Failure to Inflate

On episode 25 of the Epsilon Theory podcast, we’re joined by Peter Cecchini, Chief Market Strategist, Head of Equity Derivatives and Cross-Asset Strategy at Cantor Fitzgerald, to discuss one of his recent notes, “Failure to Inflate.” As Peter writes, “The theories that guide monetary policy fail to explain why growth and inflation remain so low in developed economies.” Tune in to hear why this is and what might bring about higher inflation.


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Mailbag! Fall 2017 Edition

Back by popular demand, it’s the Epsilon Theory Mailbag!

Always Go To the Funeral” and “The Arborist

Another rifle shot to the crux of the matter.

I would like to think that I, as a loyal reader of The Epsilon Theory, am onto many of the manipulations that you describe. But as I was reading this letter, I realized that I had fallen – lock, stock and barrel – for the powerful manipulation that you describe in connection with the removal of confederate statues. I, like you, really don’t have much psychological or emotional investment in the statues themselves (although I do think they serve as a constant visual reminder of our conflicted history – a good thing, in my opinion). But I am quite psychologically and emotionally invested in the maintenance of civility and order.

The manipulators have done a great job causing me to transfer my investment in civility and order onto these physical statues, thereby putting me in the uncomfortable position of defending something I don’t care that much about to prevent others (who represent things I abhor) from “winning.” But in the process, I now find myself siding with another group that also represents these same things that I abhor. This cognitive dissonance is the source of the increasing anger and frustration that many heretofore stable members of our society are now feeling and, unfortunately, beginning to express outwardly.

While I understand your point about “going to the funeral” of the “Cooperation Game” era of political discourse, I hope that is not a joint funeral with the “civility and order” era of society. I am afraid that might just be the case. I am especially worried about this because those (like the state) who, in the past, acted as a damper on disunion, incivility and disorder now seem to be the drivers.

Thanks again for putting a mirror up for those of us who strive every day to be a bit better (and smarter).

Jeff

It’s so easy to get pulled into these constructed, false “conflicts” … we are truly hard-wired to respond to this stuff. I am constantly catching myself falling into this trap, and I write these notes as a self-help mechanism as much as anything.

I suppose that you read about the vandalism and subsequent removal of the Robert E. Lee statue at Duke Chapel. I am just wondering how long it will take for someone to vandalize the beautiful marble carving of Lee at Lee Chapel on the campus of Washington and Lee in Lexington, VA.

A week ago, somebody wrote to the local paper that the Confederate memorial in Elmwood Cemetery near uptown Charlotte should be removed. Only history buffs and PC activists even know that it exists – few people ever go to the cemetery, because it is just about full. (Charlotte native Randolph Scott is probably the most famous occupant, BTW.)

My father was Southern through and through, gentle, loved and respected. He named me after two of his uncles, who were named after famous Southern leaders. But he never bothered to tell me about his grandfather, who was wounded in Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg and surrendered with Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, or his other grandfather who was killed at Gettysburg. And even more regrettable, he never told us a lot about his experiences in WWII.

All the best. I’ll sign my entire name, just this time.

Houston Lee VanHoy

On the other hand …

Ben – as someone who lived in Charlottesville for a number of years, your logic was peculiarly fraught and tortured this week…intentional or not, your note misses a salient point of last weeks armed riot – yes there is no other word for it – in Charlottesville.

What it was at its core was an intimidating show of force replete with openly carried loaded automatic weapons and rifles let alone pistols/revolvers. This is indisputable and the only question is why? It’s at least about promoting the myth that Confederates were not traitors, and deserve an honored place in our public square. I’m sorry if it makes anyone sad to realize their great grandfathers were traitors and racist, but there can be no justice until there is truth.

It’s not a matter of rolling back history, it’s a matter of presenting history accurately, and Lee and his ilk were prima facie traitors in every sense of the word to the United States and DIRECTLY responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. So why is Lee so exulted, and by extension, the Confederacy? It’s because the demonstrators want to perpetuate and glorify the Rebellions myth, and deny that it was all about preserving and promoting slavery – that’s a narrative that can be safely and properly consigned to museums at best, and have no place in our public square, esp. in federal places and local places where the local city/town wants them removed.

These people don’t need any explanation or sympathy from someone as bright as you. If these statues are so trivial and unimportant to the South sense of self, why not just consign them to museums. Fascism precedes Antifa, i.e. it is axiomatic that there is no Antifa without fascism first. Fascism is not a response to Antifa – thats illogical. Anyone with real pride would actively move in this direction to dispel misgivings that the South has not risen above treason, racism and white supremacy. Should be a no brainer…do you see any statues to Benedict Arnold in the South?

If a right leaning local population wanted to someday rename Malcolm X Blvd, and militant armed blacks showed up shouting “death to whitey”, we can have a dialogue of equivalency in this regard. Until then you are way off and justifiably at jeopardy being labeled as enabling of Nazis and white supremacists. Hopefully this was a rare “own goal” and not intentional.

It’s really not all that hard or complicated, and it only contaminates our politics when people make excuses for fascism and racism.

– JD

Aaaaand, there it is: I am “justifiably at jeopardy of being labeled as enabling Nazis and white supremacists” because I did not write a strong enough denunciation of Confederate statues. “Hopefully” this was not an intentional support of Nazis and white supremacists on my part.

I’m reading an amazing book right now, “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu, translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu. It’s science fiction, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, and like all great science fiction it’s actually just great fiction, period. Great fiction forces us to see the world differently, and “The Three-Body Problem” — which starts off in 1967 China — has opened my eyes to an understanding of what the Cultural Revolution really was. I won’t spoil it any more than that, except to say that JD would have thrived within the Cultural Revolution.

I have been reminded this week of you saying (I think it was you) that real danger exists when we move from viewing each other as good people with different opinions, to viewing the people on the other side as evil!

If you are a rational person who believes that historic monuments in the South serve a purpose (I remember a family vacation to Stone Mountain where I learned all about the civil war), now you are on the side of the Nazi’s – the damn Nazi’s my Grandfather (whom I am named after) died fighting!!! It seems we are being put into a box where you must choose a side … I believe both the President and fiat news are engaged in a war of propaganda … dangerous times indeed.

LP

We are ALL being played. Including JD.

“and by the way you’re bonkers if you think the Russians altered the 2016 election by one iota.”

Interesting take. Can you explain to me why they – the Russians – would invest so much time and money on something that has absolutely no impact? Also, why do advertising firms exist and why is propaganda a thing?

Jason

No impact? Russian chicanery had a HUGE impact on us, by sowing mistrust and apprehension about our electoral process, even though it had ZERO impact on the outcome. Best money the Russians ever spent.

The circumstances that create competition games can be overcome. As someone attached to the Nixon Administration, the fact that the core of the Republican Party in the House and Senate in the end refused to play those games (Goldwater, Rhoades [sic] and Scott being the emissaries that told him he had to leave) and Gerry Ford kept it from getting out of hand. It is difficult to see that dynamic in the current context. With the demographic Great Sort and the computer “optimization” of gerrymandering, and with apologies to W. B. Yeats, there is precious little center left to do the holding.

– Al

Yeats is getting quite the work-out in reader letters of late, for good reason.

If the centre doesn’t hold, are discussions of Fed Policy ironic, comic or merely prosaic?

Naked Capitalism shut down their already Moderated comments today. Like many places in society, people are losing their minds and civility is breaking down.

Less recognized is that we are beset by fairly organized manipulation and disinfo.

As an exasperated friend put it, “don’t people realize as a nation we are being trolled and all sides are falling for it?”

Parts of the media/gov/corps are doing the dog whistles while the rank and file of the same madly bark and bite.

Yeats poem “The Second Coming” is almost a cliche at this point. ๐Ÿ™

– Ron

There’s still a center, but it’s doing what the center always does in times like this … we wall ourselves away inside our own individual gardens. We don’t engage. We don’t answer the phone. Ask anyone on the sell-side how their business has been over the past six months.

To loosely quote a line from Jerry Maguire, you had me at funeral attendance. I’ve often pondered what it is that brings those who attend a funeral so close together and I think it’s because we see ourselves in that box in the not too distant future and would like to have someone there to mourn with and console our loved ones also. I too remember who has attended the funerals and wakes unfortunately associated with the family and friends I’ve lost and the kinship that lingers long after the sad day. The way you tied that together with your investment thesis further in the piece though was brilliant and struck a chord with me right to my soul. I have too often in the past let trades linger far longer than they should and it’s just recently I’ve learned to adapt a similar strategy that you described so well.

I also agree with your assessment of the political landscape we’re facing. I was truly hoping for an awakening with Trump’s election, but instead we’ve not only extended the vast divide which began in the Obama years, but have actually increased it to the point I refuse to listen to the radio news, read the WSJ or pay attention to anything except what’s playing on the Classical Rock station on XM. I guess it’s the “head in the sand” theory I’m abiding by, but I believe I’m taking a similar approach to the one described in your approach to a trade. Everything I’ve thought about politics and politicians has led me to realize we’ve all made a very bad trade these past 20 years and the sooner we bury it and go to a new investment the better. I just hope we’re all around to see it!

– John

What John calls “head in the sand” behavior is what I call “walled garden” behavior. It is the natural human response to a world being ripped apart by the centripetal spin of constant competitive games.

Has the change in politics from the cooperation game to the competition game occurred at other times in history? If so, how long did it typically last and was there a major turning point during that process that marked that it was coming to an end?

Alex

This is an area where history rhymes, not repeats. Generally speaking, the only thing that gets a group out of a Competition game is an overwhelming external threat, like a war or natural disaster. The earliest recorded example of this would be the formation of the Delian League after the battle of Plataea in 479 BC, where the Greek city-states put an institutional structure around their alliance against Persia. This famously ends up becoming just a veneer for the Athenian empire, which some might say is the likely future for more recent Delian League structures like NATO. Pretty much any institutionalized post-WWII regime (Bretton Woods, the United Nations, etc.) is an example of Coordination game promotion. My favorite take on this is Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic book series. Or you could watch the movie.

I think the below article might highlight how we can get back to the co-operative game. I had thought that Hillary should have chosen Kasich as a running mate (I am party agnostic – historically voted both parties) – while I can never prove it, but I think that ticket would have “won” going away and would have been healthy for the nation.

http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/politics/kasich-hickenlooper-2020-unity-ticket/index.html

David

Seeing a lot of these cross-party and centrist match-ups of late, most of which feature Kasich. I dunno … the problem with professional politicians is that they’re professional politicians. The thought of leaving the cozy confines of the Party behind is just overwhelming. And the problem with non-professional politicians is that they’re billionaires, with all the disastrous ego-driven consequences that brings. What we need is a grassroots movement that’s both above and below party politics.

I think the political side of the competition game was firmed up with the Obamacare bill. No Democrat dared vote against; no Republican dared vote for. I see that as the official “us vs them” game which legitimized identity politics and ushered in Mr. Trump, who is both coach and cheerleader for his team in the competition game.

Miles

In a lot of your writing, especially about Trump, you make it sound as if Trump is the one who broke us, who made the game go from cooperation to competition. In late 2015, early 2016 I reached the conclusion that the current monetary and trade system was unsustainable. And that was because the world has been functioning with a set of growth models that do not seem to deliver anymore (I would call them broken). Trump and Brexit happened later, I believe as symptoms.

I don’t think Trump broke us. The world broke in 2008 and for 8 years we tried to cope and then balance sheets decided we needed a change and that was Brexit and that was Trump. Now, I do agree that he is different. He is a very good persuader (con-man?) and he comes with different ideas than what we have been told over the last 30 years or so.

Trump is an actor with individual responsibility, but he is also a product of a system which stopped working. And the game became competitive before him (see the Eurozone negotiations, see the increasing trade disputes during Obama).

Hillary was the great pretender, the magical thinking priest. “We are one happy family, let’s hold hands and wish for the best” kind of thing. And I think that is why she lost. People thought they would get more of the pretense. Yes, it means stability, but is [it] also means not recognizing that the game had already changed. I believe many (especially lower income) households realized that “cooperation” had become an equivalent to “stuck”, because there was no more tide to lift all boats.

Nicolae 

It’s a fair point, that Trump is symptom rather than cause, and it’s the central point that my partner Rusty Guinn was making in his companion piece, “Before and After the Storm” (or as I like to call it, “Make America Good Again”).

http://www.digg.com/video/tree-ladder-whoops

Jeremy 

Thanks for sharing today. On the subject of going to the funeral and given your praise for Kevin O’Leary, knowing your appreciation for the cinema, you may recall Danny DeVito in Other People’s Money.

Steve

An indisputable classic.

I’ve been interested in bonsai for many years and got into it a bit more seriously a few years ago (except with tropical plants) as part of my pre-retirement planning. I’m actually more partial to the original Chinese form Penjing which is a bit more disorderly (contrarian?) and metaphorically anti CB style. (It also means that whatever look I end up with can’t really be a mistake either!)

“By and large, it seems that Japanese artists have a strong tendency to impose order on their creations, whereas Chinese artists appear willing to embrace a measure of chaos.

“Clearly, they are less concerned with rules and the pursuit of perfection. Does it mean that there are no rules in penjing at all? Absolutely not.

“Conversations with penjing artists reveal that they are less interested in displays of technical virtuosity and ideal form. Instead, they seek to capture and convey sentiment and mood in their work.

“Their goal is to reveal an inner beauty, an essence inherent in nature.” Read more: http://www.bonsaimary.com/Chinese-Bonsai.html

We’ll see if a computer algorithm can do that.

Brian

Even if this isn’t true (Japanese bonsai artists impose order while Chinese bonsai artists embrace an element of chaos), it sounds so smart and I want to believe it so badly that I am treating it as true. Much like most of our political discourse today.

Makes me think of a saying my mom learned from an Indian furniture dealer at the Dallas World Trade Center – “Show your face.” Wedding? Birth? Anniversary? Funeral? “Show your face.” This phrase has compelled me to put on many suits I did not want to wear and to take many trips to the hospital when I did not want to go. But there is always some joy to be found by doing so.

And I loved the part about the animals. Makes me think of an old Proverb I have taken to heart – “The righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” This one definitely gets me out of bed on nights when I realize no one fed the dogs.

Regarding the life cycle of animals. I have long held that as a society we lose something when people, especially kids, think food comes from the grocery store. I.e., when there is no dirt involved with plants and no blood involved with meat. Even at their young ages, I have made sure my kids have had plenty of both under their fingernails. They may end up favoring country clubs to being in the country, but they will at least forever own by experience the baseline understanding of the cycle of life.

John

I haven’t been able to bring myself to raise animals for their meat. I blame it on the kids, but actually it’s me.

An infestation of Oriental Bittersweet, privet or kudzu cannot withstand the focused attention of a herd of goats who will first attack the leafy greens and then the tender bark of the vines seeking the crucial inner bark which they will pursue all the way to the root. It is then the responsibility of the goatherd to move the goats before they begin to damage the desired grove, fortunately they barbeque up pretty good and I make an acceptable sauce…

Joe

But goats are so damn cute. And they’re good. In the moral sense, not the taste sense, although I suppose that, too. I’m so conflicted!

How can I, or any regular run of the mill person, practically and pragmatically get involved to help “design an operating system that can compete and win against the billionaires’ operating system when the reboot happens”? I am asking with deference and humbleness…I am asking because I see what you see…I am asking because we (Americans or humanity in general…more along the lines of being an American) are better than this. We are better than racial tension, Trump, Clinton, debt, in fighting, political nonsense, billionaires’ controlling, etc., etc., etc. (the etc’s could have gone on for a while). I am asking because words without action are like intentions and hell (the road to hell is paved with the very best of intention).

Daniel

I’ve been wrestling with your question (What do we DO?) for a couple of years now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that political action on a national scale (third party formation, marches, etc.) isn’t the way to go. Instead, it’s hyperlocal political participation (city councils, school boards, that sort of thing) plus a national blockchain-based technology initiative to record video news so that it’s searchable, discoverable, and unalterable. Sounds boring, but I think it’s a transformative movement that we can ALL participate in. I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the weeks and months to come.

I read a lot of financial newsletters. I have been associated with financial services for 35+ years. I have been to several goat-ropings, rodeos and state fairs, too. So, I speak with a modicum of knowledge.

I read this recent “Always Go to the Funeral” article. I hate to admit it, but in review, while it was entertaining, I gleaned no useful action tactics from the theme; though I must admit, it was well-written, as far as verbs & nouns are considered and with obvious learning from Shakespeare literature.

I am still waiting for some, ANY, direction from one of your articles. DO you expect to deliver an actual OPINION, with an action plan, soon?

Steve

Short answer: No.

Long answer:

  1. For regulatory purposes this note is considered to be “general market commentary” and not “marketing material”. The day I start writing about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund, everything I write has to go through a much more laborious and time-consuming compliance process, and I wouldn’t be able to publish to the broad audience that I want to speak to.
  2. I trust that my readers are smart enough to read a statement like “I think that inflation and interest rates are headed up, and will be moving up for a long time, with all the caveat emptor implications that brings for investors” and figure out for themselves what that means for an “action plan” for their portfolio.
  3. I’m a portfolio manager of a hedge fund and co-portfolio manager of a ‘40-Act mutual fund, one of which reports its positions publicly on a quarterly basis (HF) and one on a monthly basis (MF). It would be … highly problematic … for me to write about “actionable ideas” in ET when I’m already acting on them in an undisclosed way within these portfolios.
  4. Even if none of the above constraints existed, I still wouldn’t write about buying XYZ stock or ABC fund. The world has enough touts financial newsletters as it is. There is bigger game afoot!

“Small-l liberal virtues” are philosophically opposed to “really old school notions like feudal bonds of personal obligation and trust.” The two cannot coexist.

The community supports both social and economic inequality (that’s the feudalism of which you speak). It will, either gently or not-so-gently, repress the upstart individual.

For his part, the liberal individual supports, as you note, free markets and free elections. But these are precisely the things that undermine the feudal organization’s bonds.

You are struggling to resolve the conflict that has perplexed us since the dawn of history. There is no known social organization that can capture the best of both small-l liberalism and the best of the bound community. The two have philosophies, bodies of knowledge that ultimately conflict.

John

To your point, I’m not looking to establish some sort of communitarian/liberal combo society, because I think you’re right about the incommensurability of how one defines justice and the good life within these two world views (Michael Sandel was on my dissertation committee). But I do think that there’s a sense of interpersonal obligation away from the State that’s front and center in, say, feudalism and theocracies and other admittedly illiberal societies, that is an extremely healthy corrective for the bastardization of liberalism that we live in today. Liberalism frowns on notions of personal obligation outside of contracts or self-interest, and you have to go to fairly extreme Rawlsian contortions to incorporate them. I’d like to incorporate more directly this communitarian gene of interpersonal obligation — a graft, to continue with the arborist metaphor — to create a liberalism that can stand up better to the Statist onslaught. Does that make sense? It’s a long putt, for sure, but worth the effort.

