And They Did Live by Watchfires: Things that Don’t Matter #4

Oliver Bird

There are two kinds of stories we tell our children. The first kind: once upon a time, there was a fuzzy little rabbit named Frizzy-Top who went on a quantum, fun adventure only to face a big setback, which he overcame through perseverance and by being adorable. This kind of story teaches empathy. Put yourself in Frizzy-Top’s shoes, in other words.

The other kind: Oliver Anthony Bird, if you get too close to that ocean, you’ll be sucked into the sea and drowned! This kind of story teaches them fear. And for the rest of their lives, these two stories compete: empathy and fear.

Oliver Bird, Legion, Chapter 4 (2017)

Skinner: What are you doing in here?
Linguini: I’m just familiarizing myself with, you know, the vegetables and such.
Skinner: Get out. One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know!
— Ratatouille (2007)

It’s four in the morning, and he finds himself drawn to a hotel and casino that has been out of style for thirty years, still running until tomorrow or six months from now when they’ll implode it and knock it down and build a pleasure palace where it was, and forget it forever. Nobody knows him, nobody remembers him, but the lobby bar is tacky and quiet, and the air is blue with old cigarette smoke and someone’s about to drop several million dollars on a poker game in a private room upstairs. The man in the charcoal suit settles himself in the bar several floors below the game, and is ignored by a waitress. A Muzak version of “Why Can’t He Be You” is playing, almost subliminally. Five Elvis Presley impersonators, each man wearing a different colored jumpsuit, watch a late-night rerun of a football game on the bar TV.

A big man in a light gray suit sits at the man in the charcoal suit’s table, and, noticing him even if she does not notice the man in the charcoal suit, the waitress, who is too thin to be pretty, too obviously anorectic to work Luxor or the Tropicana, and who is counting the minutes until she gets off work, comes straight over and smiles. He grins widely at her, “You’re looking a treat tonight, m’dear, a fine sight for these poor old eyes,” he says, and, scenting a large tip, she smiles broadly at him. The man in the light gray suit orders a Jack Daniel’s for himself and a Laphroaig and water for the man in the charcoal suit sitting beside him.

“You know,” says, the man in the light gray suit, when his drink arrives, “the finest line of poetry ever uttered in the history of this whole damn country was said by Canada Bill Jones in 1853, in Baton Rouge, while he was being robbed blind in a crooked game of faro. George Devol, who was, like Canada Bill, not a man who was averse to fleecing the odd sucker, drew Bill aside and asked him if he couldn’t see that the game was crooked. And Canada Bill sighed, and shrugged his shoulders, and said. “I know. But it’s the only game in town.” And he went back to the game.

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires…
— George Gordon, Lord Byron, Darkness (1816)

A Year Without Summer

In 1816 — 200 years ago — much of the world was experiencing a “Year without Summer.” We now know this was a result of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the sparsely populated Indonesian island of Sumbawa, an eruption which sent some 38 cubic miles of rock, ash, dust and other ejecta into the atmosphere. For reference, that’s roughly 200 times the volume of material ejected in the eruption of Mount St. Helens, but only a tenth or so the size of the Lake Toba explosion off Sumatra that some researchers believe caused one of the most perilous bottlenecks in human genetic history.

At the time in 1816, the world didn’t know the cause. Well, except for maybe the people living on Sumbawa. The effects, on the other hand, couldn’t be missed.

In New England, the clouds of ash that blocked the sun led to remarkable drops and extraordinary variations in temperature and precipitation. In the Berkshires, there was a deep freeze in May. It snowed in Boston as late as June 7. Cornfields in New Hampshire were ruined by frost on August 14. The Dartmouth College campus was blanketed by snow as late (early?) as September. It caused as near a true famine as the U.S. has ever experienced. Hardy crops — some strains of wheat, potatoes and the like — got most of the nation through the year, as did a culling of wild game that likely came as a bit of an unpleasant surprise to the squirrels, hogs and possums that were usually spared a place on the American table.

The situation was not much better in Western Europe, where average temperatures fell as much as 3-4°C. On the British Isles, failed wheat and potato crops meant famine for much of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Germany had food riots. And in Switzerland, where Lord Byron was in residence with Shelley, the constant rain and cold led each to create a great deal of poetry, which, depending on your opinion of early romanticism, was either more or less catastrophic than the torrential rains that accompanied it. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that Byron was inspired to write about the heat death of the universe some 35 years before Lord Kelvin proposed it rather more formally (and perhaps less melodramatically).

Byron’s poem, Darkness, envisions a world in which the sun has been extinguished, in which morning never comes. In this time of desperation, the world is literally tearing itself apart. Palaces are ripped to pieces for firewood, forests are set alight and people gather “round their blazing homes” just so they can see their own hands, and the faces of their family and friends. Everything the world has built is pulled apart piece by piece in search of a solution to the problem of darkness.

