIA agent in Syriana – ungrounded and without personal conviction in the competition at hand. When Clooney is tortured, it’s only pain – pure, unadulterated, senseless pain – with no purpose or process. Clooney will say or do anything to avoid the pain, but there is nothing he can say or do that will assuage his torturer because he doesn’t have what his torturer wants. You can’t repudiate grounded beliefs under torture if you don’t have grounded beliefs to start with, and whatever belief you espouse under torture will never be a grounded belief. All you can do is shout out some new belief, some new Answer, each time you get another nail pulled off a finger … or, as we might say down in Houston, each time the price of oil goes down another $10/bbl.

Okay, Ben, interesting metaphors and all that, but what’s the investable implication of what you’re saying? Simply this: whatever volatility you think exists in future oil prices … you’re too low. There is a behavioral and market structure dynamic in play today that will amplify oil price volatility beyond whatever your combination of fundamental-driven or monetary policy-driven rationales might imply. The loudness of the artillery barrage of answers to the question of “Why is oil down” is itself a driver of increased volatility in the price of oil and energy sector stocks. And yes, this loudness (more formally, the degree and scope of competition in the answer-supply market) can be measured, which may be an interesting thing for traders to think about. Just sayin’.

Now please note that I do not mean volatility as the word is all too commonly used, as a synonym for “down”. This isn’t some self-fulfilling prophecy, where more people talking about why oil is down somehow pushes oil prices down further. That’s not it at all. What I’m saying is that when more people talk loudly and competitively about their particular Answer to why oil is down, ALL answers become more and more over-weighted. The price of oil becomes more and more over-determined. Events that seem to fit one of the Answers are trumpeted to the high heavens, and everyone rushes to buy or sell according to that event and that Answer. Until, of course, the next event comes along which fits another Answer and is in turn trumpeted on high and is in turn followed by a mad rush to buy or sell according to that event and that Answer. Risk On / Risk Off. Bigger and faster price movements up AND down. Greater than expected “error” from whatever alpha or beta model you’re using. That’s what I mean by volatility.

And the reverse is true, too. When fewer people talk loudly and competitively about their particular Answer to a pressing question of Why, I expect volatility to decline. It’s no accident, in my view, that US equity market volatility has declined with almost perfect inverse correlation to the advance in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. Today I am hard-pressed to find anyone who argues that equity markets are at current levels because economic fundamentals are so good, or more generally that market outcomes – good or bad – are driven by economic fundamentals. Instead it’s all central banks all the time. There is zero competition in the marketplace of Answers on this enormous question of Why, and I think that’s the driving force behind not only reduced volatility, but also – and far more importantly for the financial services sector – reduced market activity and reduced market interest. 

What I’m describing here is another way of getting a handle on the Common Knowledge Game, which I’ve argued is the principal strategic interaction in markets where grounded beliefs are few and far between. I won’t belabor all that again, as you can read about it here and here. But whether you’re thinking in terms of Keynes’ Newspaper Beauty Contest or the Island of the Blue-Eyed Tribe or how a CIA agent responds to torture, it’s all the same dynamic. When you’re not sure of yourself and you’re trying to figure out what consensus view to adopt, as likely as not everyone else is trying to do the same thing. In these situations it’s Common Knowledge – public signals that we all believe that we all heard, aka Narratives – that largely determines each of our individual behavioral decisions.

I mentioned earlier that I believe it’s possible to mitigate these behavioral and structural impulses to overweight explanatory factors through a rigorous assessment of Narrative creation and dissemination, so I’ll turn to that now. To be clear … I don’t have The Answer for what drives oil prices. I have MY answer, which is a small-a answer because it adapts to Narrative shifts in the relative prominence of fundamental-driven factors and monetary policy driven factors. It’s also a small-a answer because it’s a self-consciously Bayesian effort at arriving at a useful assessment of what’s going on, not a Platonic effort at uncovering some eternal Truth with a capital-T. All it really means to say that you’re a Bayesian decision maker is that you ground yourself with some set of prior beliefs and then you update those beliefs with new information. Here, then, are my grounded beliefs, first on fundamentals and then on monetary policy.

On fundamentals … we have good models (good in the sense that they’ve been nicely predictive over the past several decades) for the relationship between global growth and oil prices. What all the models basically show is that US growth sets the floor and Chinese growth is the marginal driver above that floor, at least for the demand function. Without a US recession and/or a Chinese hard landing – neither of which are anywhere in sight – it’s really hard for oil to get very far below, say, $70/bbl and it’s almost impossible for the price to stay there for very long.

We also have good models for the relationship between oil supply and oil prices. Currently we have significant over-supply in the global energy markets, driven by two factors: the continued success of shale production efforts in the US (see the amazing chart below from Deutsche Bank’s Torsten Slok) and the mysteriously high production levels being maintained by Saudi Arabia.

epsilon-theory-the-unbearable-over-determination-of-oil-november-24-2014-shale

I say mysteriously high because with 30% price declines Saudi Arabia has historically been rather quick to cut production, but they’ve been largely quiet of late. There’s a widespread belief (which I share) that there is geopolitical pressure on Saudi Arabia to maintain production levels in order to squeeze the economic vise on Russia and Iran. There are limits to this US geopolitical pressure, however, particularly with such a mistrusted Administration, and I think we’re now well past those limits.There’s also a somewhat less widespread belief (which I don’t share) that Saudi Arabia is content to maintain (or even increase) production in order to put more downward pressure on oil prices and force US shale production into unprofitable positions. While the proponents of this view are absolutely right that the threat of opening the production floodgates has always been the Saudi big stick used to maintain cartel discipline within OPEC, there’s just too much non-cartelized money, technology, and political capital invested in US shale production to slow it down in this way. It’s the Bick Benedict / Jett Rink problem from the classic movie Giant … if you’re Rock Hudson and you despise James Dean, you better get rid of him while he’s a dirt-poor wildcatter, because once he succeeds he’s too rich to kill.