Horsepower

Cosmic JD tractor déjà vu. The exact same tractor is parked in my hay barn, along with cool attachments that make it so versatile. Brush hog (on my second one, destroyed the first one through sheer stupidity) rotary tiller (don’t try and plant wildflower plots without it) and the piece de resistance here in the snow belt, the snow blower with the six foot wide box. Heaven is a snow storm and 3 foot drifts on a long driveway. The farmer next door who taught me to run it scared the crap out of me by starting my tractor lesson off with “Up hill, down hill, never side hill. This thing will kill you” Then proceeded to list off all the people that had been killed on rollovers around us. So there are probably old farmers, and there are bold farmers, but there are no old, bold farmers. Kind of like PM’s huh? My first year with it I ran it out of fuel while using the bucket to clear the driveway (pre snow blower era, the dark days) at 5 in the morning in sub zero wind chills. Found out quick you have to bleed diesel lines when you run out of fuel, unlike a gas engine with its fuel pump. Neighbors got a big kick out of that epic fail. Why would anyone want a Porsche when you could have a JD? Thanks for being one of the really insightful commentators out there, there is hope for this business after all I guess. And if not, I’ve got some more wildflower plots to put in. Thanks for your work.

Mitch

Exactly like PMs. There are no old and bold portfolio managers.

I’m at the state fair in WI watching horse pulling right now. You’re right about that collar, this is incredible.

Adam

Changed the course of Western civilization.

As I was born in 1957, putting me in the largest birth year cohort of the generation. I can say from experience that low interest rates have caused me to save more not spend more. The whole Fed program of low rates since 1999, when Greenspan panicked about Y2K, has screwed savers and retirees (if they have any sense of risk). If interest rates were higher (and they manage to sidestep massive losses from the adjustment – e.g. at 1.9% inflation, in the old days the 10-year would be around 6%) maybe they would spend more and increase overall demand in the economy?

Jim

YES.

But there IS a way back. And, no, not an individual, but a connection between the physical world and the intangible world of investing. We actually had it for quite some time and it seemed to work as a means of preserving a means of measuring the success of prosperity.

It is gold.

How much should the balance sheets of the world contract? By maintaining the balance between the demand for money and its supply. Or by keeping the price of gold stable; adding to supply when its price dips below a target or vice versa if its price should rise above.

Of course the VALUE of gold doesn’t change – you can’t manipulate it which is the source of its beauty (indeed its supply vastly outstrips any slight demand for it) – central banks actions simply increase or decrease the value of money relative to a stable unit of account.

You are lost in the world of interest rates. Interest rates are NOT the price of money; they are the price of credit. If you can make the leap, the rest is easy.

You can have stable money and volatile (freely market based) interest rates OR unstable money and stable interest rates, but you can’t have both.

All the best. And, yes, we should build a statue to the man (woman?) who invested hydraulics – a genius to be sure; but also the creator of some fairly dangerous equipment.

Charles

I’ve been promising Charles a Mailbag note for a while.

From my perspective, Uncle Sam, Japan, and the Euro Block (and probably others, certainly China) are hopelessly indebted with no natural way of escaping their debt tsunamis.

Thus I think it likely that each such country or block’s central bank will buy and forgive ALL or essentially all such debt in “exchange” for a new regime of fiscal realism and a corresponding new currency such as the “New Dollar”.

I wonder what your thoughts are of the likelihood of this, and what would be the best positioning for individual financial survival?

Gary

If things get bad enough, I don’t think this is a crazy scenario at all. Google “trillion dollar coin” if you want to see how close we’ve gotten already. This is Jubilee, and the survival scenario is pretty simple — be a debtor in a developed country participating in the Jubilee. Even a creditor can do okay, because you’re going to get unbelievable political power out of this. Just don’t get caught outside the Jubilee zone.

Your comment suggests that Uber is actually able to make transportation a breeze, but this service doesn’t happen to increase overall economic productivity in line with consumer appreciation of its service. This is wrong. If you look at the actual economics of Uber’s business model and the economics of urban taxi service, you will quickly see that Uber’ isn’t just “relatively unproductive”, its productivity impact is powerfully negative. Uber is substantially less efficient than the traditional taxi companies it has been driving out of business, and has absolutely no hope of achieving profits or shareholder returns unless it achieves Amazon/Facebook like levels of artificial market power. Companies like Amazon and Facebook can reduce productivity and overall economic welfare once they achieve the levels of artificial market power they now enjoy, but in order to achieve that power they actually developed highly productive operating models and introduced totally new products offering huge new consumer benefits. Uber’s business model was always designed to skip the hard “figure out how to provide services vastly more efficiently than existing providers” part of the equation, and have been using $13 billion in VC cash to achieve industry dominance by subsidizing the huge losses needed to drive existing providers bankrupt. Capital Markets—by explicit design—have been reallocating capital from more productive to less productive uses. If successful, a handful of billionaires would become even more wealthy, but overall economic welfare and the productivity of urban transport would be significantly reduced.

Hubert

I drive for/use Uber because:

  1. My college degree is worthless.
  2. I can’t get a “real” job.
  3. I’m in debt.
  4. I can’t afford a simple house and car in the suburbs.
  5. I’m what you might call “poor” in old-school terms.
  6. All of the above.

anonymous

Heard.

The movement you speak of in the last paragraph… is that demand created by Adam Smith’s unseen hands? What will drive it? As you know from previous communications I think that the low productivity growth is partially driven by the unmeasured deflation inherent in your first explanation of measuring productivity all wrong. We measure productivity in terms of growth of output dollars per man hour. But in a deflationary environment we can grow output in units while the dollar value of that output declines (we have exchanged notes on that before). But I think the same phenomenon is responsible for the low wage growth to boot. So many commentators are puzzled by the fact that, given all the stimulus we have injected into the economy, why we have seen no inflation? My reaction is, given the tech revolution going on, we are in a sharply deflationary environment so the fact that prices haven’t gone down, shows the stimulus HAS brought inflation. But that inflation merely has brought price declines to zero. I.e. if we start with, say, 6% deflation but prices are flat, it means the easy money has generated 6% inflation that offsets. I also think that population demographics have a lot to be explored further. If our population is getting older and birthrates are insufficient to replace, we start trending down in the number of people. That has to have a depressive effect on GNP. But look at Japan, they have stably sustained such an environment for decades. So it strikes me that the relevant measure may not be aggregate GNP but GNP per capita. I.e. you can sustain negative GNP growth as long as it declines at a lower rate than the underlying population such that GNP/head (wellbeing?) is actually growing.

All of this is well and good, but given the explosion in worldwide debt it is still dangerous. The best way to fix that problem is inflate our way out of it. And for that we need real absolute growth. You suggest that that will come from your Maker Movement. But I am wandering what will spark that movement into being?

Jacob

A small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. It’s the only thing that ever has.

Is it also possible that productivity has collapsed because of the burden of over-extended government regulation in a post-GFC world?

Take financial services for example. Let’s say headcount has stayed constant. The make-up has changed materially. We have fired 4 traders and/or analysts and hired 1 programmer and 3 compliance offices.

Buy and sell side alike. With SarBox, Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule, MiFid II, Basel III, short-sale restriction etc. the massive growth in headcount has been on compliance officers and paralegals and not every programmer is replacing the former traders or analysts but some are coding to prepare reports sent to regulators, exchanges or investors. This is the high of a productivity free fall.

I can’t speak to other industries as directly, however, I imagine directionally the pattern is similar.

Rich

I used to pooh-pooh the whole regulatory burden thing as more of an excuse than a reason. But I was wrong. The struggle is real.

Good stuff as always, but your analysis of the buybacks misses one key point – buybacks are a return of capital and you do not know (cannot know, actually) how that capital is being used. So on a superficial level you can say capital is not being reinvested, but in fact it very well may be – in fact, probably, since most shares are held institutionally, and the cash received would stay in a portfolio and be reinvested elsewhere.

The desirability of buybacks is debated perpetually, but I fall on the side of favoring them. If management really does not see a good real use for the capital, I would prefer it be reinvested elsewhere, rather than wasted internally on inferior return projects. I think this is healthier for the economy too.

As an aside, I think the “lack of productivity” issue is a measurement problem. There are a hundred little things that technology enables nowadays that we take for granted, and would be productivity killers if we lost them – but I don’t see how we can measure it. For instance, try calling an airline to book a ticket rather than using Expedia. You will waste a half hour on a 5 minute task. Or ordering anything on Amazon, versus driving to 20 stores looking for it. Or count the number of emails and texts you send in a day, and consider the time that would be required to make the same communications by phone call. Start looking for these instances in your daily life and you will quickly realize the productivity gains that we are making, without realizing or measuring it. “Things produced” may not show it, but time saved certainly would!

Gary

Reinvestment in public markets never gets to the real economy. Never. I know we’re all taught that S = I, but not all I is created equal.

Trust me, I get the power of stock buybacks, and I’ve had this use-of-cash conversation with management in hundreds of 1-on-1s. That’s literally hundreds. But the inferior return of investments in plant and equipment in a ZIRP world is exactly my point!

As for the “time savings” argument … hang on a second, I gotta check my Twitter account and see if I’ve topped 10k followers yet … that’s big, you know?

As always, great piece. I would add one more explanation to the “low productivity” problem. Whereas in decades past, employees would spend minutes a day on break or at the water cooler, they are now spending hours at their desks on social media, yet employers still report them working 40 hours per week. The reality is that many of these employees are actually working for 35, 30, or even fewer hours per week. What this does is increase the denominator and make it look like productivity per hour is low. The reality is that we should be measuring actual hours worked rather than hours in the office.

This is not just a theory, as there is abundant anecdotal evidence. I am 45 and spend approximately 0 hours on social media, but have asked millennials about it and they confirm my suspicions. They even talk about being criticized for not “liking” comments and photos fast enough. How can you “like” something that quickly if you wait until you get home that night?

Surprisingly, I have read very few articles about this explanation presumably because well-known economists are 50+ and use social media about as often as I do…

Sean

I think this is a big reason why our “time savings” from technological process conveniences (Google, Amazon, etc.) never translate into production or productivity. We amuse … hang on … YES, I’ve topped 10k followers! … seriously, go see @epsilontheory … finally! … ourselves to death.

Really enjoyed your expansion on why productivity hasn’t risen as much as one would suspect from technology. I think it may be due to the “Slacker Effect”.

I have noticed that many young people nowadays graduate from college and don’t really want a “real job”. Even though they are well educated and smart, they prefer to do something pretty mundane and low pressure. Often they provide some kind of personal service in an area they are interested in such as personal training, dog walking, or personal assistant/nanny. Of course there isn’t a whole lot of productivity gains possible in those fields and it doesn’t leverage their education and abilities very much.

It does dovetail nicely with inequality, since there is a good sized population of extremely rich individuals who desire a lot of personal services.

Basically, we have developed a small producer population that is enormously well compensated, leads very high pressure lives, and is serviced by the rest of society.

So in that way the changes we have seen with economic inequality and low productivity gains are politically stable and actually desired by much of the population. Probably destined to continue, notwithstanding hand wringing by economic bloggers.

Keith

Now read this …

Maybe I’m missing the point of “Horsepower”, but if you are advocating for making and buying stuff over seeking out experiences, whether as a provider or a consumer, or both, I think you are completely off base. Marx was all wrong about economics and politics, but, oddly for an academic, he showed some insight on actual life when he inveighed against soul-destroying alienation. And it seems to me that what’s important about your tractor (to you – not me, and not the economy in general) is not the making of it (which would best done by robots), or the buying of it (which decreases your freedom of action in life by decreasing your stock of money), but the experience of using it, whether or not you ever turn a notional “profit” on what you do with it, or contribute to the GDP. The value of stuff to humans lies in the positive experiences they derive from it, and as your Emily Dickinson quotation avers all we need to make a prairie is reverie.

As even high level “white collar” jobs are overtaken by AI-driven automation (yours, financial analyst – my former job, software developer) it can beneficially force us to rethink our lives, devolve economically (scaling back both our getting and spending), and focus more on what’s truly most valuable to us – the pursuit of just the right mix of personal experiences.

John

Yes, I agree.

I agree that you’ve missed the point of “Horsepower”, you’ve missed the point of Marx, and you’ve missed the point of Emily Dickinson. There’s a whole Jamie Lee Curtis riff on this in one of my favorite John Cleese movies, A Fish Called Wanda, but I’ll save that for another day.

The part that struck a chord with me was the marketing of an experience based economy over stuff.

As millennial living in Sydney Australia, I have seen many of my friends adopt that experience oriented mindset which encompasses – going to clubs and raves, extravagant holidays and buying food at work. Which equates to zero savings and even going into debt whilst still living with the parents when they all have well-paying jobs.

As a poker player, I interpret this behaviour as going on tilt. An indirect wave of the white flag over prospects of home ownership (prices are crazy) and a lack of trust in the social contract. You are completely right in seeing this as a distraction but calling it “experience economy” ennobles and empowers this irresponsibility. As a society, you can have another generation with the same bad financial habits of the previous.

I see real danger in this trend and the stakes are underestimated. Because if too many liabilities are places into the future, it means too many liabilities are placed on the government and most social upheavals are the result of such economic problems. This will increase the intensity of identity politics and fans the fires of resentment of the have-nots. I am a small L Liberal because as a child, I heard stories of the Cultural Revolution from my dad. Once a significant portion of the population is poor, you really see the dark side of human nature come out, there will no longer be any small L liberals. My grandfather was a farmer’s son who became a surgeon who donates most of his pay to the relatives who are still struggling farmers. As an individual, he should have been a poster child of the rags to riches story. In the identity politics of the Cultural Revolution, he was categorized as the elite and social parasite and rallies were held to berate him and his cohort. If capitalism is perceived as failing, the stakes are enormous to human liberty and rule of law.

Shaun

Well said, Shaun. Well said. I’ll stake you any day.

Before and After the Storm

I often think that the big divide in this country is between Rural and Urban.

Currently, I see amazement among (I suspect) Urban writers re the Volunteerism in Houston. But it doesn’t take a large-area emergency for this to happen. Fully 1/3 of our National Population is served by Fire Cos. that are Volunteer. I suspect the numbers are similar for EMT’s. In Rural America, it’s a daily occurrence.

Ron

YES.

Rusty’s piece is superb. I love the Durant book that he recommends. He fails to mention that it’s only about 100 pages. There’s no excuse for people to *not* buy it and read it. I have a first edition on my office bookshelf. My *only* quibble with the book is that they understand the broad sweep of history, but get things wrong about the decade in which it’s published. They perceive the civil rights movement as a minor passing thing, rather than a seminal change in racial attitudes. And – get this – they dismiss Warhol as ridiculous non-art that will be forgotten in no time! I think the book should be required reading for all University history majors … except the chapter on current events (i.e., the 1960s).

FWIW, I’d say the same thing about “Devil Take the Hindmost,” published in June 2000, which is a fantastic book about bubbles and crashes, but didn’t treat the tech bubble with anywhere near the wisdom or depth of previous cycles. In other words, historians should stick to history, not current events that haven’t yet revealed their historical role or import.

Rob Arnott

I’ve got The Story of Civilization set in my office … they were my father’s, and the pages are all marked up with his underlining and notes. It’s my best connection to him, gone 20 years now.

The inclusion of ARC on your list of “vetted” charities makes me think that it is not a very good list.

Al

Yes the American Red Cross was vetted, yes we’ve read the Pro Publica report (and others), and yes this is the subject of a vigorous internal debate at Salient. I respect your negative experience with the ARC, although I’ve had a very different experience and am convinced by the commitment of the volunteers and paid professionals I know there.

Ultimately it was my decision to include the American Red Cross on the list of recommended charities, and I stand by that decision.

Last summer we had the opportunity to drive through Houston and the whole area en route to a vacation cruise. We noticed two things:

  1. the area is massively overpopulated; and
  2. it’s low.

As we traveled toward the gulf, we noticed it seems the entire region is only two feet or so above sea level. We thought how lucky the people in these areas have been. A tsunami from an earthquake or volcano will literally wipe out vast areas and millions of people – living where they ought not to live.
Or a real genuine large hurricane with 175 -200+ mph winds with a 15 – 20 storm surge going onshore.

Instead, at this time mild mannered Harvey came but with lots of rain!

We noticed the TV videos of the flood areas and they appeared to be connected to rivers. Indeed, it was obvious that the worst areas, maybe all areas, were floodplains. 100% certain to be engulfed in water. With more than 100,000 homes ruined, it suggests the scope of the destructive policies.
Then we learn that the Houston, specifically, area has little if any development zoning controls.
Likewise, Katrina in New Orleans flooded places where no development should have ever been done.
Increasing population in our already overpopulated country implies greater calamities around the corner.
Seems you are missing the point.

Trying to make the world feel sorry for bad things that happen to people and will happen because of destructive policies is not helpful. To be certain, those people we see are living a very sad situation.
But the situation was caused by developers and their government subsidiaries. Incredibly, they prey on entire populations.

Totally avoidable.

Dell from Minneapolis

My first instinct to this letter was to respond with anger. I mean, I was going to tear Dell from Minneapolis a new orifice. Really let my freak flag fly, you know? And I still can’t help myself completely. It’s just too enticing, what with the whole “en route to a vacation cruise” set up. But then I read this below, from a Team Elite Ministry of Truth platform called Project Syndicate.

Hurricane Harvey has left in its wake upended lives and enormous property damage, estimated by some at $150-180 billion. But the rains that inundated the Texas coast for the better part of a week, and the hurricane that is about to hit South Florida, also raise deep questions about the United States’ economic system and politics.

It is ironic, of course, that an event so related to climate change would occur in a state that is home to so many climate-change deniers – and where the economy depends so heavily on the fossil fuels that drive global warming. Of course, no particular climate event can be directly related to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But scientists have long predicted that such increases would boost not only average temperatures, but also weather variability – and especially the occurrence of extreme events such as Hurricane Harvey. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded several years ago, “There is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Astrophysicist Adam Frank succinctly explained: “greater warmth means more moisture in the air which means stronger precipitation.”

To be sure, Houston and Texas could not have done much by themselves about the increase in greenhouse gases, though they could have taken a more active role in pushing for strong climate policies. But local and state authorities could have done a far better job preparing for such events, which hit the area with some frequency.