The stories we tell about such times of desperation tend to fall into the two archetypes Jemaine Clement’s character describes in Legion: stories of fear and stories of empathy. Byron gave us a story of fear. Empathy stories, on the other hand, follow the usual trope of necessity as the mother of invention. But even this is often just a fear story with a different outcome, not uncommonly summoning a sort of deus ex machina. Luke listening to Obi Wan’s disembodied voice instead of the computer as he aims his last shot at the Death Star. Gollum showing up to bite off Frodo’s ring finger and take a dive into Mt. Doom, saving the hobbit from the now too-strong temptation to wear the ring and return it to Sauron. And maybe there’s a story where Byron’s humanity finds a real solution to the coming darkness instead of tearing their homes and businesses apart looking for something else to burn.

The investment environment we face is not so dire as all this, but it does feel a bit grim, doesn’t it? Market returns have continued to defy the odds, but the data, our consultants, our advisors, our home offices and our instincts are telling us that the combination of demographic slowing, stagnant productivity, limited debt capacity, low rates and high valuations isn’t going to end well. Or at a minimum, we remain optimistic but confused. I’m sure we’ve all asked or heard clients and constituents asking us, “What the hell do we invest in when everything is expensive and nothing is growing?” In this call to action, are we successfully turning this into an empathy story? Or are we just ripping apart our homes for tinder so that it looks like we are doing something?

When it’s hard to see what’s two feet ahead of our own noses, when the game feels rigged, sometimes it feels like we have no choice but to stay at the table and play. After all, it’s the only game in town. And so instead of walking away and taking what the market gives us, we tweak, we tilt, we “take chips off the table,” we “go all in” and we hack, hack, hack at the beams and joists of our own homes for the great bonfire.

This bias to action is a road to ruin. That’s why the endless tweaking, trading and rebalancing of our portfolios takes spot #4 on our list of Things that Don’t Matter.

Of Priuses and Passive Investors

In 2011 a group of researchers at Berkeley examined an age-old question: are rich people driving expensive cars the asshats we all think they are? The findings? Yes, indeed they are! The study found that drivers of expensive cars were three times more likely than drivers of inexpensive cars to fail to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks requiring it, and four times more likely to go out of turn at a stop sign. The team performed similar tests in other non-traffic areas (e.g., cheating at games of chance, etc.) that arrived at the same conclusion, and furthermore identified that simply making people believe that they were part of the 2% Club made them behave more rudely.

My favorite discovery from the research was the odd outlier they discovered: the moderately priced Toyota Prius. Fully one third of Prius drivers blew by intrepid Berkeley grad students (taking a night off from throwing trash cans through the windows of some poor Wells Fargo branch, perhaps) who stepped into a busy crosswalk for science. This put it very near the top of the tables for rudeness. Most of you will recognize this as our old friend moral licensing: the subconscious tendency to feel empowered/entitled to do something bad, immoral or indulgent after having done something to elevate our estimation of our own value. The Prius owner has earned the right to drive like a jerk, since he’s saving the world by driving a hybrid car, after all. Alberto Villar of Amerindo Investment Advisors, who was the largest opera donor since Marie Antoinette, could easily justify stealing his clients’ money to make good on charitable pledges. Of course I can eat that Big Mac and large fries when I sneak over to the McDonald’s across the street from our San Francisco office — I ordered a Diet Coke, after all.

And so on behalf of insufferable hipsters, fraudulent philanthropists and Big Mac dieters everywhere, I would like to extend a gracious invitation to our club: ETF investors who pride themselves on being passive investors while they tactically trade in and out of positions over the course of the year.

Now there’s a lot of old research protesting too much that “ETFs don’t promote excessive trading!” A cursory review of news media and finance journals will uncover a lot of literature arguing exactly that, although the richest studies are several years old now. You’ll even find some informing you that leveraged ETFs aren’t being abused any more. Those of you who are closest to clients, are you buying what the missionaries are selling on this one?

I hope not.

Even when some of the original studies were published (most of which said that mutual funds were held around three years on average, while ETFs were held about two-and-a-half years), it was plainly evident to anyone who works with consumers of ETFs that basing claims on the “average” holding behavior was a poor representation of how these instruments were being held and traded. The people with skin in the game who weren’t selling ETFs were aware that holders fell by and large into three camps:

  1. The long-term holders seeking out market exposure,
  2. The speculators trading in and out of ETFs to generate additional returns, and
  3. The increasingly sad and depressing long/short guys shorting SPY to hedge their longs, telling the young whippersnappers stories from a decade ago about “alpha shorts” before yelling for them to get off their lawn.

Source: Morningstar. For illustrative purposes only.

The mean holding period in the old research was still pretty long because Group 1 was a big group. I think that it was also because a lot of the ETF exposure that Group 2 was swinging around was in smaller, niche funds or leveraged ETFs. Both of these things are still true. They’re also becoming less true. A few weeks ago, Ben Johnson from Morningstar published this chart of the ten largest ETFs and their average holding period. There’s all sorts of caveats to showing a chart like this — some of the causes of ETF trading aren’t concerning — but if SPY turning over every two weeks doesn’t get your antennae twitching, I’m not sure what to tell you.

There are a lot of reasons to believe that we are lighting our houses on fire with the almost comically active use of “passive” instruments, and trading costs are one of them. Jason Zweig wrote an excellent piece recently highlighting research from Antti Petajisto on this topic. Petajisto’s work in the FAJ estimates that “investors” may be paying as much as $18 billion a year to trade ETFs. Zweig, perhaps feeling rather charitable, concedes that as a percentage of overall trading volume, this number isn’t really all that high. And he’s technically correct.