Also, regardless of what happens in the short term with OPEC production targets, when you look at the production profiles of most major oil fields in the world today I think it’s very hard to see the current over-supply condition as anything but temporary, even with continued efficiency advances in the US shale fields  (for a particularly apocalyptic view on all this, see the latest quarterly letter from GMO’s Jeremy Grantham). As with the global growth models, it’s really hard to get oil much below $70/bbl from a supply model perspective.

But then there’s monetary policy. For the past 30 years we’ve had general global coordination around a weaker dollar (which supports higher prices of assets, like oil, that are priced in dollars) and for the past 5 years we’ve had intensive global coordination to promote massive dollar liquidity (which also supports higher oil prices). Today that coordination has stopped, and the dollar is getting very strong very quickly as the Fed cuts back on dollar liquidity at the same time that other central banks continue to increase their own liquidity operations. As I hope that I’ve made clear in recent Epsilon Theory notes (here and here), I think that this monetary policy divergence is a very significant risk to markets, as there’s no direct martingale on how far monetary policy can diverge and how strong the dollar can get. As a result I think there’s a non-trivial chance that the price of oil could have a $30 or $40 handle at some point over the next 6 months, even though the global growth and supply/demand models would say that’s impossible. But I also think the likely duration of that heavily depressed price is pretty short. Why? Because the Fed and China will not take this lying down. They will respond to the stronger dollar and stronger yuan (China’s currency is effectively tied to the dollar) and they will prevail, which will push oil prices back close to what global growth says the price should be. The danger, of course, is that if they wait too long to respond (and they usually do), then the response will itself be highly damaging to global growth and market confidence and we’ll bounce back, but only after a near-recession in the US or a near-hard landing in China.

So now for the balancing act … is the price of oil today driven more by global growth and supply/demand factors or by monetary policy factors? I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone when I say that I think monetary policy dominates ALL markets today, including the global oil market. What’s the ratio? My personal, entirely subjective view is that oil prices over the past 3+ months have been driven by 3 parts monetary policy to 1 part fundamentals. How do I come up with this ratio? For the past 3+ months the oil Narrative has been dominated by public statements from influential answer-suppliers talking up the oil price dynamic of a rising dollar and monetary policy divergence. That’s the source of my subjective view of a 3:1 dominance for monetary policy-driven factors over fundamental-driven factors.

However – and this is the adaptive part where I play close attention to Narrative development and dissemination – the noise level surrounding this Thursday’s OPEC meeting is absolutely deafening. I mean, when the Sunday morning talking head shows are discussing OPEC and its influence on gasoline prices you know that something dramatic is happening with the Narrative. For at least this week and next the oil Narrative is going to be dominated by public statements from influential answer-suppliers talking up the oil price dynamic of OPEC decisions on fundamental global oil supply. For at least this week and next my personal, entirely subjective view of the ratio of explanatory factors is going to flip to 3 parts fundamentals to 1 part monetary policy. And since it’s hard to get the price of oil much lower than it is today on the fundamentals … well, you can draw your own conclusions about the risk/reward asymmetry over the next two weeks. Beyond that? I have no idea. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens to the Narrative.

I know this process probably sounds very reactive, as if I’m lacking all conviction about how the world works. Guilty as charged on the first count; innocent on the second. I don’t pretend that I have The Answer. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball that tells me what OPEC is going to do this Thursday or when the next central banker will jawbone his currency down. I don’t know. Sorry. There are plenty of answer-suppliers out there who will be more than happy to tell you that they DO have that crystal ball, and if that’s what you need you’re wasting your time reading Epsilon Theory. I think that investing in a reactive manner – or as I like to call it, adaptive investing – is the best way to survive a profoundly uncertain world. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong ideas about how the world works, about how both monetary policy and fundamentals impact the price of oil. What it means is that it doesn’t matter what I think about the way the world works. The only thing that matters is what the market thinks about the way the world works, and in times like these the market will think whatever Common Knowledge says it should think. 

It’s crucial to have strong views about how the world works, to have an independently grounded vision of the world, because otherwise I might start to think that whatever Common Knowledge is dominant at some given time … US dollar strength for the past 3+ months, OPEC impact on supply fundamentals for the next 2+ weeks … is The Answer for oil prices, forever and ever amen, and I will be whipsawed mercilessly when the Narrative shifts. And it will shift. But it’s equally crucial not to become a prisoner of my strong views about how the world works, or else at best I will miss the path that the market takes from here to there, and at worst I might be … wrong.

Here’s my Answer: there is no Answer. In a structurally unstable market, there is no stable deterministic model of discrete market-exogenous factors like global supply/demand and monetary policy to “explain” oil prices. Oil prices are systematically over-determined, particularly during times of pricing distress, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can find the world’s secret eternal code that hides behind market outcomes. The market itself – the strategic interaction of social animals all trying to outsmart each other – is part and parcel of the code. Strategic interactions are not factors that you can plug into your model or regression analysis. They are emergent properties of a game … a game with rules and stable patterns of behavior, so it’s knowable and predictable, but not predictive in the same deterministic fashion that the econometric toolbox promises. For investors and allocators steeped in this predictive promise of econometrics, game theory will always seem like thin gruel, as postdictive rather than predictive. Fair enough. But rather than cling to my econometric toolkit and make market predictions that are less and less useful in this, the Golden Age of the Central Banker, I’d rather look at the market through the lens of game theory and Common Knowledge and Narrative so that I can adapt quickly to what IS rather than what I’d prefer it to be.

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