In responding to the hurricane – and in funding some of the repair – everyone turns to government, just as they did in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Again, it is ironic that this is now occurring in a part of the country where government and collective action are so frequently rebuked. It was no less ironic when the titans of US banking, having preached the neoliberal gospel of downsizing government and eliminating regulations that proscribed some of their most dangerous and anti-social activities, turned to government in their moment of need.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from such episodes: markets on their own are incapable of providing the protection that societies need. When markets fail, as they often do, collective action becomes imperative.

And, as with financial crises, there is a need for preventive collective action to mitigate the impact of climate change. That means ensuring that buildings and infrastructure are constructed to withstand extreme events, and are not located in areas that are most vulnerable to severe damage. It also means protecting environmental systems, particularly wetlands, which can play an important role in absorbing the impact of storms. It means eliminating the risk that a natural disaster could lead to the discharge of dangerous chemicals, as happened in Houston. And it means having in place adequate response plans, including for evacuation.

Effective government investments and strong regulations are needed to ensure each of these outcomes, regardless of the prevailing political culture in Texas and elsewhere. Without adequate regulations, individuals and firms have no incentive to take adequate precautions, because they know that much of the cost of extreme events will be borne by others. Without adequate public planning and regulation, including of the environment, flooding will be worse. Without disaster planning and adequate funding, any city can be caught in the dilemma in which Houston found itself: if it does not order an evacuation, many will die; but if it does order an evacuation, people will die in the ensuing chaos, and snarled traffic will prevent people from getting out.

America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party. The world is paying, because cumulative US greenhouse-gas emissions are greater than those from any other country; even today, the US is one of the world’s leaders in per capita greenhouse-gas emissions. But America is paying a high price as well: other countries, even poor developing countries, like Haiti and Ecuador, seem to have learned (often at great expense and only after some huge calamities) how to manage natural disasters better.

After the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the shutdown of much of New York City by Sandy in 2012, the devastation wrought on Texas by Harvey, and now the prospect of Irma pummeling Florida, the US can and should do better. It has the resources and skills to analyze these complex events and their consequences, and to formulate and implement regulations and investment programs that mitigate the adverse effects on lives and property.

What America doesn’t have is a coherent view of government by those on the right, who, working with special interests that benefit from their extreme policies, continue to speak out of both sides of their mouth. Before a crisis, they resist regulations and oppose government investment and planning; afterwards, they demand – and receive – billions of dollars to compensate them for their losses, even those that could easily have been prevented.

One can only hope that America, and other countries, will not need more natural persuasion before taking to heart the lessons of Hurricane Harvey.

Joseph

This is not from Dell from Minneapolis, driving through Houston on his way to a cruise and making some off-the-cuff and ignorant comments. This is Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. This is Joseph Stiglitz, former chair of the U.N. Commission on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System. Dell from Minneapolis is not one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Joseph Stiglitz is.

Now I’m not going to get into a blow-by-blow response to this Stiglitz piece, although like Dell from Minneapolis’s masterwork, there are some flowers here that I can’t help but pluck (“America and the world are paying a high price for devotion to the extreme anti-government ideology embraced by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party.” If only we had had a president for the past eight years who considered climate change to be our #1 national security concern. Just imagine how much better off we would be today.).

But I’ll say this. The smiley-face authoritarianism that oozes from this article, the not understanding and the not wanting to understand the facts of Houston and Harvey, the global system that awards Stiglitz — an intelligent man who knows better — its highest accolades and sweetest rewards for his betrayals of truth-seeking, the sheer mendacity of the effort … this is our enemy. It’s my enemy, anyway. And combating it will be a life well lived.

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Mailbag! Midsummer 2017 Edition

Back by popular demand, it’s the Epsilon Theory Mailbag! Today’s edition covers notes from the past two months including “Tell My Horse”, “Post-Fed Follow-Up”, “Notes From the Field”, “The Goldfinch in Winter”, “Gradually and Then Suddenly”, and a podcast or two.

Keep those cards and letters coming …


I have been in Cash for the last 4 years and feel like a Wet Monkey. Expecting a 50% Market reset that simply does not happen…

I feel that The Fed has been buying stocks via ETFs since 2013, notice the slope of SPY since 2013, with a “Buy the dip” program ….

Do you think that is possible, or just the Brain Worm talking?
– James

Sorry, James, but that’s a Brain Worm talking. The Fed doesn’t need to buy stocks directly, not like the Bank of Japan, anyway. And not like the Swiss central bank. No, the Fed has deputized each and every one of us to act on its behalf, which is really the way you want to set these things up. You want to establish a meme of Central Bank Omnipotence … err, excuse me, I meant to say “expanded forward guidance” as part of “communication policy”, so that you don’t need to get your hands dirty directly. You want to control the meme. You want to control the Brain Worm. THAT’S the power of the Common Knowledge Game.

And now two letters for the time capsule. If one of my daughters ever asks me what investing was like in the Hollow Market, I’ll show her these.

I just read through your piece (and then I read it again) [“Tell My Horse”]. It was a sobering start to the day as it pretty succinctly captured and reflected back to me my broken spirit. I used to love this business. I used to believe in its methodology and the integrity of its analytics. Now, like a priest having had a crisis of faith, I can no longer stand in the pulpit and preach the gospel. I don’t [know] what to believe. I don’t know what the message is anymore. The “markets as political utility” meme strikes me as correct, but one can’t represent that to clients much less prospects. I have slowly made “accommodations” for this environment: including a quant sleeve, including more overseas exposure, including structured ETFs. All the while, I have held to my deflationary thesis and stayed long bonds and overweighted to alternative selections. Performance has been middling but sufficient. But, there is zero joy to it. The sole satisfaction comes from still believing that I am doing the “right” thing by my clients, even though the market rarely affirms my conviction. I do surround myself with like-minded (but open minded) folks, and while there is a risk of isolating oneself in an echo chamber, the constant cacophony of mainstream narratives is more than enough to provide balance with the “bull” thesis. My real fear is that we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we’ll never again see the light of day. I don’t think this business will ever be the same again (and I don’t really even know what I mean by that). Perhaps this business was never what I thought it to be! The sole goal at this point seems to be survival. I do think there will be a massive come-uppance at some point. But if so, I know there will be little satisfaction in having been “right”. Thus, it’s just one day at a time as I try to take some comfort in the wisdom of the ages that “this too shall pass”.
Bill

So I cannot thank you enough for expressing what is at the pit of my stomach. Both in the underlying distrust of the bull market, and in the Hollow Market analogy. You see our business is in fact losing its soul.

I met with a board member of the CFA Institute who lives in our area. After beating me up on fees for a half hour, he then asked about our recent GIPS compliance project. Did we find it helpful? Was it a benefit in managing accounts?

So being well trained after years of attempting to control reactions and impulses, with varying degrees of success, I was actually able to restrain myself from both dipping his head in his soup, or erupting into a cascading use of the f bomb in its many derivative forms. But I was tactful and I pray professionally pointed in my response. That compliance with GIPS costs a full analyst position, or PM position. That as fees decrease, and costs escalate we are squeezed. That as we are squeezed we cannot do more with less, so we either have to employ less CFAs or pay them substantially less, making the skill set less valuable. Did I find it helpful? No, I found it eroding my abilities to deliver the very product he wants with no pricing power.

What I did not say, but thought about substantially on my drive home, is that the other far-reaching consequence is that the institutionalization of money management has made career risk more and more an issue, as analysts and PMs become benchmark huggers, and allocators in varying percentages. That compliance standards which now prevent personal investment destroy the skill set of the “investors” that are professional PMs. That in fact the destruction of Alpha and investing skills has been the professionalization of the industry.

So I sit here invested, raising cash, feeling stupid, wondering about my personal investing skill, as I cannot figure out where to place funds with strong conviction. It’s a strange new world we work in, Ben. I feel disoriented in this Hollow Market, not trusting the upswing in the markets. Too afraid to sell out, but too afraid to implement cash into it either….. maybe I will buy some passive product…..wait, but what about excellence?
John

But what about excellence? That’s the cry that goes echoing through the canyons of Midtown Manhattan, fading more and more into the distance each and every day.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old adage: “a broken clock is right twice a day”.

It is universally accepted (sans Yellen) that a correction will occur at some point in the future. The debate isn’t so much around the existence of economic cycles but around distance (time) until the back end of the current cycle arrives. I would place us (the broad Epsilon family) among the minority who believe that the inevitable correction will occur sooner rather than later. I would also admit that we (I) have been a believer of sooner rather than later for some time now. The question I keep asking myself is that if the correction does come over the nearer term. Will we (I) be vindicated, or will we (I) have been patient enough for that broken clock to be telling the current time?

I don’t have a good answer… at least not one that is satisfying.
Paul

You and me both, brother.

I wonder what you think of the following- We know that the feds QE and the govts build up of massive debt fragilizes (to use a N.N. Taleb word- another genius) the economy. However, I wonder if you think there is a chance that these ridiculous policies will get bailed out if they just reduce GDP by some percentage points, say from 5pct to 2pct annually for some amount of years. This would cost us trillions of dollars in never realized growth over the long run, but it could all be blamed away on other factors of course. In a similar way to how a Ponzi scheme can dig itself out of a hole with a really lucky grand slam investment (Pharma boy Shkreli did it until he mouthed off on twtr).

In this case there may not be a financial asset crash and instead we just blow up at a WAY later date when swaths of countries can no longer pay their debts.

Do you see this as plausible? Or is it inevitable that assets eventually tank and the economy gets into real trouble again?
– David 

Absolutely plausible, although I’d bet on joint U.S.-Japan-Europe debt monetization as the weapon of mass jubilee if it comes to that (google “trillion dollar coin” and try not to gag). There’s nothing inevitable about any of this, including an asset price crash.

I think this is more “sky is falling” stuff and “getting out” out stocks and bonds and establishing a “short bias” has been proffered by many over the past years. Those that have acted on that advice are much poorer today. Not because they were less prudent but because after they took action to get out of stocks and bonds no one told them what to go in to…the price friction of getting out of stocks and bonds and then back in (forget the timing aspect) is very expensive. The loss of income is catastrophic if not timed properly. You appear to know exactly when to get out. Not sure how…

We all know that recoveries don’t die of old age but are always due to a Fed that is over tightening money supply. With $4T in excess reserves on the books of the major central banks, having a market accident, given how well capitalized now the US banks are, seems like a remote possibility. This Minsky moment that you’re holding up to us is either not happening, or at the very least, not happening any time soon.
Steve

You could well be right, and I’ll be the first to admit that my risk antennae have been quivering violently at seven of the last two market corrections. But that’s my job and my nature — to have risk antennae that suffer Type 1 errors (false positives) to avoid Type 2 errors (false negatives). I think that’s better than the alternative, certainly for wealth preservation, although it makes me totally unsuited for any job on the sell-side, ever.

I’ve gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em, though (which includes noting a couple of narrative-driven investable rallies, so I’m not exclusively a Cassandra), and what IS demonstrably different today as opposed to five years ago or three years ago or even one year ago is that the Fed has turned their barge around to engage in a program of rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. The ECB is in the process of turning their barge in the same direction. To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end of QE and negative rates and all of the other exercises in Magical Thinking we have endured over the past eight years, but it IS the end of the beginning. It IS an inflection point. It IS a change in the second derivative of monetary policy accommodation, a reduction in the acceleration of policy even if we’re not yet at a reduction in the level of accommodation.

Because if I’ve learned one thing as a student of markets and human behavior over the years, it’s this: markets, no matter how big and no matter how small, happen on the margins. Inflection points not only matter, they are everything to the Game of Markets. Some of my very first Epsilon Theory notes were about this [“2 Fast 2 Furious”], and I think they’re worth reviewing again today.

Geez – when are you guys going to get off this “the Fed rules the world mantra?” Do you really think in the board meetings during the AMZN – WFM negotiations that anyone really got up and said, “maybe we should wait and see what the Fed might do?“ Outside of the financial industry how many board meetings do you think have The Fed on the agenda?? I have asked many CEOs and funny I get the same answer — none! I’ve asked the ex-CFO of WMT – same answer – never! I asked him did the Fed ever come up in any strategic decisions, any mergers or acquisitions – same answer – NEVER! I’ve asked the CEO of Simon, retail – one would think might be influenced by rates – same answer – NEVER came up. Wake up and smell the roses – businessmen run the world – not central bankers.
David

I once asked my boss, the founder of a very successful investment firm, what his most important lesson learned had been. “Remember this, Ben,” he said. “It’s not about the money. It’s. About. The. Money.”

So I ask you, David, who makes the money? I mean, who literally makes The Money? And sets the price of The Money. And buys trillions upon trillions of dollars of stuff with The Money year after year after year. And has implanted a meme in everyone’s brain (except yours, apparently) that even if they’re not literally making money and buying stuff today … well, they might tomorrow. Or might not.

Do you think I enjoy delivering this message? Because I don’t. It makes me sick that global stocks added more than a TRILLION dollars’ worth of value over the past few weeks because Janet Yellen said something that was perceived as dovish. It makes me sick because global stocks will LOSE more than a trillion dollars’ worth of value if she turns around next week and says something that is perceived as hawkish. It’s a joke. It’s a perversion of what a small-l liberal market should be. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

“Businessmen run the world” … I wish that were true. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Don’t be a beggar.

Where I continue to struggle, is why in the world a man like President Trump, who I believe cares about winning and self-promotion, more than the long-term success of our country, is going to appoint a Fed chair that will continue raising rates in 2018, when he knows that higher interest rates are anathema to higher stock and real estate prices, at least in the short-run?

What I have been telling my clients is that I have a hard time believing President Trump will elect someone who will make it harder for him to “appear” successful. You and I both know that our country needs higher “normal” rates as well as a much better taxation system (a national sales tax and get rid of the deductions for borrowing money) to truly stabilize and revitalize our economy in the long-run. But, you won’t get to better long-term policies without short-term pain . . . and we seem to be (as a country) in the pain-minimization mode at present.

Do you believe that President Trump will appoint a Federal Reserve Chair that will focus on the long-term health of the “real” economy, or just another Alan Greenspan groupie, who cares more about the level of the S&P than GDP?
– Joel

I think that Trump wants to have his cake and eat it, too, meaning that he needs both higher short-term rates AND a steepening yield curve (i.e., higher long-term rates) to support a reflation narrative for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, and he thinks that a reflation narrative will keep the S&P chugging along (in particular, supportive of financials as part of a rotation away from growth and into value). That would be the narrative accompanying, say, Gary Cohn taking the FOMC reins — that the Fed is raising short-term rates and shrinking the balance sheet for the right reasons, thus steepening the yield curve. And you know that the Street would absolutely eat this narrative up, even though everyone also knows it’s just another Big Lie. Wait, did I just say that out loud? Scratch that. What I meant to say is that I, for one, welcome our new Goldman Sachs overlords!

A lot of forces want to see Trump fail. Are the current Fed and Chair carrying that same agenda? Seems like they could be a lot more powerful than the politicians and the press’ infatuation with Russia, Russia, Russia. Is there a bigger motive at work here when the Fed aggressively raises rates? “Politics Always Trumps Economics”? how about “Fed Always Trumps House/Senate Investigations?

Are there examples in the past when a Fed/Chair was working to hurt the economy to make the President look bad?
– James

Back in 1960, Richard Nixon blamed his loss to JFK in large part on the Fed’s tight monetary policy, claiming that William McChesney Martin — a Truman appointee — had deliberately sabotaged the economy to damage his incumbent candidacy (Nixon ran as Eisenhower’s VP in 1960). So when Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he got rid of Martin as soon as he could and appointed Arthur Burns, who was basically Nixon’s lapdog. Nixon famously told Burns to keep interest rates low leading into the 1972 re-election campaign, and when Burns resisted, Nixon planted negative stories about him in the press until he finally gave in. So yes, politics have always been a big part of Fed policy, and I think the Yellen Fed would be perfectly happy to hang a recession around the Donald’s neck, so long as it didn’t damage their post-Fed earning potential … err, I mean, their credibility and gravitas as prudent bankers.

Of course, what’s new today and is the biggest difference-in-degree-but-not-in-kind between Trump and Nixon is that Trump plants negative stories about everyone, including the Justice Department, which is just about the most depressing thing I can write. I’ve said it before [“Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble”] and I’ll say it again: Trump breaks us, not because of his policy specifics, but because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

I travel a LOT, speaking with investor groups all over the country, of every political persuasion. Plus I have dual citizenship, having grown up in Red America and now living in Blue America, so I speak both Good Ole Boy and Team Elite fluently and without an accent. My observation from this perch is that we are utterly divided as a country, that the polarization is getting worse, and that political entrepreneurs (including the one in the White House and a whole host of smaller players on the Democratic side) are doing what political entrepreneurs always do — they’re embracing and accelerating this sea change in our social behaviors and institutions, and they’re using Fiat News to do it.

Welcome to Westworld.

Your conclusion is very clear, but I’m confused by the path you get there. You suggest that Yellen’s response function has flipped since the Trump election (implying that she is being politically partisan?), and yet you also seem to suggest that she is being consistent with the long term real job of a central banker, which is to maintain the power of capital and so prioritizing the suppression of wage inflation. Is it just co-incidental that the job market is becoming “unstable” after Trump’s election, or has that been there, ignored, for a while, and Yellen is picking it up now as an excuse to damage Trump?
Guy

Lots of letters about the Fed wanting to damage Trump. I really don’t think there’s an animus here as much as there’s an intense desire to declare institutional victory and cement a legacy. If that legacy means a headache for the Donald … well, so be it, but that’s not the primary motivation. This has been brewing for a while. I wrote a note about this last September, called “Essence of Decision.”

Yesterday I was listening to Neil Howe’s presentation at the Mauldin Strategic Investment Conference last month, during which he suggested that a recession/downturn is exactly what Trump needs to make progress on his agenda. That is, because the economy is doing so well and stocks continue to rise, no one in DC or NY has any incentive to compromise. However, should things start to go into reverse – and Fed tightening has been the trigger for almost every recession – that’s when he can really get stuff done. Thus, in the current bizarro world we live in, malice toward Trump by the Fed could actually end up helping him.
– David

Too clever by half. I once had an analyst tell me that he wished that a stock we owned would go down so that we could buy more. Ummm … no. Neither life in markets nor life in politics works that way. Buying more may be the right reaction to an unlucky beat, but show me a PM who wants to lose today in order to win more bigly tomorrow, and I’ll show you a PM who’s not long for this world. Ditto for presidents.

Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far, but I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will be.
Janet

I dunno, Janet, that’s a statement that might not age well, the sort of thing that ends up as a rueful tagline on an otherwise distinguished career. Just ask Chuck Prince about dancing until the music stops. George W. about “Mission Accomplished”. Statements like this are rewardless risk. You know, kinda like negative interest rate bonds.

