Good Job!

Every dog needs a job. It’s how they make sense of their place in the pack. It’s the key to a Good Dog.

You don’t have to tell dogs what their job is. They tell you. Maggie the German Shepherd? Her job is to protect. Sam the Sheltie? His job is to herd. Not sheep, of course, because that would be too useful. Nope, just squirrels. Turns out it’s not easy to herd squirrels, but that doesn’t stop our “special” dog from giving it his all, every day, rain or shine. Eco the Golden Retriever, pictured above? His job was to love, which he did with grace and abandon for 12 years. Rest in peace, old friend. You were a Good Dog, and I miss you.

A dog knows perfectly well when she’s done a Good Job. You can see it in her gait, in her tail, in her ears … everything about the way she carries herself says, “yep, I done good. did you see how good I done? ‘cause I done good.” Conversely, a dog also knows when she hasn’t performed up to snuff. The hangdog look is a real thing. A dog knows honor and a dog knows shame, and there is no more important example that any animal can set for us poor benighted humans.

Why? Well, this is the money quote from Sheep Logic:

Because with no sense of shame there is no sense of honor. There is no mercy. There is no charity. There is no forgiveness. There is no loyalty. There is no courage. There is no service. There are no ties that bind us as citizens, as fellow pack members seeking to achieve something bigger and more important than our ability to graze on as much grass as we can. Something bigger like, you know, liberty and justice for all.

Unlike dogs, humans have a hard time knowing whether or not they’ve done a Good Job. We consistently overestimate our competence at tasks, and when we fail, we evince befuddlement — as if we’re looking for the Restore Saved Game function — rather than remorse or apology. We humans are more Yogi Bear than Lassie.

It’s a widespread behavioral phenomenon at every age and demographic category. But it’s endemic in the young.

I think our notions of what it means to do a Good Job are so stunted for three reasons.

We’ve trivialized honor.

We’ve personalized shame.

We’ve redefined pride.

We trivialize honor through our constant celebration of mere engagement as some sort of actual achievement. We give ourselves and our children these faux “Certificates of Achievement” in one form or another all the time, and once you start looking for them you will see them everywhere.

This is how the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy bring us into the fold. This is how they neg us.

This is how our children become Industrially Necessary Eggs.

We personalize shame by attaching it to identity rather than to behavior. Shame over behavior is ephemeral and corrective. Shame over identity is existential and utterly self-destructive.

The personalization of shame is a merciless goal of the Nudging Oligarchy because we will pay any price to “fix” ourselves. And our children are their primary targets.

Wait, your body isn’t “perfect” like a Victoria’s Secret model? What a shame. But don’t worry, we can help you with that.

We redefine pride when we confuse it for participation and belonging, when we treat it as the opposite of shame rather than what it really is — the foremost of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Like honor and shame, pride has been reattached from behavior to identity by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy. Like honor and shame, our children are their primary targets.

As Hieronymus Bosch knew well, the demon holding up the mirror of Pride isn’t a fable. The demon is us.

We’ve turned honor into a cheap candy, shame into an existential identity crisis, and pride into a virtue.

  • No wonder hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have doubled over the past ten years.
  • No wonder our girls cut themselves and our boys shoot themselves.
  • No wonder my Twitter timeline is, day in and day out, a dumpster fire.
  • No wonder our 2016 election was a Sophie’s Choice.

By the way, the right answer to a Sophie’s Choice is NO. The right answer to an impossible dilemma is simply this: Homey don’t play that game.

Whee! I bet you’re a real hoot at cocktail parties, Ben. But can we come back to Planet Earth now?

Yeah, sorry about that. Actually, sorry not sorry. But in any event we’ve got to answer this question:

So what DOES it mean to do a Good Job?

Here’s what it means to any self-respecting dog. Which is to say, here’s what it means to all dogs:

You know what your job is.

The job is in service to the pack.

You do the job better than the average dog.

That’s it. That’s the Good Dog’s definition of a Good Job. Like all old wisdom, it’s deceptively simple. Like all old wisdom, it’s applicable across time and endeavor. This is an algorithm, by the way.