But who cares about trading volume, at least for this discussion, which isn’t really about the liquidity of the market? If — as so many investors and asset managers are fond of saying — the ETF revolution is but a trapping of the broader active vs. passive debate (insert audible yawn), we should really be thinking of this in terms of the asset size of the space. And in context of the $3 trillion, give or take, that is invested in ETFs, $18 billion is a LOT. It’s 60bp, which would be a lot even if it weren’t impacting investors who often make a fuss over whether they’re paying 15bp or 8bp in operating expenses.

And then there’s taxes. Now, actively managed strategies, especially those implemented through mutual funds, have plenty of tax issues and peculiarities of their own. But the short-term gains taxable investors are forcing themselves into by timing and day-trading ETFs are potentially huge.  If we assume, say, a 6% average annual portfolio return, the investor who shifts 100% of his return from long-term gains into short-term gains is costing himself 60-120bp per year before we consider any time value or compounding effects of deferring tax liabilities. Given that the largest ten ETFs all have average holding periods of less than a year, this doesn’t seem to be all that inappropriate an assumption.

The growing Group 2 above, our day traders — oops, I mean, our “passive ETF investors” — may be giving away as much as 1.2%-1.8% in incremental return. Those fee savings sure didn’t go very far, and the direct costs of all this tinkering may not even be the biggest effect!

Every piece of data on this topic tells the same story: when we try to time our cash positions to have “ammo to take advantage of opportunities,” when we decide a market is overbought, when we rotate to this sector because of this “environment” that is about to kick off, when we move out of markets that “look like they’ve gotten riskier,” when we get back in because there’s “support” at a price, we are burning down our houses to live by watchfires.

There are two ways in which we as investors do this, one familiar and one less so.

Of Clients and Crooked Card Games

First, the familiar. We stay in the crooked game because it’s what’s expected of us. It’s tempting to think of the desire, this inclination toward constant “tactical” trading as an internal impulse. A response to boredom or, perhaps, an addiction to certain of the chemical responses associated with winning, with risking capital, even with losing. I think that’s probably true for some investors. I know that when I sat in an allocator’s seat, when I heard a portfolio manager tell me he had “fallen in love with the market” when he was six years old and started trading options with his dad when he was 10, I didn’t see that as a particularly good thing. One can get too familiar with vegetables, you know.

But just as often, the impulse to stay in the game is external, and that pressure usually comes from the client. I’m empathetic to it, and it’s not unique to our industry.

Have you ever sent a document to a lawyer and gotten no comments back? Have you ever visited a doctor and gotten a 100% clean bill of health with no recommendations? Have you ever taken your car to a mechanic and had them tell you about just the thing you brought it in for? Have you ever consulted with a therapist or psychiatrist who didn’t find something wrong with you, even if they had the bedside manner to avoid using those exact words? It isn’t just that those folks are being paid for the additional services they’re proposing. There is a natural feeling among professional providers of advice that they must justify their cost to their clients even if the best possible advice is to do nothing.

The result is that the crooked card game usually takes three different forms, which, in addition to all the fees and tax impact discussed above, may add risk and harm returns for portfolios in other ways as well:

  • The Cash Game: When investors feel concerned about the timing of their entry into markets, the direction of markets, upcoming events, or some other factor and temporarily sell investments and go to cash, they’re playing the Cash Game. I recently had a meeting with an intermediary who had recently launched a system to integrate all client holdings (including accounts held away). Their initial run identified average aggregate cash positions of more than 15%!
  • The PerformanceChasing Game: I’ve talked about this ad nauseam in prior notes. We investors find all sorts of vaguely dishonest ways to pretend that we aren’t just performance-chasing. It doesn’t work, and a goodly portion of the damage done by tinkering and “tactical” moves is just performance-chasing in guise, even if we are high-minded enough to pretend that we’re making the decision because “the fund manager changed his process” or euphemistically inclined enough to say the investment “just wasn’t working,” whatever that means.
  • The In-Over-Our-Heads Game: Still other games are essentially designed to “fleece the odd sucker,” causing investors to seek out hedges and interesting trades to take advantage of events and “low cost” insurance for portfolios. As a case study, please take a gander at the size and volume of instruments and funds tracking the VIX. Please look at the return experience of holders of those various instruments. It’s not the vehicles themselves that are flawed, but the way in which these markets prey on misplaced expectations of investors that they know when insurance is cheap or expensive. As a quick test: if you can’t define gamma without looking it up on Investopedia, you probably shouldn’t own any of these instruments, much less be flopping in and out of them. This concept is broadly transferable to a variety of things investors do to “hedge” — buying S&P puts, buying short ETFs, etc.

I know I’m not treading new ground here. Borrowing from the work done in a thorough survey on the literature that itself concludes a 1.0% impact from the ways in which investors trade in and out of funds, the figures are pretty consistent. The folks over at Dalbar concluded in 2016 that investors in equity mutual funds underperformed equity indices by 3.5% over the last 20 years, 1.5% of which they attribute to “panic selling, exuberant buying and attempts at market timing.” Frazzini and Lamont previously estimated 0.85%. In 2007, Friesen and Sapp said 1.56%. We’ve got something for hedge fund investors, too.