Good to hear Devin’s thoughts [podcast with Devin Anderson, “Does It Fly, Really?”], and that I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed McCullough’s take on Orville and Wilbur’s empirical method. Kill Devil Hills is sacred ground. When you talk about American Makers …. I’ve flown and kitesurfed that area frequently, keeping aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

On another note – people who misuse history – especially Thucydides – should have to read May’s Thinking in Time with their eyes wired open.
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/06/21/why-the-white-house-is-reading-greek-history-215287
Brendan

Two great books: David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (2015) and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s Thinking in Time (1986). Thucydides wrote a great book, too. I’ve taught a course on it. But Brendan is right. The Peloponnesian War was 2,500 years ago. The U.S. ain’t Athens and China ain’t Sparta (much less the other way around, which would be a lot more accurate to the power dynamics that Thucydides actually described). So give it a rest, all you war hawks on both the left and the right. Just stop it with the “lessons from history” that you cherry pick. Want a lesson from Thucydides about war and conflict? Go read about the Syracuse campaign and then get back to me.

I was particularly struck by the below claim in your note [“Tell My Horse”]. I tried unsuccessfully to find a source on google, so I was wondering if you could help by pointing me in the direction of the data that supports this? “ETFs and index products — of which there are now more such aggregated securities listed on U.S. markets than the company stocks which comprise them!”
Matthew

Here’s a link to the Bloomberg.com article that sourced the more-indices-than-stocks quote. I believe that the Economist also wrote a similar piece recently.

My background is science; I am/was a forestor. The late great Stephen Jay Gould was also a master of telling one story by telling the tale of another more common event. I read everything he wrote.

So you talk about diversification being the ‘bird’ for all seasons. Not as flashy as the Goldfinch [“The Goldfinch in Winter”], but more reliable. I’d like to offer a viewpoint from an ecologists POV about your field and birds.

I would offer that portfolio diversification is more like your field and surrounding forests than the occasional flock of birds that visit. Because you make the effort to knock back the growth in that field you get new plants and new plant growth, which attract flocks of birds. Even to the extent of keeping them around through the year. From an ecologists POV this is called ‘robustness’; an environment that has a greater number of species co-existing has a greater chance of maintaining a greater number of species through a greater variation of conditions.

So, you keep clearing out that field occasionally and clean out the underbrush near the edge of the forest (the interface between forest & field is where the greatest local biological diversity will occur) and you will continue to be rewarded with occasional delights of all god’s creatures. I dare say you might be visited by the Fox or even the Owl in winter.

There really is a parable for investors here.
Kimpton

And where there’s a parable, there’s an Epsilon Theory note not too far behind! Did you know that there’s been a widescale commercial effort in Russia to domesticate the fox through genetic modification? Sometimes these notes just write themselves.

In my client reviews, I like to leave them with something thoughtful or philosophical, and many of those nuggets start in Epsilon.

One original one I wanted to share, which has likely been thought of in a different way. “it is not often that both US stocks and bonds are at all time highs at the same time – those are the things we are thinking about while managing your money”.

Have you done any research about what that means for diversification?
Vince

Your recent posting regarding the Fed’s decision to unwind its massive securities portfolio contained the following comment:

“Or just ride your 60/40 vanilla stock/bond allocation through the cycle, which is the whole point of the 60/40 thing (even, though, of course, you’re really running a 95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective).”

Is it possible to provide a brief explanation of what you meant by “95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective?” I’m a small investor, admittedly currently following a Vanguard-inspired “vanilla” strategy.
Jim

Nothing wrong with vanilla, Jim, and to Vince’s question, yes, the Salient Brain Trust has done a tremendous amount of work on what all this means for diversification. A couple of points before I suggest further reading.

  • Allocations like 60/40 are talking about the dollar amounts you have invested in different asset classes, in this case 60% of your dollars allocated to stocks and 40% of your dollars allocated to bonds. But a dollar invested in stocks has a different amount of risk associated with it than a dollar invested in bonds; i.e., the historical volatility of the stock market is a lot higher than the historical volatility of the bond market. So from a risk “budget” perspective as opposed to a dollar budget, a 60/40 stocks-to-bonds portfolio is really more like a 95/5 stocks-to-bonds portfolio.
  • Even if stocks and bonds are positively correlated, as they have been on the way up over the past eight years and as they may be on the way down (if there’s ever a down), a diversified portfolio should still own plenty of bonds. Period.
  • When we’re thinking about diversification, it’s useful to consider dimensions beyond just stocks vs. bonds. That includes the risk/volatility dimension. That includes the asset class dimension (commodities, real assets, corporate credit as distinct from government bonds, etc.) That includes the geography dimension. That includes the classic Fama/French dimensions. That includes behavioral dimensions such as momentum. Markets radiate information on many different wavelengths, not all of which are naturally visible to the human eye, but all of which are important to take into account in a well-balanced portfolio.

For further reading, particularly on the risk-budgeting approach, I’d point you to “The Free Lunch Effect: The Value of Decoupling Diversification and Risk” and any number of whitepapers on the Salient website. I’d also recommend the AQR Library as a source of smart and useful thinking on this topic.

After reading all of these, I continue to have one question: how does one set expectations for returns? Assuming a solidly built (nothing is perfect), diversified portfolio and 10(?) years, what is the curve of return with the horizontal axis being vol tolerance…
– Matt

And one more recommendation. Rusty Guinn’s latest Epsilon Theory notes, “Whom Fortune Favors, Part 1” and “Whom Fortune Favors, Continued” answer this question from Matt. Not-to-be-missed reading for anyone who deals with portfolio construction for a living.

While your logic seems counterintuitive at first, on second thought, I get that there could be a zone where rates are still low enough that raising them is inflationary not deflationary as the world is not so black and white as the investing masses assume (i.e. too much brain damage to think in greyscale). Do you have the data to support the thesis (either in our market or a similar market … am guessing we won’t have a lot of statistical significance)?
Felix

We’ve got eight years of data on the original premise of QE — that more central bank printing of money and buying of financial assets would lead to greater amounts of money getting into the real economy to spur more real economic activity — and the inescapable conclusion is that it doesn’t happen. Money goes into bank reserves but it doesn’t get out, in a classic example of a roach motel … err, I mean a liquidity trap. That fact, which was clear to all by 2012, led to a bit of a schism in the High Church of Monetary Policy, with one Pope saying that QE 1 was a good idea, but that subsequent printing and buying sprees were a wash at best, and we should stop doing more of this. That Pope’s name, believe it or not, is Ben Bernanke, which is why the U.S. denomination of the High Church is way ahead of the other denominations in unwinding their QE experiment.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the other Popes weren’t convinced when Bernanke started saying that QE doesn’t really work that well in the real economy, particularly when they saw how well it could work to prop up financial asset prices and deliver political stability. As a result, the other Popes have generally been of the mind that the answer wasn’t to do something else, but to do MOAR! than the U.S. Church ever thought possible. Hence we got negative rates and efforts to outlaw cash and direct central bank buying of equities and all the other madness of the past three years in Europe and Japan. But MOAR! didn’t work in those real economies, either, although it sure did cripple the banks, which is why Pope Draghi is now coming around to Pope Bernanke’s view.

On the reverse argument — that as central banks now start to tighten monetary policy through both traditional interest rate hikes and nontraditional balance sheet contraction, inflation and loan growth will actually start to pick up — we have zero historical evidence that this will be the case because we’ve never been in this situation before.

What we do have, however, is both a supply and a demand argument for why this will happen. On the supply side, central banks pay commercial banks interest on the reserves they hold. As the Fed raises rates, they pay the banks more interest, which — given the massive reserves in the system — is a non-trivial boost to the capital position of the banks on a present value basis. Boosting the capital ratios of the banks should make them more willing to take risk and put money out. Couple that with a steeper yield curve (see my earlier response regarding the forthcoming Gary Cohn narrative) to generate higher net interest margins on these loans, and you should see the velocity of money really pick up as banks reduce lending standards and push, push, push on getting those loans out the door.

The demand argument isn’t talked about as much, because it’s not under the direct control of the regulatory mandarins of the Fed and the ECB. Central banks control all the levers on the supply side. To repeat, they literally make The Money. And they control its distribution. But they don’t control who asks for a loan or what that loan is used for. They don’t make the demand. They can influence the demand by making the price of The Money cheaper (lower interest rates), but even there they only have direct control over the price of short-term money.

My opinion is that when the price of money gets exceptionally low AND you’ve got a massive buyer of financial assets waiting in the wings, it tilts the risk and reward of debt-taking away from making stuff and towards investing in stuff, towards what’s commonly called “financialization.” I think we see this tilt everywhere in the modern economy, particularly in the largest corporations with essentially unlimited access to capital. Why take the chance of building a new factory or launching a new growth initiative when you can generate a highly predictable and substantial earnings growth rate or return on equity through a buyback or dividend program? If you don’t have unlimited access to capital — and most small businesses don’t — then you’re limited to the avoidance of making stuff without the ability to embrace financialization. So you just stall. It’s not terrible. You’re getting by. But you’re just getting by.

So what diminishes the demand for “financialization” loans and increases the demand for “productive” loans? I promise you that it’s not cutting the price of money by another 50 basis points. On the contrary, the price of money has to go UP and the reward of markets DOWN before the risk-reward calculus of debt-taking shifts back to making stuff in the real economy.

Whew! That was a long-winded explication. Here are some letters that say it more pithily than me …

That’s just crazy enough to be totally dead on.

Your idea will also accelerate the velocity of money in the great American bingo parlor of life.
– John

The current Fed policy effectively injects liquidity into the financial system through raising the IOER rate — printing money to make interest payments on reserves banks hold on deposit at the Fed. This compares to the traditional monetary where the Fed drains reserves from the financial system to drive the Fed Funds rate higher. We are years off to getting back to traditional monetary policy. Maybe not in our lifetime.

No wonder markets are going bonkers. We believe this is why the Fed has quickened its pace to start shrinking their balance sheet. Rather than being forced to overshoot interest rates, which could adversely affect the economy, the Fed will start draining reserves through balance sheet reduction hoping to introduce some risk aversion and sense back into the giddy global markets.
– Gary

You are describing [“Gradually and Then Suddenly”] a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop whch can be described mathematically as a geometric or exponential function, until it reaches a maximum.

Has the “barge” already left the dock, or will it have done so only upon the fact of FED balance sheet run-off commencing? The jawboning this week was only a damper, contemporaneous as it was with weak data. Last month’s Draghi comments whch lifted the global sovereign yield curves, I believe, was the barge tooting its horn as it departed its mooring at the dock.

Buy DUST and hold it through the FED’s asset sales.

Interesting, apparently crazy, and probably dangerous times, indeed. Good speculation and investing. Thanks for your writing.
– Robert

So you are talking about the unintended consequences of policy-driven interest rates. Hmm. John Locke talked to the parliament about the exact same thing in 1691 (sic!). Then one and a half century later came Bastiat with “That which is seen, and that which is not seen” addressing similar concept. I’d guess Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is related to (positive) unintended consequences as well.

That’s some of the biggest names of libertarianism ๐Ÿ™‚

Today’s short letter was so empowering and enlightening, I almost didn’t miss your beekeeper stories or movie quotes.
Johan

The counter argument would be that each country that has tried QE, has seen their economies slip back into recession when they finally took the QE punch bowl away.

This has been true in the past in the US, Europe, Japan, and China (sort of) – so could we have a recession AND inflation?
– West Coast Investor

You mean stagflation? I kinda doubt it, because it generates an unstable political equilibrium, but it’s absolutely possible. Market gives this less than zero odds, of course, which is … interesting, from a macro trading perspective.

That said, it’s smaller businesses, those without access to the financialization goodies of the modern monetary policy system, that are already suffering from a form of stagflation-lite. And on that note …

I suspect another, and perhaps more direct, answer to your question is that while we do not have wage inflation, we have compensation inflation (compensation = wages + benefits). For example (and this may be the key driver) medical costs continue to rise much faster than overall inflation and someone is paying that. To put numbers to my example: if a company is spending $4k a year on benefits on a $40k a year employee and the cost of those benefits goes up 10% then there is 1% compensation inflation. Add that to 2.5% wage inflation and you have 3.5% compensation inflation.

I have not seen anyone write about this and that may be due to the fact that there is a scarcity of good data on the subject. I am aware of this only because I have been a small company CEO.
David 

By the way and for what it’s worth, wages in the construction industry are already off to the races. We are paying our professionals/ semi-professionals and experienced people probably 30% more than 2-3 years ago. At a meeting yesterday with one of the large Gen Contractors, they told me young guys are heading straight into field jobs out of the construction management schools (Auburn, Clemson, Ga Tech, etc) where they can make a lot more than they could coming in to an office as a trainee. This ship has turned fast in our business. I guess the difference is that we (as non-public entrepreneurs) ARE investing significantly. Just a data point thought you might want to hear.
– Alan

You don’t have to wonder, we are at 4.3% unemployment and were not seeing acceleration yet, so clearly NAIRU has been structurally lower this cycle. The other thing that is clear we will get there and it is not years away, but more likely months.

If you look at states where unemployment is lower, like NH and ME, you have wages moving up in the 4-5% Y/Y range currently so we know the concept is sound. After all we are talking about the most basic principle of economics here – supply and demand.

Companies we talk to are baffled by the government numbers, they see it and are worried about maintaining margins (raising prices). There is a fair amount of anchoring and it is important to keep in mind that each crisis occurs because people are worried about the last crisis. In this case fighting the psychology of deflation.

So yes, NAIRU is lower, but it is also likely to be a coiled spring. That realization, along with a positive correlation between stocks and bonds, will sow the seeds of the next collapse.
– Alan

In exactly the same way that almost every financial advisor I speak with feels “stuck”, so does almost every small to medium business owner I speak with. There’s a trickle-down wealth effect from their personal accounts, which is all well and good, but they’re not feeling the love from the last eight years of QE in their businesses because they can’t access the financialization wonder drug of public markets. At best they get it second hand if they can find an LBO buyer. But the LBO buyers are all mega shops today, so juiced up on the financialization steroid themselves that they don’t have time to mess around with the small to medium guys.

It’s just another manifestation of the central truth of life in 2017, on every level of aggregation and scale — if you’re in the Club, life is good. If you’re not, life is very very anxious.

Ben, I just read the piece that you sent out yesterday [“Gradually and Then Suddenly”] and I have a question for you regarding productivity. Other authors that I have read have put forth the theory that productivity growth is low because we are measuring productivity in a manner that doesn’t fit the new economy. In other words, measuring widgets produced per hour is not the accurate measure of productivity in the digital economy. They admitted that we don’t know yet how to measure productivity in the digital economy but that we would be well served to think about it.

I would very much like to hear your thoughts about their theory.
– Ann

I got a lot of good letters on the Great Productivity Debate, too many to address directly in what is already an overly long Mailbag. I’ve reposted a handful below, because they do a good job of covering the waterfront. The topic deserves a full-fledged Epsilon Theory note of its own, so that’s what I’ll do next week in a new Note From the Field. I’ve already got the title picked out: “Horsepower.”

Political hamstringing of entrepreneurs, yes. Focus on stock price not business, yes. But a simpler causation is that cheap money and open borders help suppress real wages (and, via govt spending and consumer credit, both, make up for them ) and THEREFORE mean less need to substitute with invested capital, in turning keeping marginal gain to labour low-added and so reacting back on itself.
– Sean

– Justin

Can you address the role of globalization on your theory of inflation going up with monetary tightening? I believe the world is awash in industrial capacity brought on mostly by Chinese overbuilding in numerous industries. I know the Chinese can’t subsidize forever, but right now they seem to be cranking out product they have no idea where it will go. Solar panels is a great example. Look what happened to the price of solar panels since January? They are selling with a negative gross margin! Every other competitor is going out of business. I think the same may be true for steel and other industrial commodities. Why invest in more capacity when you can’t compete with a Mercantilist.
– John

My theory Ben is social networking is what’s keeping Prod Growth from happening. People are spending way too much time on FB and the like snapping selfies in front of fountains, inputting jokes and nonsense and not working!.. They’re not even driving their cars properly but stuck with their darn face in front of a nonsense networking device…my 0.02
– Steve 

I can point to one other potential reason we aren’t seeing inflation and lower productivity – at least in engineering and construction. There are a whole lot of boomers retiring and taking with them both their experience and higher pay. The new folks are coming on at much lower pay but are also much less productive. The good news, if I’m right, is that we will start to see increasing productivity as these folks are assimilated into the work place. Assuming of course we don’t have a downturn first.
– Brian

Perhaps one of the reasons productivity gains are so low is that the latest wave of the “New Economy” are companies like Uber, Door Dash and EZ Home. They provide personal services which are pretty low productivity and even with the .com overlay, there are limits to what one worker can do. For example, Uber drivers can only carry a few people around at one time, and probably only generate $60,000/yr in gross revenue working full time. The corporate organization leverages this into a high productivity and growth story on their level, but it is built on a large low productivity business. I’m sure they all have plans (fantasies?) of someday replacing all their field workers with robots, in which case productivity might soar, but that is a ways down the road.

I live in Menlo Park, Ca and the local economy (and perhaps productivity) is growing at a fast pace because companies like Uber are headquartered here. I suspect that other parts of the country are growing much more slowly or not at all because they have the low productivity economic activity that supports Uber and the like but don’t benefit from the corporate leverage.
Keith

Thanks for your stimulating articles! I never took econ but was a bad math major. To me econ theory seems to rest on two axiomatic relationships: supply and demand, unemployment and wages. In the 1980’s, we bought well-made solid wood shiny brown furniture for thousands of dollars apiece. There has been no physical depreciation, and yet those pieces today go for hundreds of dollars. Similarly for oriental rugs, sterling silver, china, etc. Only those pieces deemed worthy by the ultra-rich seem to ‘hold’ their value. Meanwhile, the overall ‘quality’ is going down (this means regular replacement of shovels, software, hardware, and phones). That combined with atrocious service (except for the ultra-rich) and regular discovery that what one just bought is actually a ‘second’ inevitably leads to consumer demand malaise, except for consumables. It is no wonder then that the children of the boomers aren’t buying material possessions, except for baby stuff. Famous economists call this area ‘aggregate demand’, and when they have to consider NIRP to stimulate aggregate demand, you know the goose is cooked. Spending on consumables, vacations, and experiences would increase; savings would decrease, and so on. The above four axiomatic econ words just do not mean much in today’s fast food, landfill economy. They are glittering generalizations of an economy that once was. I don’t know what the replacement terminology should be, but I know it’s out there somewhere.
– John

You have missed the boat on unemployment and wage inflation. As long as more people enter the work force and have the proper skills then wages do not have to increase. There are other factors but job automation and people entering the work force seem to be the current keys.
– Jam

How is the productivity improvement of the rise of Uber or Google search or online shopping on Amazon captured by the gov’t? They are not.