I’ll discuss two applications of the Good Dog’s definition of a Good Job in this essay: professional sports and professional investing. In both fields, there’s a LOT of money at stake with answering our question du jour — what does it mean to do a good job? — and in both fields there’s a clear notion of what “the pack” represents — the team in professional sports and the portfolio in professional investing. Given these similarities, it surprises me that there’s not a commonly held language to address the issue.

I think that professional sports is actually more advanced in their language on this than professional investing, or at least more cohesive, so I’ll start there. This is particularly true in the major professional sport most similar to professional investing in terms of its research methodology and sheer number of observable score/price events — baseball.

The modern methodology of baseball analysis goes by the name sabermetrics, coined by the Godfather of modern baseball statistics, Bill James, and named after the Society for American Baseball Research. I’m not sure if my dad started getting the Bill James Abstract in 1980 or 1981, but it was definitely before James hit the (well-deserved) big time in the mid-80s. In his own way, I’d say that Bill James has been the most influential data scientist in the world over the past 40 years. Certainly he’s had a huge impact on my career. Many others who work with data for a living, like Nate Silver, say the same thing.

The central question that Bill James set out to answer in the late 1970s is the Good Job question: You say that Ted Williams was a great baseball player. How do you know? Compared to who? What does that statement even mean? What’s the relationship between the greatness of Ted Williams and the performance of the Boston Red Sox?

These are exactly the questions that investors should be asking about active asset management, too.

There’s an enormous body of work developed in the sabermetric community to answer the Good Job question, but here I want to focus on one specific thread — the idea of Wins Above Replacement (WAR). It’s an approach largely credited to Keith Woolner (he calls it Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP), although as with all great concepts there are plenty of parents and plenty of variations on this theme.

Here’s what WAR seeks to measure: if you were replaced with an average player for your specific position, how many fewer games would your team win?

This is a perfect application of the Good Dog’s definition of a Good Job, all in convenient algorithm form!

  1. You know what your job is. We compare shortstops to shortstops, left fielders to left fielders, relief pitchers to relief pitchers. We take into account all aspects of the job, including defense.
  2. The job is in service to the pack. We measure players in terms of how they contribute to winning games for the team. We care about individual statistics only as they relate to team outcomes, not as ends in themselves.
  3. You do the job better than the average dog. You and your major league peers are, by definition, above average. We have the performance data for easily available replacement players (minor league call-ups, mostly), and we’re going to use that as your performance benchmark.

WAR is the Good Job algorithm for baseball. Today, WAR and its variants are the foundation for almost every economic decision that general managers make, from drafts to trades to contracts, in how they structure their team. Not just in baseball, but in every professional team sport.

So what’s the equivalent of WAR for investing?

Well, there’s no snappy acronym in investing, so I’m going to make one up.

Let’s call it PAR — Performance Above Replacement.

In WAR we want to compare the offensive and defensive stats of a professional position player, like a left fielder, to a readily available replacement position player, like a AAA call-up.

In PAR we want to compare the offensive and defensive stats of a professional active manager, like a long/short equity hedge fund manager, to a readily available replacement manager, like an ETF.

What do I mean by offensive and defensive stats? I mean making a distinction between the investment manager’s performance when the market is up and when the market is down. Makes sense, right? There are bull market managers and there are bear market managers and there’s a lot of muddy area in-between. Let’s measure how active managers perform across this crucial dimension for your portfolio so that we don’t miss some skill that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. This is particularly important for long/short equity and global macro investors because they’re constantly changing their gross and net exposures, and it is the driving force behind the most commonly uttered phrase of active managers trying to explain how they do a Good Job: “We capture x% of the upside in our market but only y% of the downside!” where, of course, x is greater than y. If you haven’t heard (or used) that line 5 bazillion times in your investing career, then … lucky you. In more technical terms (and I’m sorry to do this, but I promise you there will be a payoff), these active managers are saying: “I am doing a Good Job because my performance demonstrates convexity.”