You’ve heard this story before. So why am I telling you this?

Because when I meet or speak with investors, I often worry that when they think about dominant narratives and observations about human behaviors, they are focused on identifying tradable trends and signals. In rare cases, that is a worthwhile endeavor. And we’ve made no secret that we’re spending a lot of time thinking about the Narrative Machine — after all, if we believe that investors systematically make mistakes that cost them returns and money, it should be possible to identify ways to capitalize on the actions taken by others.

But far more often, the message from the analysis of prevailing narratives is to back away from the table. Investors I’ve spoken to in the past few years have heard a voice of caution against rotating away chunks of portfolios that by all rights ought to be invested in bonds based on flimsy rationale like, “rates couldn’t possibly get lower!” I’ve likewise cautioned against haphazardly fleeing equity markets into cash on the basis of historically high valuations, perceived political turmoil and the like. There will come times where it may be right to make strong positive observations on opportunities for tactical allocations, but as in all decisions we make when investing, it is imperative that we be aware that the hurdle for staying at the table to play the only game in town is very high. Our skepticism about opportunities to play it should be extreme.

Of Bambi and Battle Tanks

Since I’m advising you to be skeptical, I’ll forgo the apocryphal (it’s real to me, dammit!) story I was going to tell at this point in my little piece. I was going to tell you a story my brother told me once about a high school classmate, an M1A1 Abrams tank and a whitetail deer. It is apparently not normal in polite company to discuss the disintegration of adorable animals, and so I won’t unless you buy me a drink (Lagavulin and water, please). What I will do is highlight that the often-overlooked pitfall of the tinkering mentality is the tendency to use very big tools to accomplish very small things, for which the intended aim is almost always overwhelmed by the unintended consequence. Pointing a 120mm smoothbore cannon at a tiny animal isn’t going to shrink the explosion it causes. Likewise, pointing a major change in risk posture or asset allocation at an event we’re a bit nervous about isn’t going to change the fact that we’ve made a change to some very fundamental characteristics of the portfolio.

This happens all the time.

In the last year, I’ve met with advisors, allocators and investors convinced of the inexorable, unstoppable, indomitable rise of interest rates who exited their government and investment-grade bond portfolios — in many cases, the only remnant of their portfolio standing against them and a downturn in risk assets — in favor of higher yielding equity portfolios that wouldn’t be as exposed to the environment they expect. I’ve seen investors leaving passive equity allocations in favor of concentrated private deals because they are concerned about the broader economy’s impact on stocks. I’ve seen investors switch asset classes because they didn’t like the manager they were invested with.

There may be reasons for some of those views, and in some cases even for acting on them. But I am always concerned when I see changes like that unaccompanied by consideration of the magnitude of the unintended consequences: are we still taking the right amount of risk? Are we achieving adequate diversification? As we close out the list of Things that Don’t Matter, I look forward to publishing our list of things that actually DO, because these questions play prominently. There is hope. There are things we can do, and most of them will run contrary to our instincts to take rapid, “nimble” action in our portolios.

Within that thread of hope, a plea first to readers who prefer poetry: that we feel disillusioned or confused about the outcomes for markets does not mean we ought to be more active, more nimble in modifying our asset allocation, however good and wise those things sound when we say them to ourselves and our clients. All the data tell us that we are likely to find ourselves warming our hands at a watchfire before long. To those who prefer poker: you don’t have to play the game. It is OK to step away from the table, walk back to the elevator bank and call it a night, to take what the market gives us.

Make no mistake: the alternative is worse. It’s an expensive alternative. It’s often a risk-additive alternative. It’s a tax-producing alternative. It’s an alternative that frankly most of us just aren’t in a position to successfully execute. There is a reason that most global macro and GTAA hedge funds hire traders who have success in individual markets, even individual types of trading strategies within individual markets. It’s because being able to effectively determine when to switch among managers, among asset classes and among drivers of risk and return is very, very hard. The data bear this out, and no matter how hard we feel like we have to do something, it won’t change the fact that lighting our house on fire isn’t going to make the sun come back.

Understanding the dominant impact of narratives in markets today doesn’t mean abandoning our well-designed processes and our work determining asset allocation, risk targets and portfolio construction in favor of a haphazard chasing of the narrative-driven theme for the day. It means that human behavior and unstructured forms of information should — must — increasingly play a role in the structure of each of those processes in the first place.

After all, all investing is behavioral investing. Anyone who tells you different is either incompetent, selling something or both. One of the most pointless such behaviors — our unquenchable desire to act — nearly completes our list of the Things that Don’t Matter.

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Waiting for Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Brexit is a Bear Stearns moment, not a Lehman moment. That’s not to diminish what’s happening (markets felt like death in March, 2008), but this isn’t the event to make you run for the hills. Why not? Because it doesn’t directly crater the global currency system. It’s not too big of a shock for the central banks to control. It’s not a Humpty Dumpty event, where all the Fed’s horses and all the Fed’s men can’t glue the eggshell back together. But it is an event that forces investors to wake up and prepare their portfolios for the very real systemic risks ahead.

There are two market risks associated with Brexit, just as there were two market risks associated with Bear Stearns.