There are hundreds of examples like this. They don’t improve some form of production, they change how we run our personal lives by vastly improving our non working efficiency. Some technology, like smart phones, have revolutionized our personal lives and have a bleed over effect in productivity but that is minor in comparison to the non working efficiency. Since people use their smart phones at work for personal reasons you might even conclude they reduce efficiency.
– Art

I’ve never thought to link the fact that the current low growth in productivity seems to rule out the concept that technological advancements aren’t the driving force behind low wage growth.

In saying that, can you not see a case whereby technology is driving people out of once productive jobs (manufacturing etc) and into poorly productive and lower paying jobs (retail, hospitality, etc) where they work a similar amount of hours? In this case we still have the same amount of production (with machines/new tech doing the bulk of the work) AND the same amount of hours worked, but with the % of hours worked in poorly productive sectors now representing a much greater % of the overall total?

In other words, both the numerator and denominator stay the same, thus it appears productivity has slowed to stall speed, but the real story is the change in distribution as to who benefits from productivity advances AND what is happening to those displaced by technology, i.e you move from working 8hrs/day on a factory line contributing $100k/pa to GDP, to driving for a cab/Uber 8hrs/day and contributing $40k/pa?

This also explains the growth in inequality, with those who own the technology/plant benefiting from the increased productivity of their business, while “labour” suffers with stagnating/declining wages. Seems to all fit in with the secular stagnation and growth in under employment themes too.
Sam

Good letters all. To be continued next week.

I also got a lot of good letters pointing out that “it’s the debt, stupid”. In other words, that it’s going to be deflation and economic weakness just as far as the eye can see. Here are a few …

The biggest question I have about this analysis comes from the fact that all these companies that have been buying back stock this entire decade are now up to their eyeballs in debt, and (depending on how this debt is structured) rising rates are going to crush earnings and free cash flow sooner or later. This will lead to crushing the broad market and the wealth effect it has created. Inflation offers a way out, but will inflation pick up fast enough to outrun the monster of corporate debt service?
Ian

Isn’t the Fed (or shouldn’t they be) more concerned with the demographically-induced effects on consumption than they are with potential inflation? Haven’t we seen this movie before, with the biggest demographic disaster in the formerly second largest economy sucking wind for 20 years + of ZIRP? Then again, maybe Japan only had to start raising rates ca 1995 to reach escape velocity, according to your logic herein.

Isn’t the real issue the shifting of consumption and production away from the developed world to the emerging economies? Millions every day joining the global economy, urbanizing, getting credit cards and bank accounts? Isn’t the more apt analogy the one to 20th century Europe as America thrived?
In previous notes, you have discussed the possible effects of nationalist/populist leaders, both here and abroad. The real question I’m curious about: would a trade/immigration war be inflationary or deflationary?
– John

Ben, on most things we see eye to eye. However, on this one I’ll take the under. I don’t think wage inflation is or is going to be a problem at all. The 4.3% UE rate is an utter fiction. Low paying service jobs are the only ones driving any labor “growth”, and the largest segment of the population securing these jobs is people over 55 years of age. Further, I think that any Fed “tightening” will be whitewashed by other global CBs continuing to prime the pump to the tune of > $2.5TR per year. There can be no credit contraction without GDP cratering and equities falling off a cliff, and equities can’t be allowed to fall off a cliff as then the faux “recovery” narrative will be exposed and untold amounts of debt will be subject to default. Fed and all CBs are stuck. More of the same coming.
– Bill

Thanks for sending this. It is obviously appealing intuitively, because it is so counter-intuitive. It makes sense, within its own parameters. The question is will this scenario play out, and I fear that no-one knows, because no-one has ever been in this position before.

He doesn’t seem interested in the problem of the quantity of debt — public corporate and household – that are now burdening economies. But for many people, including myself, that is the primary issue.

See this http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-07-13/shocking-reason-why-us-just-spent-record-429-billion-june as an example of what happens when you start to treat the debt as unpayable and stop pretending that it’s fine. In this case, the US is moving it from private to public debt, because the larger deficit also has to be funded. You can’t make debt disappear without huge balance-sheet consequences (aka bankruptcy).

What if the reason why corporates are not investing is because there is no final demand out there to satisfy? That the current final demand is debt-driven and not real. That demand is in secular decline, for demographic reasons (ie Harry Dent approach).

Bottom line: I don’t think he is drilling deep enough to get to the bottom of the mysteries he is discussing.
– P.

I’m actually very sympathetic to this view, that the massive debt of the world hangs like a millstone around our collective neck, preventing any sustained resurgence in growth, and you can find plenty of Epsilon Theory notes expressing that. But my views have “evolved”, to steal a line from our new White House Communications Director. I think that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I think that 2.5% to 3% real economic growth is absolutely attainable here in the U.S., massive debt or no massive debt, and that will feel like 4-5% growth back in the day. I think that there’s enough entrepreneurialism and desire still left in the American tank that changing the debt-taking risk/reward calculus from investing in stuff (financialization, if you can get it) to making stuff can absolutely drive 2.5 – 3% real growth in this country. Will changing the risk/reward calculus be painless for markets and the real economy? No. Is it worth it? Yes

And now for a big Mailbag finish … 

On the side, I write financial poems. Here’s my latest on our fabled Fed:

Chaperoning the Dance
Arrive at the Spring Fling, not a soul on the dance floor.
For you and other teachers, watching over’s a chore.
You encourage some kids. None budge and desperation ensues.
Eventually, spike the punch and pray for the effects of the booze.
For some of the kids, all it takes is a couple of sips.
They are the brave few who start shaking their hips.
Slowly but surely, others get the urge to join in.
Satisfied by your work, success brings on your grin.
Unthinkable just a few hours ago, some ruckus is brewing.
To your horror, most students are now tobacco chewing.
We’ve much surpassed the time to encourage more fun.
You try and sneak away the punch bowl to curb this run.
Despite prospect for future hangovers, the students protest.
Your actions make you the villain, the one to detest.
Controlling the party is a thankless task.
Be careful with the power. Ration that flask!
– Tim

Actually not half bad.

It may be that you lived in an alternate universe in which Fess Parker had a different role [“Notes From the Field”], but when I wore my coonskin cap, I sang about Davy Crocket, not Daniel Boone.
– Kit

Fess Parker played both Daniel Boone AND Davy Crockett in the respective TV shows! The Daniel Boone show ran for five or six years while Davy Crockett only aired a few times as a special series on The Wonderful World of Disney. Yep, that was my Sunday night ritual — Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by whatever was showing on The Wonderful World of Disney. Simpler times, for good and for ill.

And then there’s this: scientists have embedded 5 frames of the “Horse in Motion” into the DNA of bacteria. And people think memes are far-fetched.

Gif and image written into the DNA of bacteria – BBC News

www.bbc.com

Images and a short film are inserted into bacteria DNA and recovered with 90% accuracy.

Complex times, for good and for ill.

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Whereโ€™s the Punch Bowl?

On episode 23 of the Epsilon Theory podcast, we’ve assembled the all-star team — Jeremy Radcliffe (Salient’s President), Rusty Guinn (Salient’s EVP of Asset Management), Neville Crawley (Founder & CEO of Engram Labs) and of course, Dr. Ben Hunt — to discuss whether we are at the inflection point when the proverbial punch bowl is taken away, and, as investors, what we do now.

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Post-Fed
Follow-Up

I sat on the porch
Listened to the rain
Smoked a cigarette
And counted to ten

Oh no, here it comes again
That funny feeling

― Camper Van Beethoven, Oh No! (1985)

A quick post-Fed follow-up to “Tell My Horse”, the best-received Epsilon Theory note to date (thank you!). I’ll jump right into what I’ve got to say, without the usual 20 pages of movie quotes and the like. Well, I’ve got one quote above, because I can’t help myself. They’re the lyrics to the best break-up song ever, and they’re what Janet Yellen was singing to the market on Wednesday.

Let’s review, shall we? Last fall, the Fed floated the trial balloon that they were thinking about ways to shrink their balance sheet. All very preliminary, of course, maybe years in the future. Then they started talking about doing this in 2018. Then they started talking about doing this maybe at the end of 2017. Two days ago, Yellen announced exactly how they intended to roll off trillions of dollars from the portfolio, and said that they would be starting “relatively soon”, which the market is taking to be September but could be as early as July.

Now what has happened in the real world to accelerate the Fed’s tightening agenda, and more to the point, a specific form of tightening that impacts markets more directly than any sort of interest rate hike? Did some sort of inflationary or stimulative fiscal policy emerge from the Trump-cleared DC swamp ? Umm … no. Was the real economy off to the races with sharp increases in CPI, consumer spending, and other measures of inflationary pressures? Umm … no. On the contrary, in fact.

Two things and two things only have changed in the real world since last fall. First, Donald Trump — a man every Fed Governor dislikes and mistrusts — is in the White House. Second, the job market has heated up to the point where it is — Yellen’s words — close to being unstable, and is — Yellen’s words — inevitably going to heat up still further.

What has happened (and apologies for the ten dollar words) is that the Fed’s reaction function has flipped 180 degrees since the Trump election. Today the Fed is looking for excuses to tighten monetary policy, not excuses to weaken. So long as the unemployment rate is on the cusp of “instability”, that’s the only thing that really matters to the Fed (for reasons discussed below). Every other data point, including a market sell-off or a flat yield curve or a bad CPI number — data points that used to be front and center in Fed thinking — is now in the backseat.

I’m not the only one saying this about the Fed’s reaction function. Far more influential Missionaries than me, people like Jeff Gundlach and Mohamed El-Erian, are saying the same thing. If you think that this Fed still has your back, Mr. Investor, the way they had your back in 2009 and 2010 and 2011 and 2012 and 2013 and 2014 and 2015 and 2016 … well, I think you are mistaken. I think Janet Yellen broke up with you this week.

The Fed is tightening, and they’re not going to stop tightening just because the stock market goes down 5% or 10% or (maybe) even 20%. Bigger game than propping up market prices is afoot, namely consolidating a reputation as a prudent central banker before the inevitable Trump purge occurs, and consolidating that reputation means keeping the evilest of all evil genies — wage inflation — firmly stoppered inside its bottle.

Let’s be clear, not all inflation is created equal. Financial asset price inflation? Woo-hoo! Well done, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker. That’s what we’re talkin’ about! Price inflation in goods and services? Hmm … a mixed bag, really, particularly when input price inflation can’t be passed through and crimps corporate earnings. But we can change the way we measure all this stuff and create a narrative around the remaining inflation being a sign of robust growth and all that. So no real harm done, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker.

Wage inflation, though … ahem … surely you must be joking, Mr. or Mrs. Central Banker. How does that possibly advance economic efficiency and social utility? I mean, even a first year grad student can prove with mathematical certainty that wage inflation only sparks a wage-price spiral where everyone is worse off. What’s wrong with you, don’t you believe in math? Don’t you believe in science? Hmm, maybe you’re just not as smart as we thought you were. But I’m sure you’ll be very happy as an emeritus professor at a large Midwestern state university. No, Ken Griffin is not interested in taking a meeting.

I know I sound like a raving Marxist to be saying this, that the Federal Reserve system and all its brethren systems were established specifically to serve the interests of Capital in its age-old battle with Labor. But yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Propping up financial markets? That’s a nice-to-have. Preserving Capital as the apex predator in our social ecosystem? There’s your must-have.

Whatever you think full employment might be in the modern age, 4.3% is at the finish line. And 4.1% or 3.9% or wherever the unemployment rate is going over the next few months is well past the finish line. You’re already seeing clear signs of labor shortages, particularly skilled labor shortages, in lots of geographies. Wage inflation is baked in, and modern populist politics make it impossible for corporations to play the usual well-we’re-off-to-Mexico-then card. Not that wages in Mexico or China are really that much better anymore, depending on what you’re doing, and there are inflationary wage pressures there, too.

Bottom line: I think that the Fed is going to do whatever it takes to prevent wage inflation from getting away from them, and shrinking the balance sheet is going to be a vital part of that tightening, maybe the most important part. Why? Because the Fed thinks it will push the yield curve higher as it lets its bonds and mortgage securities roll off, which will help the banks and provide an aura of “growth” and a cover story for the interest rate hikes. Otherwise you’ve got an inverted yield curve and a recession and who knows what other sources of reputational pain.

But here’s the problem, Mr. Investor. Ordinarily if the Fed was determined to take the punchbowl away by tightening monetary policy and raising interest rates, your reaction function was pretty clear. Get out of stocks and get into bonds. Wait out the inevitable bear market and garden-variety business cycle recession, and then get back into stocks. Or just ride your 60/40 vanilla stock/bond allocation through the cycle, which is the whole point of the 60/40 thing (even, though, of course, you’re really running a 95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective). But now you’re going to have both stocks *and* bonds going down together as the Fed hikes rates and sells bonds, in a reversal of both stocks *and* bonds going up together over the past eight years as the Fed cut rates and bought bonds.

Hmmm. ‘Tis a dilemma. What to do when indiscriminate long-the-world doesn’t work? What to do when nothing works? Maybe, with apologies to the old Monty Python line, active management isn’t quite dead yet. And just at the point of maximum capitulation to the idea that it is. Wouldn’t be the first time. In fact, that’s kinda how maximum capitulation works.

Is everything as neat and clean in reality as I’m making it out to be? Of course not. Other central banks are still buying bonds. Maybe global growth pulls everything through. Maybe President Pence/Ryan/whoever-is-fourth-in-line pushes through all the tax cuts and regulatory rollback and infrastructure build programs that your little old capitalist heart desires. Plus, this isn’t some cataclysmic event like “China floats the yuan” or “Italy has a bad election”. It’s a slow burn.

But I think that if your investment mantra is “don’t fight the Fed”, you now must have a short bias to both the U.S. equity and bond markets, not the long bias that you’ve been so well trained and so well rewarded to maintain over the past eight years. This is a sea change in how to navigate a policy-driven market, and it’s a sea change I expect to last for years.

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What Now?

On episode 17, Dr. Ben Hunt is joined once again by Downtown Josh Brown. He’s an author, CNBC contributor, and CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management. The last time Josh joined the podcast was right after the first presidential debate. With the election and inauguration behind us, now what? Ben and Josh take on the proposed 2017 Fed rate hikes, the potential impact of a higher dollar, and what matters most in investing.

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Essence of Decision

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The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer — often, indeed, to the decider himself.

John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

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“The Manhattan Projects” by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (©Image Comics)

I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.
―Harry Truman (1884 – 1972)

As far as I was concerned, his decision was one of non-interference ­— basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans.
―Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves (1896 – 1970), commanding officer of the Manhattan Project, discussing Truman’s okay to drop atomic weapons on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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“Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool!”

Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.

“You always look so cool,” she repeated.

She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.

 ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby” (1925)

And that was the end of the party. When Tom Buchanan saw.

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Lear: Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
― William Shakespeare, “King Lear” Act 1 Scene 4 (1606)
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Once-revered central bank failed to foresee the crisis and has struggled in its aftermath, fostering the rise of populism and distrust of institutions.

Jon Hilsenrath, “The Great Unraveling: Years of Missteps Fueled Disillusion with the Economy and Washington” (August 26, 2016)

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John Hale: Theology, sir, is a fortress; no crack in a fortress may be accounted small.
  Arthur Miller, “The Crucible” (1953)

Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the State has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied.

The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost.

That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer. But can you tell me the name of a classical Greek shoemaker?

Arthur Miller (1915 – 2005)

That last, one of my all-time favorite quotes, was in response to a shoe manufacturer who asked why Miller’s job should be subsidized while his was not. Miller’s finest accomplishment: when McCarthy and crew forced him to testify in their Communist witch hunt, he refused to name names. Miller was a leftie and a huge ego. And a freedom lover. Imagine that.

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Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard

Some do it with a bitter look

Some with a flattering word

The coward does it with a kiss

The brave man with a sword

 ― Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898)

We’ll get the kiss, not the sword. Don’t know when, but it’s going to kill this market that the Fed loves.

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In 1969, Graham Allison published an academic paper about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he turned into a 1971 book called Essence of Decision. That book made Allison’s career. More than that, the book provided a raison d’être for the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, which — combined with Allison’s fundraising prowess — transformed a sleepy research institute into the most prominent public policy school in the world.

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The central idea of Essence of Decision is this: the dominant academic theory to explain the world’s events is a high-level, rational expectations model based on formal economics, a theory that ignores the impact of bureaucratic imperatives and institutional politics. If you look at the Cuban Missile Crisis through all three lenses, however, you get a much better picture of what actually happened in October 1962. In fact, the more you dig into the Cuban Missile Crisis, the more it seems that the actual people involved (on both sides … Allison wrote a follow-up edition in 1999 when Russian archives opened up post-Gorbachev) made their actual decisions based on where they sat (bureaucracy) and where they stood (internal politics), not on some bloodless economic model. Publicly and after the fact, JFK and RFK and all the others mouthed the right words about geopolitical this and macroeconomic that, but when you look at the transcripts of the meetings (Nixon wasn’t the first to tape Oval Office conversations), it’s a totally different story.

Allison’s conclusion: the economic Rational Actor model is a tautology — meaning it is impossible to disprove — but that’s exactly why it doesn’t do you much good if you want to explain what happened or predict what’s next. It’s not that the formal economic models are wrong. By definition and by design, they can never be wrong! It’s that the models are used principally as ex-post rationalizations for decisions that are actually made under far more human, far more social inputs. Any big policy decision — whether it’s to order a naval blockade or an air strike on Cuba, or whether it’s to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima AND Nagasaki, or whether it’s to raise interest rates in September or December or not at all — is a combination of all three of these perspectives. But for Allison’s money, we’d do better if we focused more on the bureaucratic and political perspectives, less on the rational expectations perspective.

Allison is writing this in 1969! And here we are, almost 50 years later, still consumed by a theology of formal economic models, still convinced that Fed decision-making can be explained or predicted by our armchair analysis of Taylor Rule inputs. From an anthropological perspective, it’s pretty impressive how the high priests of academic economics have expanded their rule. From a human perspective, it’s awfully depressing.

What follows is my analysis of the Fed’s forthcoming decision on interest rates from a bureaucratic and an internal politics perspective. Seen through these lenses, I think they hike. Maybe I’m wrong. These things are always probabilistic shades of gray, never black and white. But what I’m certain about is that the bureaucratic and internal politics perspectives give a different, higher probability of hiking than the rational expectations/modeling perspective. So heads up.

First the bureaucratic perspective.