The concept of convexity is at the heart of Performance Above Replacement.

Convexity? Woof … that’s a ten-dollar word if there ever was one.

Let’s say you’ve got an area of your portfolio — call it your “tactical overlay” portion of the portfolio — where you’d like to give active management a shot. You’ve identified an active manager who runs a long/short global macro fund, you’ve decided that this is potentially a “real” diversifying strategy, and now you want to look at the manager’s PAR. Since this manager plays in the Everything sandbox, you’re going to use a global 60/40 investable index (or better yet a global risk parity strategy … yes, I went there) as the “replacement player”, and you’re going to separate out how the manager performs in up markets versus down markets, using the S&P 500 for that distinction because that’s your benchmark.

Here are some stylized absolute return profiles on the left, and the corresponding relative return profile on the right. I’m simplifying things here by drawing straight lines instead of what would be a smattering of point observations (monthly performance numbers, for example), but you can use a linear regression to create the lines. Actually you’re running two linear regressions, one for the manager’s offensive stats (performance when the S&P 500 is up, in green) and one for the manager’s defensive stats (performance when the S&P 500 is down, in red). The blue line is the performance of the replacement strategy (a global 60/40 or risk parity fund). Both funds cross the y-axis slightly below zero (more so for the active manager) to reflect the management fees and expenses associated with the funds.

When you “normalize” the active manager’s performance versus the replacement strategy and the S&P 500, which is what the right-hand graph is doing, you see that this manager nicely outperforms the replacement strategy in difficult markets without underperforming nearly so much when markets are rocking, creating a shallow V-shape or upward bend to the performance line. THIS is convexity.

This manager clearly has positive PAR, meaning that she improves the performance of your portfolio versus what you would have done with a passive replacement strategy, once you take into account both offensive and defensive stats. This manager is like a talented defensive catcher (i.e., a position where it’s important to play good defense) who is a so-so offensive player. That’s a classic player type, and there are plenty of teams who would find a spot on their roster for that.

There are dozens of different tools and well-known performance analytic statistics (Sortino ratio, Jensen’s alpha, upside/downside capture) that will do some variant of this PAR calculation for you, and they’re all designed to capture different aspects of convexity. This sort of exercise is the mother’s milk of consulting gigs, and every consultant in the world would look at this data and tell you that this manager is doing a Good Job.

Pretty exciting, right? Here’s a methodology that clearly works in professional sports and can be directly brought over to professional investing. It’s empirically driven and mathematically sound.

But it doesn’t work.

Or at least it doesn’t work anymore. Like so many other aspects of our investing lives, these mathematically sound and empirically driven efforts to answer the Good Job question for active management have collapsed under the chaotic gravitational pull of The Three-Body Problem.

In exactly the same way that Quality has been absolutely useless as an investment factor for the past eight and a half years, so have our traditional measurements of active manager skill.

The orange line in the chart below is the S&P 500 Index from 1998 to today. The white line and blue-shaded area is the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index divided by the S&P 500 Index. It represents the relative underperformance or outperformance of hedge funds versus the S&P 500, and today we are at all-time underperformance lows. There is no convexity here! At least not in the aggregate. It skipped town in March 2009, just as the Central Bank Brigade rode in to save the day.

Managers who used to “capture” more upside than downside don’t. Managers who used to demonstrate convexity in their results don’t. They still have lots of stories to tell you about how they manage gross and net exposure, lots of stories to tell you about volatility and risk management, and lots of stories to tell you about thematic opportunities. Most still express a great deal of pride in their investment process.

I’m not saying that these “proprietary processes” will never work again. I’m not saying that they’re not working now. I’m saying that if they’re working, they’re working very very faintly. So faintly that you have to believe in the story to stay the course, because it’s sure not in the aggregate results. I’m saying that the processes and the skills and the performance convexity of professional active investors are swamped by the gravitational pull of $20 TRILLION of central bank balance sheets, as are the traditional tools we’ve used to measure all that. Because that’s the point of the Three-Body Problem – any algorithmic understanding of the system will fail to predict what’s next.