In the short term, the risk is a liquidity shock, or what’s more commonly called a Flash Crash. That could happen today, or it could happen next week if some hedge fund or shadow banking counterparty got totally wrong-footed on this trade and — like Bear Stearns — is taken out into the street and shot in the head.

In the long term, the risk is an acceleration of a Eurozone break-up, which is indeed a Lehman moment (literally, as banks like Deutsche Bank will become both insolvent and illiquid). There are two paths for this. Either you get a bad election/referendum in France (a 2017 event) or you get a currency float in China (an anytime event). Brexit just increased the likelihood of these Humpty Dumpty events by a non-trivial degree.

What’s next? From a game theory perspective, the EU and ECB need to crush the UK. It’s like the Greek debt negotiations … it was never about Greece, it was always about sending a signal that dissent and departure will not be tolerated to the countries that matter to the survival of the Eurozone (France, Italy, maybe Spain). Now they (and by “they” I mean the status quo politicians throughout the EU, not just Germany) are going to send that same signal to the same countries by hurting the UK any way they can, creating a Narrative that it’s economic death to leave the EU, much less the Eurozone. It’s not spite. It’s purely rational. It’s the smart move.

What’s next? Every central bank in the world will step up their direct market interventions, particularly in the FX market, where it’s easiest for Plunge Protection Teams to get involved. Every central bank in the world will step up their jawboning and “communication policy” to support financial asset prices and squelch volatility. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the Fed started talking about a neutral stance, moving away from their avowed tightening bias. As I write this, Fed funds futures are now pricing in a 17% chance of a rate CUT in September. Yow!

What’s the result? I think it works for while, just like it worked in the aftermath of Bear Stearns. By May 2008, credit and equity markets had retraced almost the entire Bear-driven decline. I remember vividly how the Narrative of the day was “systemic risk is off the table.” Yeah, well … we saw how that turned out. Now to be fair, history only rhymes, it doesn’t repeat. Maybe this Bear Stearns event isn’t followed by a Lehman event. But that’s what we should be watching for. That’s what we should be preparing our portfolios for.

How do we prepare? I’ve got Five Easy Pieces, five suggestions for surviving these policy-controlled markets, described at length in the Epsilon Theory notes “Cat’s Cradle” and “Hobson’s Choice“. Here’s the skinny:

Keep risk constant, not dollars. Risk Balanced Strategies
Trend-following is a thing. Managed Futures Strategies
Focus on catalysts. Long/Short Strategies
Minimize regret. Convex Strategies (Optionality)
Survive the politics. Active Mgmt for Real Assets

Bottom line … if you ever needed a wake-up call that every crystal ball is broken and we are in a political storm of global proportions, today is it. That’s at least 3 mixed metaphors, but you get my point. Brexit isn’t a Humpty Dumpty moment itself, and I think The Powers That Be will kinda sorta tape this egg back together. But if there’s one thing we know about broken eggs and broken teacups and broken partnerships, it’s never the same again, no matter how hard you try to put the pieces back together. My view is that a Humpty Dumpty moment, in the form of a political/currency shock from China or a core Eurozone country, is a matter of when, not if. Tracking that “when”, and thinking about how to invest through it, is what Epsilon Theory is all about.

PS — for some earlier Epsilon Theory notes on Europe, all of which are highly pertinent today, see:

  1. The Red King
  2. 1914 is the New Black
  3. 1914 is (Still) the New Black
  4. Inherent Vice
  5. Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey
  6. Finest Worksong

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Cat’s Cradle

“No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s . . .”
“And?”
“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”
It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it: “Nothing.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)

Negative rates are ice-nine. If you don’t know what ice-nine is, read the book. Spoiler alert: the world ends.

TIAA will end the voluntary expense waiver on the CREF Money Market Account by April 14, 2017. This decision was reached after ongoing discussions with the TIAA and CREF boards, as well as our state insurance regulator. It is anticipated that unless interest rates rise sufficiently, one or more classes of the CREF Money Market Account may have negative yields after the waiver ends.

TIAA Plan Update Review Guide 2016 [italics mine]
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

A great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was within.

Admit it. You assume her poetry is soft because she’s a woman and writes about flowers. Read it again. Emily Dickinson is a total badass. You don’t even feel the slice of her work, but then you see the blood.

I saw her today at the reception
In her glass was a bleeding man
She was practiced at the art of deception
Well I could tell by her blood-stained hands
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find You get what you need
– Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)

Fed Governor James “Bleeding Man” Bullard

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis is changing its characterization of the U.S. macroeconomic and monetary policy outlook. An older narrative that the Bank has been using since the financial crisis ended has now likely outlived its usefulness, and so it is being replaced by a new narrative. The hallmark of the new narrative is to think of medium- and longer-term macroeconomic outcomes in terms of regimes. The concept of a single, long-run steady state to which the economy is converging is abandoned, and is replaced by a set of possible regimes that the economy may visit. Regimes are generally viewed as persistent, and optimal monetary policy is viewed as regime dependent. Switches between regimes are viewed as not forecastable.