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-federal-reserve-system

What I’m calling the bureaucratic perspective, Allison calls the “Organizational Behavior” perspective. His phrase is better. It’s better because entities like the Federal Reserve are, of course, large bureaucracies, but what we’re trying to analyze here is not the level of do-nothing inertia that we usually associate with the word “bureaucracy”. What we’re trying to analyze is the spirit or culture of the organization in question. What is the institutional memory of the Fed? What do personnel, not just the Fed governors but also the rank-and-file staffers, believe is the proper role of the institution? Most importantly, how do these personnel seek to protect their organization and grow its influence within the jungle of other organizations seeking to grow their influence?

The spirit, culture, and personnel composition of the modern Federal Reserve is almost identical to that of a large research university. That’s not a novel observation on my part, but a 30-year evolution commonly noted by Fed watchers. Why is this important? It’s important because it means that the current marriage between Fed and markets is a marriage of convenience. As an organization, the Fed doesn’t really care whether or not markets go up or down, and as an institution it’s not motivated by making money (or whether or not anyone else makes money). Like all research universities, the Fed at the organizational level is motivated almost entirely by reputation. Not results. Reputation. A choice between “markets up but reputation fraying” and “markets down but reputation preserved” is no choice at all. The Fed will choose the latter 100% of the time. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough. From a bureaucratic perspective, the Fed absolutely Does. Not. Care. whether or not the market goes up, down, or sideways. When they talk about “risk” associated with their policy choices, they mean risk to their institutional reputation, not risk to financial asset prices. And today, after more than two years of a “tightening bias” and “data dependency”, there’s more reputational risk associated with staying pat than with raising rates in a one-and-done manner.

Why? Because the public Narrative around extraordinary monetary policy and quantitative easing has steadily become more and more negative over the past three years, and the public Narrative around negative rates in particular is now overwhelmingly in opposition. When I did my Narrative analysis of financial press sentiment surrounding Brexit prior to that vote, I always thought that would be the most hated thing I’d ever see. Nope. I’ll append the Quid maps and analysis at the end of this note for those who are interested in digging in, but here’s the skinny: the negative sentiment around negative rates is now greater than the negative sentiment around Brexit. The public Narrative around ever more accommodative monetary policy has completely turned against the Fed. And they know it.

It’s not only the overall Narrative network that has turned with a vengeance against the Fed, but also some of the most prominent Missionaries, to use the game theoretic term. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen Larry Summers take Janet Yellen directly to task, as the runner-up in the Obama Administration Fed Chair sweepstakes has apparently taken to heart the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. More cuttingly, if you’re Yellen, is the heel turn by Fed confidante and WSJ writer Jon Hilsenrath. His August 26thhit piece on the Yellen Fed feature article — “The Great Unraveling: Years of Missteps Fueled Disillusion with the Economy and Washington” — is the unkindest cut of them all.

I think that Summers has been emboldened and Hilsenrath has been turned because they’re picking up on the same sea change in public opinion that the Quid analysis is identifying with more precision. For Hilsenrath, here’s the centerpiece of his j’accuse: a long-running Gallup poll asking Americans to rate the relative competence of federal agencies. Yep, that’s right, the Fed — which used to have a better reputation than the FBI and NASA — is now at the absolute bottom of the heap, dragging behind (by a significant margin) even the IRS! It’s one thing to bring up the rear in 2009 polls, what with the immediate aftermath of the deepest recession in 70+ years. But to still be at the bottom in 2014 after a stock market triples (!) and The Longest Expansion In Modern American History™? Incredible. And the most recent poll was in 2014. If anything, the Fed’s reputation is even lower today. I mean … this is really striking, and I can promise you that none of this is lost on the current custodians of the Fed’s prestige and reputation. Or, like Summers, the wannabe custodians. If you’re a professional academic politician like Summers, you can smell the blood in the water.

How Americans Rate Federal Agencies
Share of respondents who said each agency was doing either a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ job, for the eight agencies for which consistent numbers were available.

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Source: Gallup telephone polls, most recently 1,020 U.S. adults conducted Nov. 11—12, 2014, with a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points. As reported by the Wall Street Journal.

So what does all this mean for the September FOMC meeting?

Look … does “the market” want more and more supportive policy? Of course it does. We’re addicts. But if the Fed takes a dovish stance now — and anything less than a hike is going to be perceived as a dovish stance — from an organizational perspective the Fed is risking a lot more than a market sell-off from a rate hike. It risks being blamed for anything bad that happens in the economy going forward. This is the risk of being an unpopular political actor. This is the risk of losing your reputation for competence. The Golden Rule of organizational behavior is quite simple: there must ALWAYS be plausible deniability for culpability if something goes wrong. There must ALWAYS be some other political actor to blame. Unless the Fed takes steps now to stem the erosion in their reputation and their position in the public Narrative, they will own this economy and the downturn that everyone (including the Fed) suspects is coming.

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By raising rates now, on the other hand, the Fed can declare victory. We achieved our dual mandates of price stability and full employment! Mission accomplished! And unlike George Bush and his infamously premature declaration of same, the Fed has someone to blame when the “mission” unravels (which of course it will) — those dastardly fiscal policymakers who didn’t follow up with structural reforms or pro-growth policies or whatever when they were elected this November. While the consensus view is that the Fed loathes to do anything to rock the market boat before the November election, in truth this meeting is the perfect time to act if your political goal is to declare victory and pass the buck. Hey, we did our part, says the Fed. Prudent stewards of monetary policy and all that. Now, about that consulting gig at Citadel …

That’s the bureaucratic or organizational perspective. Here’s the internal political dynamic as I see it.

An internal politics perspective is similarly driven by questions of reputation, but at the individual level rather than the organizational level. In an academic organization like the modern Fed, your internal reputation is based entirely on how smart you are, as evidenced by the research you do and the papers you write and the talks you give, not on how effective you are in any practical implementation of organizational aims. It’s not that the Fed or major research universities are intentionally ignoring or trying to put down practical implementations like teaching or outreach to commercial bank staffers, but every hour you spend doing that is an hour you’re not spending impressing your colleagues and bosses with how smart you are. It’s just how the internal political game is played, and anyone who has achieved any measure of success in an organization like this knows exactly what I’m talking about.

What this means in practice is that FOMC meetings are driven by a desire to form a consensus with the other smart people around the table, so that each of you is recognized by the other members of the consensus as being smart enough to be a member of the consensus. It’s the precise opposite of the old Groucho Marx joke: “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Every FOMC member desperately wants to be a member of the club that would have him or her as a member, because it means that you’ve been recognized as one of the smart kids. The internal political dynamic of academic cultures like the Fed, at least at the highest levels of Governor to Governor interaction, is NOT antagonistic or divisive. On the contrary, it’s cooperative and consensus-forming.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Read this Jon Hilsenrath interview of St. Louis Fed Governor Jim Bullard again (I say again because I published it for other reasons in the last Epsilon Theory note, Magical Thinking), where Bullard describes this consensus building dynamic.

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Mr. Hilsenrath: What kind of compromise would it take to get the FOMC to move in September? I mean, so the tradition is there’s some kind of — like you say, some kind of agreement. What would it take to get them there?
Mr. Bullard: Well, I have no idea, so — and it’s really — it’s really the chair’s job to fashion that. But I will say that — I’ll talk historically about the FOMC, the kinds of things that the FOMC would do. You would trade off. You would say, OK, we could hike today, but then we’ll not plan to do anything in the future. That would be one way to — one way to go about a consensus. So that often happens on the FOMC. Or vice versa. If you read the Greenspan-era transcripts, he’ll do things like, OK, we won’t go today, but we’ll kind of hint that we’re pretty sure we’re going to go next time.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Right.
Mr. Bullard: And so you get this inter-tempo kind of trade-off, and that often — that often is enough to get people to sign up.
Mr. Hilsenrath: So, hike today and then delay.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah. (Laughs.)
Mr. Hilsenrath: Or, no hike today and then no more delay.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Something like that.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah, those kinds of trade-offs are, historically speaking — I’m not saying I know what Janet’s doing, because I don’t. But, historically speaking, those are the kinds of things that the FOMC has done.
Mr. Hilsenrath: I came up with my catchphrase for the — for the month. (Laughter.)
Mr. Bullard: Those are great. That’s worthy of a T-shirt. (Laughs, laughter.) You could have one on the front and one on the back.
Ms. Torry: Or a headline.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Well, that’s the St. Louis framework now, right?
Mr. Bullard: Yeah.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Hike today and then delay.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah. That’s what it would be, yeah.
― Wall Street Journal, “Transcript: St. Louis Fed’s James Bullard’s Interview from Jackson Hole, Wyo.” (August 27, 2016)

What Bullard is describing from a game theoretic perspective is a dual-equilibrium coordination game. Either it’s “Hike today and then delay” (Bullard’s preferred equilibrium outcome) or “No hike today and then no more delay”. Those are the two possible consensus outcomes. Both are stable equilibria, meaning that once you get a consensus at either phrase, there is no incentive for anyone to change his or her mind and leave the consensus. Importantly, both are robust equilibria in their gameplay, meaning that it only takes one or two high-reputation players in the group to commit to one outcome or the other in order to start attracting more and more reputation-seeking players to that same outcome. You can think of individual reputation as a gravitational pull, so that even a proto-consensus of a few will start to draw others into their orbit.

It’s always really tough to predict one equilibrium over another as the outcome in a multi-equilibrium game, because the decision-making dynamic is solely driven by characteristics internal to the group, meaning that there is ZERO predictive value in our evaluations of external characteristics like Taylor Rule inputs in 2016 or US/Soviet nuclear arsenals in 1962. (I wrote about this at length in the context of games of Chicken, like Germany vs. Greece or the Fed vs. the PBOC, in the note Inherent Vice). But my sense — and it’s only a sense — is that the “Hike today and then delay” equilibrium is a more likely outcome of the September meeting than “No hike today and then no more delay”. Why? Because it’s the position both a hawk like Fischer and a dove like Bullard, both of whom are high-reputation members, would clearly prefer. If one of these guys stakes out this position early in the meeting, such that “Hike today and then delay” is the first mover in establishing a “gravitational pull” on other members, I think it sticks. Or at least that’s how I would play the game, if I were Fischer or Bullard.

Okay, Ben, fair enough. If you’re right, though, what do we do about it? How are markets likely to react to the shock of a largely unanticipated rate hike?

In the short term, I don’t think there’s much doubt that it would be a negative shock, because as I write this the implied “market odds” of a rate hike here in September are not even 20%. My analysis suggests that the true odds are about three times that, as I give a slight edge to the “Hike today and then delay” equilibrium over “No hike today and then no more delay”. Do I think it’s a sure thing that they hike next week? Give me a break. Of course I don’t. But if I can be dealt enough hands where the true odds of something occurring are three times the market odds of something occurring …

The medium-to-long term market reaction to whatever the Fed decides next week is going to be driven less by the hike-or-no-hike decision and more by the Fed-directed Narrative that accompanies that rates decision. That is, if they hike next week and start talking about how this is the next step of a “normalization” process where the Fed will try to get rates back up to 3% or 4% in a couple of years … well, that’s a disaster for markets. That’s a repeat of the December rate hike fiasco, and you’ll see a repeat of the January-February horror show, where the dollar is way up, commodities and emerging markets are way down, and everyone starts freaking out over China and systemic risk again. But if they hike next week and start talking about how they’re rethinking the whole idea of normalization, that maybe rates will be super-low on a semi-permanent basis, or at least until productivity magically starts to improve … well, that’s maybe not such a disaster for markets. Ditto if they don’t hike next week. If the jawboning associated with a no-hike in September sets up a yes-hike in December as a foregone conclusion, that’s probably just as bad (if not worse) for markets than a shock today.

Of course, the Fed is well aware of the power of their “communication policy” and the control it exerts over market behavior. Which means that whenever the Fed hikes — whether it’s next week or next month or next meeting or next year — they’re going to sugarcoat the decision for markets. They’re going to fall all over themselves saying that they’re still oh-so supportive of markets. They’re going to proclaim their undying love for markets even as they take actions to distance themselves.

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But here’s the thing. The Fed is now revealing its one True Love — its own reputation and its own political standing — and that’s going to be a bombshell revelation to investors who think that the Fed loves them. Investors are like Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. We’re married to this really swell girl, and we get invited to these really great parties, but then we see that Daisy is truly in love with Jay Gatsby, not us. And everything changes. Maybe not on the surface, but deep down, where it really matters. I’m not saying that the Fed abandons the markets. After all, Daisy stays married to Tom. But everything changes in that moment of realization that she truly loves someone else, not you, and that’s what the next Fed hike will mean to markets.

That’s when the party stops.


Appendix: Quid Narrative Analysis

For a recap of how I’m using the Quid tool kit to analyze financial media narrative formation and evolution, please refer to the Epsilon Theory note The Narrative Machine. Below are two slides from Quid providing a quick background on the process.

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-quid-text-analytics-background

Source: Quid

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-quid-how-read-background

Source: Quid

Here’s the network of all 941 Bloomberg articles over the past year mentioning negative rates, colored by topic cluster:

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-quid-bloomberg-negative-rates-topic

Source: Quid

This is a prototypical focused narrative network, indicative of articles that are truly “about” negative rates, as opposed to articles about something else that provides the clustering characteristics and only mention negative rates in passing. So now let’s look at the same network, but colored by sentiment rather than by topic clustering.

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-quid-bloomberg-negative-rates-sentiment

Source: Quid

Fully 50% of the articles are negative, 42% neutral, and only 7% are positive in their sentiment.

How does this compare to other Bloomberg networks and other sentiment scores? Horribly. The only subject issue that even comes close is Brexit, with 47% negative, 42% neutral, and 10% positive in the weeks leading up to the vote. Post-vote, the negative sentiment around Brexit drops to the mid-twenties.

To be sure, few topics associated with monetary policy have an overtly positive sentiment distribution, at least in recent years. For example, here’s a chart of the Quid sentiment scores for all Bloomberg articles mentioning Quantitative Easing (QE), by year over the past three years. The Narrative is steadily deteriorating, but we’re still not close to negative articles taking the lead over neutral articles.

Sentiment Scores for Bloomberg Articles Mentioning QE, by Year

9/13 – 9/14 9/14 – 9/15 9/15 – 9/16
Neutral 58% 52% 48%
Negative 24% 31% 38%
Positive 17% 16% 13%

Source: Quid

One final network observation. Of the positively-oriented Bloomberg articles, they tend to cluster in the topic circled below. That topic? Gold. The articles have a positive sentiment because negative rates are great for gold prices. Of course, that’s a very negative thing from the Fed’s reputational perspective, which means that many of the articles that speak positively about negative rates are actually intimating something negative about central bankers! Bottom line: there is no more hated policy initiative in the world than negative rates.

epsilon-theory-essence-of-decision-september-16-2016-quid-bloomberg-negative-rates-positive-cluster

Source: Quid

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Magical Thinking

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-annie-hall-christopher-walken

Duane Hall: Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving … on the road at night … I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The … flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.
Alvy Singer: Right. Well, I have to — I have to go now, Duane, because I … I’m due back on planet Earth.
“Annie Hall” (1977)

One of my all-time top-ten movie scenes. Of course, Duane ends up driving Alvy and Annie back to the airport that night. No one does crazy better than Christopher Walken. Except maybe the Fed’s #2, Stanley Fischer. We’re all just passengers in the backseat of the Fed-driven car.

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epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-annie-hall-woody-allen

Alvy Singer: This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd … but, I guess we keep going through it because most of us … need the eggs.
“Annie Hall” (1977)

We’re all passengers in the backseat of the Fed-driven car, and we all suspect that our drivers might be high-functioning lunatics, and we’re all terrified about what they might do next.

But we need the eggs.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-george-orwell-1984

“What are the stars?” said O’Brien indifferently. “They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.”

“For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?”

Winston shrank back upon the bed. Whatever he said, the swift answer crushed him like a bludgeon. And yet he knew, he knew, that he was in the right. The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind — surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false? Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy? There was even a name for it, which he had forgotten. A faint smile twitched the corners of O’Brien’s mouth as he looked down at him.

“I told you, Winston,” he said, ‘”that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing.”

George Orwell, “1984” (1949)

As O’Brien patiently explains to Winston between torture sessions, or what we would call today “FOMC meetings”, Collective Solipsism is the voluntary abdication of empirical and independent thought. But it’s not ordinary solipsism — a pathological egocentrism where reality is entirely defined by one’s own thoughts. Instead, Collective Solipsism annihilates one’s own thoughts and replaces them with state-sponsored thoughts. Your reality is just as fake. But you’re living someone else’s fantasy.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-joan-didionGrief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. … We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.

In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. … We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.

There was a level on which I believed that what had happened was reversible.

 ― Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005)

The best book I’ve ever read on the emotion of grief. Central bankers today are grieving the death of the so-called Great Moderation, and they are expressing their grief in the same way that Didion expressed hers — through magical thinking, through the pathological belief that if only the right words are said and the right thoughts are thought, then the dearly departed might walk through the front door and ask for his shoes.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-james-bullard

 Mr. Hilsenrath: What kind of compromise would it take to get the FOMC to move in September? I mean, so the tradition is there’s some kind of — like you say, some kind of agreement. What would it take to get them there?
 Mr. Bullard: Well, I have no idea, so — and it’s really — it’s really the chair’s job to fashion that. But I will say that — I’ll talk historically about the FOMC, the kinds of things that the FOMC would do. You would trade off. You would say, OK, we could hike today, but then we’ll not plan to do anything in the future. That would be one way to — one way to go about a consensus. So that often happens on the FOMC. Or vice versa. If you read the Greenspan-era transcripts, he’ll do things like, OK, we won’t go today, but we’ll kind of hint that we’re pretty sure we’re going to go next time.
 Mr. Hilsenrath: Right.
 Mr. Bullard: And so you get this inter-tempo kind of trade-off, and that often — that often is enough to get people to sign up.
 Mr. Hilsenrath: So, hike today and then delay.
 Mr. Bullard: Yeah. (Laughs.)
 Mr. Hilsenrath: Or, no hike today and then no more delay.
 Mr. Bullard: Yeah, yeah.
 Mr. Hilsenrath: Something like that.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah, those kinds of trade-offs are, historically speaking — I’m not saying I know what Janet’s doing, because I don’t. But, historically speaking, those are the kinds of things that the FOMC has done.
Mr. Hilsenrath: I came up with my catchphrase for the — for the month. (Laughter.)
Mr. Bullard: Those are great. That’s worthy of a T-shirt. (Laughs, laughter.) You could have one on the front and one on the back.
Ms. Torry: Or a headline.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Well, that’s the St. Louis framework now, right?
Mr. Bullard: Yeah.
Mr. Hilsenrath: Hike today and then delay.
Mr. Bullard: Yeah. That’s what it would be, yeah.
Mr. Hilsenrath: But if you decide to use that, maybe you can credit — you know, include a little footnote to the Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Bullard: OK. (Laughs.)
― Wall Street Journal, “Transcript: St. Louis Fed’s James Bullard’s Interview from Jackson Hole, Wyo.” (August 27, 2016)

Reading this transcript made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. And Bullard is the best of the lot. At least he’s honest about the intellectual poverty about the whole FOMC interest rate-setting exercise. They’re just making it up as they go along, a hallmark of magical thinking.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-james-frazer-golden-bough

In point of fact magicians appear to have often developed into chiefs and kings.