So what’s to be done? Do we just give up trying to answer the Good Job question? If our evaluative tools for active managers are non-predictive, do we just throw ourselves onto the waves of the S&P 500 and hope for the best? Because that’s what a lot of investors are doing, including giant pension funds who should know better, even though doing so is an active management decision of the first order!

Here’s the thing. Yes, It’s more difficult than ever to answer the Good Job question regarding active investment management. It’s also never been more important.

Because while I have no way to predict what’s next in the Three-Body System, I can tell you with absolute certainty that there IS a next, and it will NOT look like now.

Because you ARE the active manager when you select this passively managed fund over that passively managed fund, and you are not as good of an active manager as you think you are.

As wonderful as it would be for investors to style themselves as baseball general managers, poring over advanced performance statistics to pick this or that great fund manager in some sabermetric nirvana, that’s just not in the cards. We have to find a better way, a way to answer the Good Job question in a Three-Body system. Because we’re not getting away from active management even if we wanted to.

Our answer, I think, is to go back to first principles, to go back to the code of the Good Dog. The answer, I think, is in convexity, but not in the mathematical over-scientificized cartoon of the word.

The answer, I think, is in convexity as a philosophy.

Convexity as a philosophy is about identifying what you are particularly good at, and then executing on THAT. It’s the key to unlocking a much more stable notion of identity — a Good Dog’s notion of identity. Good Dogs know what they’re good at, and I don’t need to calculate a Sortino ratio to know if they’re doing a Good Job.

We can do the same with our evaluation of active managers. We can tell when an active manager is doing a Good Job. We can see it in her demeanor, we can see it in her temperament, we can see it in her bravery, both personally and professionally. Every Good Dog is a Brave Dog. It’s the same with investment managers. We can see it in her humility — the virtuous opposite of sinful pride. We can see it in her sense of shame when a behavior is not up to snuff. Not identity, behavior. There’s no shame in identity. Ever.

There’s a sine qua non for adopting convexity as a philosophy in evaluating active managers, and it’s as simple as it is difficult: courage, both personally and professionally. We’ve got to be Brave Dogs, too.

To be clear, the behavioral attributes associated with a Good Dog’s notion of a Good Job are a necessary condition for approving an active manager, not a sufficient condition. Sam the Sheltie does a Good Job, too, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend an accomplished squirrel herder as a must-have addition to your farm. Even Maggie the German Shepherd, who does a Good Job of protecting the farm and is a player everyone would want on their team, has “regimes” where her above-replacement performance vanishes. I’ll put it this way … she apparently dislikes chickens almost as much as I do, such that if you’re a fox and you want to chow down on a free range hen or two, picnic-style in the middle of a grassy field while Maggie sits there and watches you eat … well, come on over. And that gets me to the second sine qua non of adopting convexity as a philosophy in our manager selection — we must have the process and the fortitude to scale our active risk allocations up and down based on what is working, including the ability to take risk completely away from our managers. Maggie is a VERY Good Dog. But when the chickens are loose her risk allocation here at the farm goes to zero. We find protection somewhere else.

Convexity as a philosophy is also at the heart of how we improve ourselves and our children as citizens.

Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.

It’s maybe the funniest movie line I know. Why is this funny? Because we have made a political and social fetish out of identity, out of the New Commandment to ALWAYS BE YOURSELF. Unless you can be Batman.

At the same time, we’ve attached pride and shame to identity, rather than to behavior where they belong, training ourselves and our children to be absurdly self-assured and prideful, and yet existentially ashamed all at the same time. ALWAYS BE YOURSELF is the most powerful story we tell ourselves. And the most dangerous if attached to pride and shame wrongly understood.

We can tell ourselves a new story. A story, dear Brutus, where the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. As is the achievement. As is the honor.

Find your pack. Here and here and here are some ideas on how to do that. And then do a Good Job with your service to the pack, no matter how big, no matter how small. You’ll figure it out.

Every dog needs a job to make sense of its place in the world. So does every human.

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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.

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© 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.

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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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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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