James Bullard, “The St. Louis Fed’s New Characterization of the Outlook for the U.S. Economy” (June 2016)

Jim Bullard’s resignation letter here in the Silver Age of the Central Banker, as he adopts the game theoretic concept of minimax regret theory and the postmodern social theoretic concept of narrative construction.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;

– William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

Splendor In the Grass (1961)

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood’s best work. I experience this movie so differently today, as the father of four teenage daughters, than I did watching it as a young man. In investing as in life, we all love and lose. The question is how you deal with it.

If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.
– Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862

In his classic work on game theory, “The Strategy of Conflict”, Nobel Prize winner Tom Schelling begins by writing about cooperative games, where players are trying to arrive at a common outcome for a mutual benefit. This is a different class of games from the competitive games like Chicken and Prisoner’s Dilemma that we usually consider when we think about game theory, but in truth it’s the cooperative games that account for so much more of our daily lives and social interactions. For example, driving on the right-hand side of the road (or the left-hand side in the UK) is an example of a cooperative game equilibrium. The only thing that matters is that we agree on which side of the road we drive on, not that my preferred side or your preferred side ends up being the final choice.

The most interesting cooperative games are those where — unlike driving conventions — we don’t have a government or other authority telling us what our agreement should be. Even more interesting are those games where we can’t communicate directly with the other players to talk through the appropriate equilibrium behavior that works for all concerned. For example, let’s say that a friend and I agree to meet in New York City at 1 pm tomorrow. Unfortunately, we neglected to agree on a location to meet, and now I have absolutely no way to communicate with my friend, or vice versa. What do we do?

As Schelling writes, almost everyone will, in fact, meet their friend successfully tomorrow at 1 pm in New York City. Where? By the big clock in the middle of Grand Central Station. Why? Because there is Common Knowledge — something that everyone knows that everyone knows — to guide both me and my friend to this outcome. Now Schelling doesn’t call it Common Knowledge — he calls it a focal point — but it’s exactly the same thing. And once you start looking for focal points that drive our strategic behavior in the cooperative games that comprise our daily social lives, you see them everywhere.

Okay, Ben, all kinda interesting, but what’s the point? The point is that when governments undertake emergency actions and extraordinary policies, they obliterate the focal points that make our cooperative games of investing and market making possible.

Specifically, extraordinary monetary policy has obliterated the focal points of price discovery. When you no longer have Common Knowledge regarding the price of money, you don’t have Common Knowledge regarding the price of anything. For more than seven years now, investors have been sitting down at the poker table ready to play the cards they’re dealt, only to find that central bankers with infinitely high stacks of chips have sat down at the table, too. And as any experienced poker player knows, the cards are meaningless if you tangle with an opponent like this. Maybe you think that was a bad flop. Maybe you think Nestle investment grade debt is worth 99 cents. But what you think about valuation and intrinsic worth Does. Not. Matter. when the infinite stack player says with his inexhaustible string of bets of massive size that this was actually a wonderful flop and that Nestle investment grade debt is actually worth $1.10 and the Emperor is actually wearing a beautiful suit of clothes. The very act of stock-picking or bond-picking or security selection in general has become nothing more than a bad joke in vast swaths of global markets. It’s a crooked game — a moke’s game — but it’s the only game in town.

Specifically, extraordinary regulatory policy has obliterated the focal points of liquidity. When you no longer have Common Knowledge regarding the ability of banks to make markets and hold an inventory of securities, you don’t have Common Knowledge regarding the liquidity of anything. The market risk from a Brexit “Leave” vote, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the real economy, and next to nothing as a signal or precedent for the core currency union of the EU. Instead, the market risk from a Brexit “Leave” vote is a liquidity shock in currency, rates, credit, or derivative securities that sets off a chain reaction of liquidity shocks across global risk assets. This sort of liquidity shock is temporary, to be sure, but that’s no consolation at all if you find yourself stopped out of a position. When trillions of dollars in risk assets move by several percentage points because a few thousand quid switched from one line or another in a UK betting parlor, or because the latest online poll with suspect (to be kind) methodology is printed by a tabloid … you can’t tell me that market liquidity and structural normalcy is more than skin deep. We swing from pillar to post and endure mini-Flash Crashes on a regular basis because too often the act of making a market in, say, equity index volatility is a potential career-ender for anyone sitting on a bank trading desk, and that’s entirely the result of unintended consequences from financial regulations like Dodd-Frank.

It’s the combination of focal point obliteration, from both monetary policy and regulatory policy sources, that creates the most powerful and destructive earthquakes in our investment landscape. For example, I’m often asked if I think that negative rates will ever come to the U.S. My answer: they’re already here by proxy (U.S. Treasury rates are so low today because German Bunds are negative out to 10 years duration), and negative rates will hit the U.S. in earnest and in practice early next year. How? Major U.S. money market fund providers like TIAA-CREF have already announced plans to stop providing fee waivers as new regulations force fund type consolidation, which will create negative rates in the safe, liquid funds that remain. It’s baked in. It’s going to happen. As George Soros is fond of saying, I’m not predicting. I’m observing. And nothing will ever be the same. If you think that the current anguished cries from savers and retirees and public pension plans are loud now … if you think that the rewardless risk of modern markets can’t get any worse … well, just wait until your money market fund starts charging you interest for the privilege of investing your cash in short-term government obligations. Just wait until Nestle floats a negative interest rate bond. Just wait until borrowing money, not lending money, becomes a profit center. Just wait until the entire notion of compounding — without exaggeration the most important force in human economic history — is turned on its head and becomes a wealth destroyer.