 ― James George Frazer, “The Golden Bough” (1890)

Frazer’s book on the history and anthropological foundations of magic was a revelation to me when I first read it, as it was to as disparate a group of writers and poets as Yeats, TS Elliot, Freud, Hemingway, Joyce, and … Jim Morrison.

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Courtier T.L. — Amid all the people starving, missionaries and nurses clamoring, students rioting, and police cracking heads, His Serene Majesty went to Eritrea, where he was received by his grandson, Fleet Commander Eskinder Desta, with whom he intended to make an official cruise on the flagship Ethiopia. They could only manage to start one engine, however, and the cruise had to be called off. His Highness then moved to the French ship Protet, where he was received on board by Hiele, the well-known admiral from Marseille. The next day, in the port of Massawa, His Most Ineffable Highness raised himself for the occasion to the rank of Grand Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, and made seven cadets officers, thereby increasing our naval power. Also he summoned the wretched notables from the north who had been accused by the missionaries and nurses of speculation and stealing from the starving, and he conferred high distinctions on them to prove that they were innocent and to curb the foreign gossip and slander.

 ― Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Emperor” (1978)

If you can only read one book on the end of an ancien regime and the magical thinking that ALWAYS takes place in its wake, this is it. Kapuscinski chronicles the final years of Haile Selassie’s reign in Ethiopia from the inside out, interviewing dozens of courtiers to paint a first-hand portrait of an entire society lost in the fantasy world of Collective Solipsism.

Selassie and his Inner Party maintained the fantasy for years after it lost all connection with reality, so that a mighty fleet consisted of a single ship with a malfunctioning engine, promotions and medals were conflated with real-world power and influence, and bad people and bad ideas were constantly lauded and rewarded to keep hard questions from being asked.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for Selassie or for Ethiopia. In the words of another famous solipsist, Louis XV, “après moi, le deluge.” After Selassie came The Dergue. Think Pol Pot in committee form.

The last years of Selassie’s rule are more than a parable for our times … they ARE our times.

Magical thinking is a term of art in both clinical psychology and cultural anthropology, and it refers to the common belief among both children and “primitive” societies (yes, intentional quotation marks there to show my arched eyebrow at the word) that thinking the right thoughts or saying the right words can control the invisible forces that shape our world.

For example, as Jean Piaget (the father of developmental psychology) noted, children from the ages of 2 to 7 tend to have very little conception of real-world causality. Tell your four-year-old son that the family dog has died, and he is likely to a) blame himself for something he did or didn’t do for “causing” the death, and b) believe that there is some combination of proper words and proper thoughts and proper actions that can make the dog come back to life. That’s magical thinking. It’s a profoundly ego-centric conception of the world, and if you’re a parent you know exactly what Piaget is talking about. Every four-year-old child is an egomaniac, in the clinical, non-judgmental sense of the word.

It’s the same thing with what cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called “The Savage Mind” in his groundbreaking 1962 book. Societies without a causal explanation for, say, the weather will always construct some sort of combination of words and thoughts and actions to be performed by privileged caste members like priests or kings, through which the entire society convinces itself that humans exercise some sort of control over these incredibly powerful real-world forces and that they aren’t just buffeted this way and that by the inexorable might of a big bad world that really couldn’t care less about them. In fact, that’s the literal origin of the word “inexorable”, from the Latin in (not), ex (away), orare (to pray) — something that cannot be prayed away.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-crocodile-tooth

In early days of any human society, this sort of magic usually emphasizes some form of sympathetic or like-for-like object … for example, you might rub a banana-shaped crocodile tooth against a banana plant to make it bear fruit (I’m not making this up). Over time, however, the spellcasting caste and society at large convince themselves that you don’t really need actual crocodile teeth, but you can instead invoke the power of a crocodile tooth by calling it by its secret name. Maybe you need to write down that secret name using the secret language of the priests in order to make the spell work, but you definitely don’t need to go out and hunt down a real-world crocodile. It’s at this point that hunter/soldier-kings are replaced by academic/priest-kings … the pen is truly mightier than the sword, or at least writing “crocodile” carries a longer life expectancy than hunting crocodiles. Over still more time, the secret names and the secret language of the priest-kings become a vast edifice of magical thinking, an edifice that provides great comfort and stability to the entire society. Because there is nothing more important to societal stability than the belief that nature is under control. That the invisible forces of nature can, in fact, be prayed away.

Until they can’t. Until all the banana plants die because of some rare nematode infestation in the roots, and all the secret words and secret languages and even the “old magic” of the actual crocodile teeth are useless. They were useless all along, of course, as the banana plants would have borne fruit for the past 50 years with or without the spells, but hey … until this year there was a 98% correlation between the spells and a healthy banana crop! And my VAR was really quite negligible!

Okay, Ben, we see what you’ve done here. Yes, yes … quite droll, really … you’ve found a clever metaphor for railing against our central banker ruling class. Again. Thanks for the diversion, but now we need to get back to planet Earth. Important work to be done, and all that. Love your quotes, by the way.

Wait! This is not a metaphor. This is not an anthropological parable for our times. This IS our times. Want to see what a magic spell looks like? Here you go:

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-gaussian-copula-spell

This is the Gaussian Copula spell. It’s what you write down to make sure that your AAA-rated slice of a massive bunch of mortgages pays you 6% a year with only an infinitesimal risk of default. It’s not a metaphor for a spell. It is an actual magic spell, exactly the same in form and function as the talismanic scripts written on, say, Egyptian funerary urns in 1000 BC to make sure that your body and soul get to the afterlife with only an infinitesimal risk of default.

Secret language no one can read or understand? Check. Not really comprehensible even by most magicians? Check. Administered by a privileged caste with appropriate pomp and ceremony? Check. Reflective of an innate human desire to control invisible forces that are, in fact, uncontrollable and inexorable, like death and business cycles? Check. Highly effective in motivating human behavior and supporting status quo political institutions? Check. And mate.

The Gaussian Copula spell wishes away the possibility of a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices (if you haven’t already, please read Felix Salmon’s 2009 Wired magazine article on the Gaussian Copula — “The Formula That Broke Wall Street” — my all-time favorite piece of financial market journalism). The magical thinking embedded in this spell is that a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices is not just unlikely, it is — literally — unthinkable. It is an incantation that generated enormous societal stability and wealth, creating out of whole cloth a belief that a $10 trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a T) asset class in residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) was a solid thing, a triumph of Science (why, just look at all those Greek letters and the mathematical stuff!), an example of man’s mastery over the invisible vagaries of nature.

And then we had a nationwide decline in U.S. home prices. Which broke our world.

Here’s another spell:

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-taylor-rule-spell

This is the Taylor Rule spell. It’s what you write down to make sure that the inflation rate in your economy goes up or down the way you want it to go up or down. There are lots of other spells that go along with the Taylor Rule spell for “controlling” inflation, but it’s the main one, I’d say. This is the spell that has created a $12 trillion asset class in negative yielding sovereign debt. Because, you know, the lower interest rates go, the more you’re going to borrow and spend, and the higher inflation goes. Right? Right?

If the Gaussian Copula is like a funerary spell, trying to assure investors that they will get to investor heaven like dead Egyptian Pharaohs were assured of getting to dead Egyptian Pharaoh heaven, the Taylor Rule is like a weather spell. When I read this from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough:

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-scotland-witches So in Scotland witches used to raise the wind by dipping a rag in water and beating it thrice on a stone, saying:

I knok this rag upone this stane
To raise the wind in the divellis name,
It sall not lye till I please againe.

I can’t help but think of Stanley Fischer, vice-warlock of the Fed coven, saying in Jackson Hole that we need thrice interest rate raises (one last December, two more this year) to quell the inflationary winds. Or raise them. Or whatever sort of weather that Fischer is trying to manufacture. It’s really hard to tell.

But here’s the kicker. When a spell doesn’t work, no one in the magically thinking society believes it’s because spell-casting itself doesn’t work. It means that the spell wasn’t performed properly. Either the priest-kings said the words wrong or they didn’t think the right thoughts or there’s some other invisible force that we need to propitiate first. So what always happens, and I mean “always” in the sense of This. Is. Human. Nature. and has been happening in a rhyming sense for tens of thousands of years across every human society that ever lived, is this:

In phase 1, the priest-kings try harder. They seek out purer ingredients for their spells. They speak more loudly, more convincingly, more stridently. If two crocodile teeth were used in the past, now they use four. Or eight. It’s not just “more”, it’s “MOAR!”. Often there’s an internal purge near the end of phase 1.

In phase 2, the priest-kings regroup and tweak the spell. Maybe instead of “targeting” (another word for “praying for”) a 2% inflation rate, we need to “target” a 4% inflation rate. Maybe we should change the magic word “inflation” to “nominal GDP growth” and see if that works any better. Sure, why not? This tweaking process has happened, it is happening now, and it will happen all the way to the bitter end. What will never happen is that the priest-kings quit. There’s always another tweak, always another word choice, always another order in which the words can be said.

In phase 3 — and this is where we are now in the historical process, somewhere near the end of phase 2 and the beginning of phase 3 — the priest-kings are challenged by a rogue priest in their midst (rare) or an alt-priest coming out of nowhere (common). By “nowhere” I mean that the alt-priest is an Other, whether that’s a foreign religion or a foreign geography or a foreign (i.e., non-priestly) caste. The alt-priest isn’t about tweaking the spell or casting it louder. He’s about doing an entirely different spell, and he’s about accusing the incumbent priests of incompetence or worse. The alt-priest is always a populist, and populism comes easy when the incumbent spells have been failing … and failing … and failing.

So what happens? It depends on reality. It depends on whether the banana plants get better on their own or if they die. If they get better on their own (and this happens more often than you might think), then the incumbent priest-kings remain. If the banana plants give up the ghost, then the incumbents are swept away. For future reference, this is what dead banana plants look like.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-dead-banana-plants

Interestingly — and this was Frazer’s big point in The Golden Bough — even if the incumbent mode of magical thinking survives, it’s necessary for societal stability to perform a public human sacrifice of the primary incumbent priest-king. The king is dead. Long live the king. Fortunately for all involved, human sacrifice today is a lot less literal than it was during, I dunno, the heyday of the Etruscans. A little public shaming, a tearful interview with Anderson Cooper, a quiet hermitage in the form of a deanship at a small New England college … yeah, that should do the trick.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-anderson-cooper

The way this all plays out also depends on how deeply the incumbent priest-kings retreat into their fantasy world of tweaking spells and magical thinking, and that’s where I’m most concerned. The fact is that the global economy — particularly the U.S. economy and the Chinese economy — is more robust than the alt-priests tend to let on. Amazingly enough, the U.S. can still grow its way out of the massive debt we’ve taken on. I know … hard to believe. But it’s true. The power of compounding is truly inexorable, and it’s amazing what a steady 3.5% growth rate on a huge economic base can do to make manageable even trillions of dollars in debt. The rest of the developed world? Impossible to grow their way out of debt. They’re finished. Or rather, to use the lingo of my distressed debt friends, Japan and Europe ex-Germany are now “work-out situations”. But if the U.S. could just get out of its own way … if we could stop arguing about who gets to use what bathroom and start arguing about how to increase productivity (i.e., how to make technology a tool for humans doing more stuff rather than a replacement for humans doing stuff at all) … then we could actually come out of this okay.

I know, I know … I’m a dreamer. And for all the political fragmentation and polarization reasons that I write about ad nauseam, or at least here, here, here, and here, the politics of identity are unlikely to be replaced by the politics of growth anytime soon. Not in the West, anyway. But that’s why I want to pull my hair out when I watch the Jackson Hole theatre. Guys, you’re not helping!

I was dumbfounded by the stultifying, excruciating more-of-the-sameness that came out of Jackson Hole. Oh my god, are we really saying that the entire FOMC decision-making process comes down to whether there’s a good jobs report on Friday? Why don’t we just inspect the entrails of a goat? Are we really still arguing about one-raise-or-two when LIBOR is now pushing 90 basis points? Was there any mention — any mention at all — of LIBOR during the entire Jackson Hole meeting? Do these people, and it’s not just the central bankers themselves but all the courtiers — the journalists, the academics, the hangers-on — do they even recognize that a world exists outside of their imaginations and theories? Answer: NO.

Yep, at first I was disappointed in them. But on reflection I became more and more disappointed in us.

See, the problem isn’t with the Fed. They’re going to do what solipsistic, magical thinking priest-kings have done for ten thousand years … more of THAT. More solipsism. More magical thinking. More 4 year old egomaniacal determination that their spell casting efforts are the ONLY thing that stand between us and utter ruin.

No, the bigger problem is with us. The bigger problem is that we cannot imagine a solution for our current economic and political problems that does not rely on greater and greater state-directed spell casting. Monetary policy spells not working? Well, golly, I guess our ONLY alternative is to try some fiscal policy spells. Really? That’s the best we can come up with? I understand that this is what the courtiers are going to say. But I expect more from the rest of us. I expect more from myself.

Look, I get it. To riff on Woody Allen’s famous joke, we need the eggs. We need a stock market that goes up, not down. We need financial asset price inflation. We need the eggs so badly that we’re willing to support the magical thinking crew and smile at their courtiers even though we think they’re totally out of touch with reality. We’ve become so used to getting our eggs delivered on time and without fail that our first, second, and third responses are to ask for more magical thinking from the incumbent priest-kings, not less.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-old-magic

This is a dangerous, myopic game. Because we will get what we ask for. We will get more magical thinking. Only it won’t come just from the status quo magicians. It will also come from the alt-priests, some of whom will represent the absolute worst impulses of humanity. There are really bad ideas lurking on the wings today — there always are — but these really bad ideas about how human society should be organized always resurface and grow more powerful at times like this. Because it’s the old magic, an old magic that the human animal is hard-wired to respond to.

Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe the banana plants of global growth will turn green again, and we can have a grand celebration of the particular variant of the policy spell that was coincidentally cast at the same time. That could happen. As Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of 19th century Europe supposedly said, “there is a special providence for children, fools, and the United States of America.” Any portfolio manager with long enough tenure knows what it’s like to be bailed out by the market, and it’s a beautiful thing. Now we just need that to happen on a much larger scale.

But we should do better than just trust to luck. I’m not saying that we have to deny our human nature and stop believing in the act of spell-casting itself. I’m not (that) delusional. What I’m saying is that the more we embrace and encourage state-directed magical thinking, whether it’s of the monetary or fiscal policy sort, what we are actually doing is opening the city gates to the old evil magic and the alt-priests of fascism and totalitarianism. We don’t need the eggs that badly. What I’m saying is that we need to think less about Scottish witchcraft, a la Macbeth and James Frazer and Stanley Fischer, and more about the Scottish Enlightenment, a la David Hume and Adam Smith and Alexander Hamilton. What I’m saying is that we need to focus on empiricism and on what works in the real world, not theory and what “works” as an equation. What I’m saying is that usually the better course of state-directed action is to do less, not more, and the better course of individually-directed action is to do more, not less. What I’m saying is that the old good magic of small-l liberalism and technological innovation in the service of man rather than the replacement of man is pretty darn powerful itself, and the stories still inspire. Let’s embrace and encourage THAT as we make our way through what is still a largely inexorable world.

epsilon-theory-magical-thinking-september-1-2016-hamilton

It matters whether or not we call things by their proper names, because the words and the spells motivate human behavior like nothing else. It matters whether or not we sleepwalk our way through our own fin de siècle, because the really bad people and the really bad ideas that periodically wreck our world can’t be wished away. It matters whether or not we become courtiers ourselves, because the courtiers always fall the farthest. The problem with magical thinking run amok and its perpetuation of a fantasy world is that sooner or later the dream of the delusional king becomes a real world nightmare for real world people. It’s time to wake up.

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The Placebo Effect

epsilon-theory-the-placebo-effect-april-20-2016-migraine

BOTOX® is the only FDA-approved, preventive treatment that is injected by a doctor every 12 weeks for adults with Chronic Migraine (15 or more headache days a month, each lasting 4 hours or more). BOTOX® prevents up to 9 headache days a month (vs up to 7 for placebo). BOTOX® therapy is not approved for adults with migraine who have 14 or fewer headache days a month.

Allergan website, April 18, 2016

I’ve had four or five true migraines in my life, mostly from getting whacked on the head with something like a baseball or a sharp elbow in basketball, and I honestly can’t imagine how horrible it must be to suffer from chronic migraines, defined by the FDA as 15 or more migraines per month with headaches lasting at least four hours. So I was happy to see a TV ad saying that the FDA had approved Botox as an effective treatment for chronic migraines, preventing up to 9 headache-days per month. That’s huge!

But in the fast-talking coda for the ad, I heard something that made me do a double-take. Yes, Botox can knock out up to 9 headache-days per month. But a placebo injection is almost as good, preventing up to 7 headache-days per month.

Now 9 is better than 7 … I get that … and that’s why the FDA approved the drug as efficacious. Still. Really? Most of the reports I’ve read say that the cost of a Botox migraine treatment is about $600. That’s just the cost of the drug itself. So what the FDA is telling us is that a saline solution injection (costing what? $2) is almost 80% as effective as the $600 drug, so long as it was presented to the patient as a “true” potential therapy. If I’m an Allergan shareholder I’m thanking god every day for the placebo effect.

And not for nothing, but I’d really like to learn more about why Botox was NOT approved for migraine sufferers with fewer than 15 headache-days per month. If I were a gambling man (and I am), I’d be prepared to wager a significant amount of money that Botox significantly reduces headache-days at pretty much any level of chronic-ness, from 1 day to 30 days per month, but that at lower migraine frequencies a placebo is just as efficacious as Botox. In other words, I’d bet that ALL migraine sufferers would benefit from a $600 Botox shot, but I’d also bet that ALL migraine sufferers would benefit from a cheap saline shot so long as the doctor told them it was a brilliant new drug, and they’d get as much or MORE benefit from the cheap saline shot than from Botox if they’re “just” enduring eight or nine migraine headaches. Per month. Geez. Of course, there’s no economic incentive to provide the cheap placebo injection nor the unapproved (and hence unreimbursed) Botox shot if you have fewer than 15 headache-days per month. Bottomline: I’d bet that millions of people who don’t meet the 15 day threshold are suffering from terrible pain that could absolutely be alleviated at a very reasonable cost if it weren’t criminally unethical and (worse) terribly unprofitable to lie about the “truth” of a placebo treatment.