Sigh.

You know, I’ve written a lot of Epsilon Theory notes over the past three years. As I figure it, about three novels’ worth and just over the halfway mark of War and Peace. But in all that time and across all those notes I’ve never felt so … resigned … to the fact we are ALL well and truly stuck. The Fed is stuck. The ECB and the BOJ are stuck. The banks are stuck. Corporations are stuck. Asset managers are stuck. Financial advisors are stuck. Investors are stuck. Republicans are stuck. Democrats are stuck. We are all stuck in a very powerful political equilibrium where the costs of changing our current bleak course of ineffective monetary policy and counter-productive regulatory policy are so astronomical that The Powers That Be have no alternative but to continue with what they know full well isn’t working.

It’s through this lens of resignation that I think we should view one of the most fascinating Missionary statements of the past 20 years, St. Louis Fed Governor Jim Bullard’s latest paper, where he says that the entire exercise of Fed guidance and dot plots and planning for interest rate increases and interest rate normalization is a complete and utter waste of time. In fact, he goes farther than that. Bullard writes that forward guidance is actually highly counter-productive and credibility destroying, because it teases us with the notion that normalization is possible, when, in fact, absent some deus ex machina miracle, it’s not. My god, you think I’m a downer? This is the President of the St. Louis Fed, saying that everything the FOMC has been doing for the past four years is just a bad joke! Or as Vonnegut would say, there’s “no damn cat and there’s no damn cradle” in the oh-so-complex hand weaving that Bernanke and Yellen have crafted with forward guidance, no matter how hard we look. The Emperor has no clothes.

What Bullard wrote is a letter of resignation. Not just a letter of resignation in the sense of quitting one’s job (although that, too … if you’re not going to play the game you were appointed to play, if you’re just going to pick up your dot plot and go home, then you should actually go home), but more importantly in the emotional sense of resignation to one’s fate. It’s a capitulation, a recognition that the U.S. is well and truly stuck in the current macroeconomic regime of low growth + massive debt + insanely low interest rates, and there’s nothing the Fed can do in terms of jawboning or “communication policy” or forward guidance to get us out. So, Bullard says, let’s stop this charade of dot plots and just admit the truth: rates are not going up, maybe not EVER, until something beyond the Fed’s control shocks the world into some other macroeconomic regime.

By the way, here’s the problem with what Bullard is saying: the current regime/stable equilibrium of low growth + massive debt + negative interest rates isn’t something that just “happened”. It’s not like the Fed woke up one morning to find that some terrible houseguest soiled the sheets and overfed the dog and left a lit cigarette smoldering in the trash can. Please. Here’s a 4-year chart of the VIX, looking for all the world like a Whack-a-Mole game, as every surge in volatility is met with a mallet strike of Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAPs), forward guidance, or (outside the U.S.) interest rate cuts well past the zero-bound.

epsilon-theory-cats-cradle-bloomberg-1
Source: Bloomberg, as of 05/31/2016

Over the past four years, we haven’t seen the VIX stick over 20 for more than 2 months. Compare this to the seven year period of Sept. 1996 – Sept. 2003, where the VIX was almost never below 20.

epsilon-theory-cats-cradle-bloomberg-2
Source: Bloomberg, as of 05/31/2016

Granted, there were some scary market moments from late 1996 through late 2003, but it’s not like the past four years have been a walk in the park. I don’t think anyone can deny that we are living today in a different regime or state of the world, where volatility is simply not allowed to raise its ugly head as it always has in the past. That’s the Entropic Regime in a nutshell — volatility is not allowed to reach historically normal levels. Not allowed by whom? By central banks, of course. S&P 500 down 8%? Gasp! We must provide more accommodation! The macroeconomic regime that Bullard finds so objectionable and resistant to any policy choices was created lock, stock, and barrel by the Fed and their regulatory cousins. They weren’t trying to lock the world into the Entropic Regime, a long gray slog where neither recession nor real growth appears, and maybe the world would have been even more wrecked if they had taken a different path, but they did what they did all the same.

My issue with Bullard is neither his assessment of the current macroeconomic regime nor the silliness of forward guidance and Fed communication policy. I am in violent agreement with Bullard in his recognition of the power of Narrative and the simple fact that all of our crystal balls are broken. But don’t tell me that the Fed “has no choice” but to accept the current macroeconomic regime, because they DO have a choice. The Fed giveth. The Fed can taketh away. It’s just a very, very, very painful choice that the Fed would have to make in order to taketh away, full of loss assignment and bankruptcy and status quo shattering. It’s a very brave choice they would have to make, a Volcker-esque choice they would have to make. And that’s why I don’t think they will ever do it.

So we’re left with Hope, hope that a miracle occurs after the November election to change our current political regime of decay and macroeconomic regime of low growth + massive debt + negative interest rates. Politically on the left, it’s hope that Hillary Clinton isn’t really as venal and principle-less and in-the-bag for Big Money and Big War as she seems. Politically on the right, it’s hope that Donald Trump doesn’t really mean what he says about Muslims and Hispanics and judges and torture and libel and debt and women and and and. On both the left and the right, it’s hope that the election will yield some massive Keynesian public infrastructure spending spree, where our “crumbling roads and bridges” are made whole, where every city gets a football stadium for the local billionaire’s use, and where high-speed rail and gleaming airports usher in a new age of productivity and easy trips to Grandma’s house. Truly, as Voltaire’s Pangloss would say, this is the best of all possible worlds.