Of course, we have no such restrictions, ethical or otherwise, when it comes to monetary policy, and that’s the connection between investing and this little foray into the special hell that we call healthcare economics. The primary instruments of monetary policy in 2016 – words used to construct Common Knowledge and mold our behavior, words chosen for effect rather than truthfulness, words of “forward guidance” and “communication policy” – are placebos. Like a fake migraine therapy, the placebos of monetary policy are enormously effective because they act on the brain-regulated physiological phenomena of pain (placebos are essentially useless on non-brain-regulated phenomena like joint instability from a torn ligament or cellular chaos from cancer). Even in fundamentally-driven markets there’s a healthy balance between pain minimization and reward maximization. In a policy-driven market? The top three investing principles are pain avoidance, pain avoidance, and pain avoidance. We’re just looking to survive, not literally but in a brain-regulated emotional sense, and that leaves us wide open for the soothing power of placebos.

I get lots of comments from readers who don’t understand how markets can continue to levitate higher with anemic-at-best global growth, stretched valuation multiples, and an earnings recession in vast swaths of corporate America. This week I’m reading lots of comments post the failed Doha OPEC meeting that oil prices are doomed to see a $20 handle now that there’s no supply limitation agreement forthcoming. Yep, that’s the real world. And there’s zero monetary or fiscal policy in the works that has any direct beneficial impact on any of this.

But that’s not what matters. That’s not how the game is played. So long as the Fed and the ECB and the BOJ are playing nice with China by talking down the dollar regardless of what’s happening in the real world economy, then it’s an investable rally in all risk assets, and oil goes up more easily than it goes down, regardless of what happens with OPEC. The placebo effect of insanely accommodative forward guidance that has zero impact on the real economy is in full swing. Oil prices are driven by forward guidance and the dollar, not real world supply and demand. Every day that Yellen talks up global risks and talks down the dollar is another day of a pain-relieving injection, regardless of whether or not that talk is “real” therapy.

Does this mean that we’re off to the races in the market? Nope. The notion that we have a self-sustaining recovery in the global economy is laughable, and that’s what it will take to stimulate a new greed phase of a rip-roaring bull market. But by the same token I have no idea what makes this market go down, so long as we have monetary policy convergence rather than divergence, and so long as we have a Fed that loses its nerve and freaks out if the stock market goes down by more than 5%. So long as the words of a monetary policy truce hold strong, this isn’t a world that ends in fire and it isn’t a world that ends in ice. It’s the long gray slog of an Entropic Ending. Anyone else intrigued by the potential of a covered call strategy in this environment? I sure am.

But wait, Ben, isn’t a covered call strategy (where you’re selling call options on your long positions) the opposite of convexity? Haven’t you been saying that a portfolio should have more convexity – i.e. optionality, i.e. buying options rather than selling options – rather than less? Yes. Yes, I have. But optionality isn’t the same thing as owning options. In the same way that I want portfolio optionality that pays off in a fire scenario (a miracle happens and global growth + inflation surges forward) and portfolio optionality that pays off in an ice scenario (China drops a deflationary atom bomb by floating the yuan), so do I want portfolio optionality that pays off in a gray slog scenario. That’s where covered calls (and covered puts for short positions) come into play. It’s all part of applying the principles of minimax regret to portfolio construction, where we don’t try to assign probabilities and expected return projections to our holdings, but where we think in terms of risk tolerance and minimizing investment pain for any of the market scenarios that could develop in a politically fragmented world. It’s all part of having an intentional portfolio, where every exposure plays a defined role with maximum capital efficiency, as opposed to an accidental portfolio where we just slather on layer after layer of “quality” large cap stocks.

The Silver Age of the Central Banker gives me a headache. I bet it does you, too. Let’s take our relief where we can find it, placebo or no, but let’s not mistake forward guidance for a cure and let’s not forget that sometimes pretty words just aren’t enough. The truth is that the global trade pie is still shrinking and domestic politics are still anti-growth in both the US and Europe. Neither math nor human nature gives me much confidence that the currency truce can hold indefinitely, and I still think that every policy China has undertaken is exactly what I would do to prepare for floating (i.e. massively devaluing) the yuan. It’s at moments like this, though, that I remember the short seller’s creed: if you’re wrong on timing, you’re just wrong. I don’t know the timing of the bigger headaches to come, the ones that words and placebos won’t fix. What I do know, though, is that an investable rally in risk assets today gives us some breathing space to prepare our portfolios for the even more policy-controlled markets of the future. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

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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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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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More Probable Than Not

The only thing that I ask from this group today and the American people is to judge me from this day forward. That’s all I can ask for. 
– Alex Rodriguez press conference, February 17, 2009, regarding his steroid use from 2001 – 2003.

I’m ready to put this chapter behind me and play some ball. 
– Alex Rodriguez “apology” letter, February 17, 2015, regarding his steroid use from 2010 – 2012.

Brady: I would never do something that was outside of the rules of play.  I would never have someone do something that I thought was outside of the rules.
Reporter: So you never knowingly played with a football that was under 12.5 pounds?
Brady: No.

– Tom Brady press conference, January 22, 2015

Now, we all know that air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions. If there is activity in the ball relative to the rubbing process I think that explains why when we gave them to the official and the officials put them at let’s say 12.5 … once the ball reached its equilibrium state it’s probably closer to 11.5.
– noted physicist and football coach Bill Belichick, January 24, 2015.

That is an allegation [FOMC quashing their own General Counsel’s investigation of leaks] that I don’t believe has any basis in fact. I’m not going to go into any detail but I don’t know where that piece of information could possibly have come from.
– Janet Yellen press conference, March 18, 2015.

The Board’s Inspector General and the Department of Justice are in the midst of an investigation into this matter [FOMC leaks to journalists and market consultants]. We are cooperating fully with them and look forward to the results of their investigation. … I had one meeting with Ms. Regina Schleiger of Medley Global Advisors during the period covered by the staff review. As Vice Chair of the Board, I met with Ms. Schleiger on June 11, 2012, to hear her perspectives on international developments.
– Janet Yellen letter to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, May 4, 2015.

Mr. Bernanke said that he was sensitive to the public’s anxieties about the “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington and chose to go to Citadel, in part, because “it is not regulated by the Federal Reserve and I won’t be doing any lobbying of any sort.” He added that he had been recruited by banks but declined their offers. “I wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said. “I ruled out any firm that was regulated by the Federal Reserve.”
– New York Times, April 16, 2015.

Senator: Fletcher, there’s an old saying to the victors belong the spoils.
Fletcher: There’s another old saying, Senator.  Don’t piss down my back and tell me it’s raining.

– “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976)

My father was a doctor who spent his entire career in a small hospital built by the Tennessee Coal and Iron company in Fairfield, Alabama. He was an ER doc way before emergency medicine was its own thing, which meant that he saw a wide gamut of cases, from knife fights to car wrecks to heart attacks. But it also meant that he saw a lot of ordinary colds and various infectious diseases, as the emergency clinic then – as now – was the only on-demand medical facility available for people who couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to private physician practices. Now one of my father’s great joys in life was watching sports on our grainy black and white TV, miraculously upgraded to a grainy color TV when I was 12. I’m sure he spent hundreds, if not thousands, of happy hours watching sports. Unless, of course, the hapless TV commentator made the mistake of excusing the absence of, say, Larry Bird from a Celtics game by saying that Bird “had a touch of the flu” and so was too sick to play, which was guaranteed to send my father into a 10-minute tirade.
“A touch of the flu? A touch of the flu? You mean he has contracted the influenza virus? Are you out of your mind? Do you have any idea what it means to have the flu? Do you have any idea how sick you are if you have the flu? People DIE from the flu, you moron! What does that even mean … a touch of the flu? Is Larry Bird in the hospital? Because if he has influenza, you sure better get him to the hospital! I hope you’ve got a saline IV hooked up to Larry Bird’s arm right now! No, he’s not in the hospital. Do you know why? Because he has a COLD. That’s right, you idiot, he has a COLD! Not the flu!”\
Honest to god, this would go on for quite a while. Somehow it never got old to my father to rail at what he perceived as the mendacity – to use a good Tennessee Williams word – of a TV commentator elevating Larry Bird’s status from an ordinary human wrestling with a common cold to a heroic struggle with influenza. Even today, 30 years later, I can’t help but laugh at these memories of my father whenever I read or hear about a player out for the game because of “flu-like symptoms.”
I’ve inherited a lot of my father’s traits, and one of them is his intolerance for this mendacity of language, this intentional failure to call things by their proper names, this linguistic exercise in self-puffery and cover-up. Unfortunately for me and anyone else who shares this peculiar sensitivity, mendacity of language has never been more rampant in all of our social worlds, from sports to politics to markets.
With the advent of always-on mass media that projects the illusion of a one-to-one personal connection with cartoons like “Tom Brady” and “Jim Cramer” – corporate entities that are connected with but distinct from human beings like Tom Brady and Jim Cramer – language intentionally designed to influence rather than inform is now ubiquitous in the business of sports and politics and markets Why? Because it works. It delays sanctions until after you play in the Super Bowl, until after you sign a quarter of a billion dollar contract. It deflects attention until after your term in office is over, until after you cash in with a book deal and hedge fund consultancy.
To use the ponderous, legally parsed language of the NFL’s Wells Report on “deflate-gate”, language which I think wonderfully encapsulates the pinched spirit of our age, here are four things that I believe are “more probable than not”:
  1. Alex Rodriguez has routinely used steroids and PED’s of various stripes since he was a sophomore in high school.
  2. Tom Brady has routinely bribed equipment managers with autographed jerseys and new shoes in order to receive footballs deflated well below what he knew was the legal limit.
  3. Janet Yellen has routinely leaked market-moving information to favored private sector conduits, and has also sought to quash internal investigations of same.
  4. Ben Bernanke is for sale to the highest bidder.
But here’s the thing. I’m not that worked up about ANY of these issues. Yes, A-Rod has been juicing for 25 years, and Tom Terrific breaks the rules he thinks he can get away with breaking. Okay. Them and about 5,000 other professional athletes. Janet Yellen, the prime author of Fed “communication policy” (the intentional use of words to influence market expectations), leaks her viewpoint as part of that communication policy and then tries to kill an internal investigation. Okay. Her and every other senior politician and bureaucrat in the history of human civilization. As for Bernanke … a former President of the United States and the leading candidate to be the next President of the United States have personally received more than $100 million in “donations” from mega-corporations and foreign governments, and I’m supposed to be outraged about Ben Bernanke cashing a big check from Ken Griffin?
What I AM worked up about, though, is the mendacity … the utter lack of character and authenticity … on full display in ALL of these cases. All of these cases and so many, many more.
You want to go work for Citadel? Fine, go work for Citadel. But OWN IT. Don’t insult my … I’m not even going to say intelligence, because it’s not an assault on intelligence we’re talking about here … don’t insult my 50 years of life as a reasonably self-aware human being by claiming that you’re taking the high road here by working for Citadel instead of, say, JP Morgan. I mean, the notion that access to the Fed’s regulatory authority over big banks is somehow the defining characteristic of why Ben Bernanke is a sought-after commodity, or that any public outrage here is clearly misplaced because, after all, he won’t be a – gasp! – bank lobbyist, per se … it’s all just horrifically insulting to anyone with the common sense to know that the sky is blue, that 2 + 2 = 4, and that you don’t meaningfully change the air pressure in footballs by rubbing them vigorously. It’s mendacity and inauthenticity in the first degree.
You want to embark on a conscious policy of manipulating market expectations (yes, manipulating is a strong word, but it’s exactly accurate) by planting a carefully constructed Narrative with journalists like Jon Hilsenrath at the Wall Street Journal and consultants like Regina Schleiger at Medley, journalists and consultants who you know will be influential precisely because they are trumpeting their exclusive access to you? Fine. I totally get it. Once you’ve hit zero on short rates and pushed your balance sheet up over $4 trillion in LSAP’s, jawboning is the only bullet you’ve got left in the gun. But OWN IT. Don’t tell me that you’re meeting with Regina Schleiger at Medley because you want to hear HER perspectives on monetary policy! I’m sure that Ms. Schleiger is a very smart person. I’m sure that she is an insightful observer of the international economic scene. But – and I’m trying to say this in the kindest possible way – there’s not 1 in 100,000 investors who even knows who Ms. Schleiger is, and fewer still who would be willing to pay money or time to hear her personal opinion about the proper course of monetary policy. The exception, we are told, is the Chair of the Federal Reserve, in many respects the most powerful person on the planet … she, of course, is terribly keen to hear Ms. Schleiger’s views on international economics.
And yes, I know that Fed governors have these consultant meetings all the time. I know that their guests do most of the talking. But I also know, because I’ve done it, that professional investors and allocators are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to consultants like Medley, solely to glean a scrap of insight as to what the Fed is thinking, solely to be a willing host of the Narrative virus that the Fed is trying to spread. More to the point, Janet Yellen knows it, too, which is why she has these meetings. The act itself is not a horrible thing … not for A-Rod, not for Brady, not for Yellen, and not for Bernanke. It’s not a crime, or at least not a crime that will shame your children or your fan base. Certainly it’s a difficult and unpleasant thing when you’re revealed, because now you’ve got to deal with the Roger Goodell’s and the Bud Selig’s and the Jeb Hensarling’s and the Elizabeth Warren’s of the world – petty tyrants, all – but you knew there was this chance when you made the decision to break the rules, (or the “rules” in Bernanke’s and 2009 A-Rod’s case). But don’t turn a difficult situation into a personal capitulation to mendacity. Far better to own it.
Believe it or not, I’m not just venting my spleen at the outrageous displays of mendacity that assault us at every turn. I think that there’s an enormous political opportunity today (and I mean political in the broadest sense of the word, a sense that clearly includes the Fed, and arguably includes the NFL and MLB) to embrace authenticity, even if you are authentically an unlikable or – to use the insult du jour – a “polarizing” person. Not only am I convinced that we are each more likely to be successful in our chosen field when acting authentically (don’t you think that if Tiger Woods had embraced his authentically heel-ish nature in 2009, grown a goatee and moved to a casino suite in Vegas, that he’d still be winning majors today?), but also specifically within the chosen field of politics I think there is such a hunger for authenticity that ANY display of honest conviction when confronted with adversity, even if the adversity is well-deserved for breaking a rule, quickly becomes an enormous asset. Maybe this will turn out to be a more interesting election in 2016 than we think. Then again, with the vast campaign coffers already accumulated by Clinton™ and Bush™, two profoundly inauthentic corporate entities, maybe not.
Sigh. I know I’m not going to change anything by writing about this stuff, any more than my father was going to change a sports commentator’s patter by yelling at the TV. Like my father, though, I just can’t help myself. It’s never easy to be authentic. It’s never easy to call things by their proper names. It’s never easy to own it. But here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker, it’s never been more important. Or more politically savvy.

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Hey Spike

epsilon-theory-hey-spike-october-9-2014-dogs

The strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.

— Thucydides, “The History of the Peloponnesian War” (395 BC)

Global growth is really bad! Hooray!

That was the verdict of US markets yesterday, as the Fed minutes “revealed” (to use the breathless phrasing of mainstream financial media) a “growing concern” with the damaging impact of European torpor and a stronger dollar on US growth, and it’s a perfect example of why I’ve called a top in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. Not a top in market price levels (although I’m increasingly thinking that, too), but a top in market faith that price levels are completely determined by central bank policy. This is an observation that I’ve discussed at length (and perhaps ad nauseam) in recent Epsilon Theory notes like “The Ministry of Markets” and “Fear and Loathing on the Marketing Trail”, so I won’t belabor that again here.

What’s interesting to me is not this latest success of the Narrative of Fed Omnipotence. No, what’s interesting to me is this week’s failure of the Narrative of ECB Omnipotence. The Fed minutes totally bailed the market out today and (truly) revealed the Fed as the only central bank with the Common Knowledge firepower to withstand a serious growth scare. The ECB, on the other hand, has lost an enormous amount of Narrative mojo over the past week. The perception of Mario Draghi has clearly shifted from Super-Mario, willing and able to do “whatever it takes”, to what we would call in Texas “all hat and no cattle”.

Is this fair? Is this reflective of fundamental reality? No, of course not, but since when did that matter? Draghi didn’t change. Germany’s position didn’t change. Miserable European growth rates didn’t change. What changed is the direction of US monetary policy. Draghi’s beautiful words work wonders when he’s standing behind the 600-lb gorilla of the US Fed. But when that gorilla begins to stumble off along a different jungle path, as we’ve seen over the past few months … well, that’s an enormous challenge even for as skilled a Missionary as Mario Draghi. Toss in a few well-timed slashes from a master bureaucratic knife-fighter like Jens Weidmann, some disappointing macroeconomic news, and all of a sudden you’ve got a crisis in confidence with European markets.

I’m reminded of the distinction in political regime theory between “sensitivity” and “vulnerability”. Sensitivity reflects the forcefulness with which external events impact a country or institution within a given regime. Vulnerability reflects the cost of changing that regime. So, for example, while both the US and Japan would be quite sensitive to a supply shock in the price of oil from a Middle Eastern blow-up, Japan would be far more vulnerable than the US if that temporary shock became a permanent change in the oil supply picture. Because the US has more domestic energy alternatives, the long-term cost of adapting to a new and different energy world would be much greater for Japan than the US. Similarly, while both the Fed and the ECB are sensitive to growth shocks, the ECB is far more vulnerableto a world of secular growth stagnation. And the market smells that vulnerability like stink on a wet dog.

I’ll have more to say about sensitivity and vulnerability in future notes, because I think it’s a valuable concept for asset allocation and risk management. Beta and volatility are measures of sensitivity, not vulnerability, but they dominate our econometric risk measurement techniques. We need a measure of portfolio vulnerability (and this is not at all the same thing as tail risk), and I think it lives in the epsilonterm.

Today, though, the Epsilon Theory point is that we’re seeing the first unexpected ramification of a divergence in global monetary policy – the ECB is revealed as the yappy little Chester to the Fed’s bulldog Spike. Now in the cartoons there’s always a large enough scare to turn big bad Spike into a quivering mess, and that may well turn out to be the case as the global growth boogieman continues to grow in scale and scope, particularly if it spreads into the political sphere. But for now markets are still fervent believers in Fed Omnipotence, even as faith in the ECB is starting to crumble. I’m a seller of both Narratives.

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