But hope, of course, is not a strategy. What do investors and advisors and voters — The Non-Powers That Be — DO when the entire world is stuck in a powerful negative equilibrium, when we are presented with nothing but miserable choices, at the ballot box and public markets alike? How can we find “compensation in our disappointment”, to quote Thoreau? Or to be slightly more modern in our references, let’s accept that we can’t get what we want. Can we at least get what we need?

To answer that question, at least from an investment perspective, I need to go back to the big Epsilon Theory note I wrote earlier this year, “Hobson’s Choice.” I’m not going to repeat much of that here (at 26 pages long, it’s a bit of a tome), except to say that it’s as close to an Epsilon Theory investment strategy as I can convey in this public venue. But here’s the skinny, with what I call Five Easy Pieces for the Investment World As It Is.

We’re in a storm. Mind your sails.
We’re in a game. Play the player.
We’re in a negative carry world. Think like a short seller.
We’re in a policy-driven market. Don’t trust the models.
A policy-controlled market is next. Look to real assets.

In and of themselves, admonitions like “Mind your sails” may not sound like much, but I promise they make sense in context. Here’s what they mean translated into market behaviors.

Mind your sails. Keep risk constant, not dollars.
Play the player. Trend-following is a thing.
Think like a short seller. Focus on catalysts.
Don’t trust the models. Minimize regret.
Look to real assets. Survive the politics.

Now the point of “Hobson’s Choice” is that these behaviors I’m describing, like “Keep risk constant, not dollars”, are new ways of describing good old-fashioned investment ideas that just so happen to conflict with other investment ideas that have become rote articles of faith in our modern, overly equity-centric vision of what it means to be a “good” investor. For example, I think that it’s nuts to stay fully invested in the stock market through thick and thin, and I would love to embrace that most-hated epithet in investing today: market timer. (Shudder!) But I can’t SAY that I’m a market timer, any more than I could say that I’m a libertarian or that I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry or that my wife and I homeschool our children … no, no, you wouldn’t take me seriously if the conversation about politics or books or education were framed in this way. It’s the same with investing. In the immortal words of John Maynard Keynes, “it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally” (and for an Epsilon Theory twist, I’d add, “and if you fail unconventionally, then your reputation is really dead”), which means that even if you agreed with me on the virtues of market timing, you’d never adopt a strategy based on market timing, because it would be way too risky from a social perspective. I mean, just imagine the shame if your client or wife or partner thought you were a … again, I can hardly bring myself to write the words … market timer. Oh, the humanity!

So let’s change the conversation. I’m NOT a market timer. Nope, not me. Instead, I’m a risk balancer. I have fewer dollars in the market when risk goes up, and I have more dollars in the market when risk goes down. Will I be over-invested in the market when it hits a top and rolls over? Yep. Will I be under-invested in the market when it hits bottom and turns up? Yep. But I’m going to be adding to my dollar exposure all the way up and I’m going to be subtracting from my dollar exposure all the way down. I’ll take those odds. And just imagine if I did this risk balancing thing across asset classes, or maybe across yield-oriented strategies. Hey, now.

Here are the broad categories of strategies that the Five Easy Pieces market behaviors imply.

Keep risk constant, not dollars. Risk Balanced Strategies
Trend-following is a thing. Managed Futures Strategies
Focus on catalysts. Long/Short Strategies
Minimize regret. Convex Strategies (Optionality)
Survive the politics. Active Mgmt for Real Assets

Is this a comprehensive list? Of course not. But it’s a start. Over the next few months I’ll try to take each topic in turn and dig into the specifics, or at least as much of the specifics as I’m allowed in this very public setting. Some of the topics have already been discussed at some length in prior notes (for Convex Strategies, for example, be sure to read one of my personal Epsilon Theory faves, “I Know It Was You, Fredo”), others will be largely starting from scratch or going in a new direction from the past. If you’re a professional investor or allocator and want to dig in more deeply than what you read in these pages, don’t hesitate to reach out.

You know, Emily Dickinson published fewer than a dozen of her almost 1,800 (!) poems while she was alive, and if not for a determined sister with a narrow interpretation of Dickinson’s final wishes (she asked for her correspondence to be burned, and it was, but she didn’t specifically say anything about the box of poems next to her letters), all of this genius work would have been lost. In Dickinson’s day, there was way too much intermediation and way too many barriers between author and audience. We got lucky. Today, there’s way too little intermediation and way too few barriers between author and audience, such that all of us are inundated with “content” and “marketing collateral”, to use the lingo. Dickinson’s challenge was standing up. My challenge is standing out. Thanks to all of you who have actively spread the word about the Epsilon Theory project and helped build the vibrant community that we have today. Keep those cards and letters coming (I really try to respond to everything I get), and please check out the Epsilon Theory podcasts when you get a chance. It feels like we’re just getting started, and that’s something that warrants Hope, indeed.

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