Man in Black: All right. Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right … and who is dead.
– “The Princess Bride” (1987)
Time is a game played beautifully by children.
– Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC)
How can you hide from what never goes away?
– Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC)
Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse.
– Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC)
Let me just say that I am very negatively surprised by today’s decisions by the Greek government. That is a sad decision for Greece because it has closed the door on further talks, where the door was still open in my mind.
– Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of Eurogroup finance ministers
The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.
– Cormac McCarthy, “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” (1985)
I have always thought that in revolutions, especially democratic revolutions, madmen, not those so called by courtesy, but genuine madmen, have played a very considerable political part. One thing is certain, and that is that a condition of semi-madness is not unbecoming at such times, and often even leads to success.
– Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859)
Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.
– Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963)
If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table.
– Frank Underwood, “House of Cards” (2013)
Nothing like a good Friday-after-the-close blockbuster to set the stage for an interesting week.
At 1am Saturday morning Athens time, the Greek government called for a nationwide referendum to vote the Eurogroup’s reform + bailout proposal up or down. The vote will happen on Sunday, July 5th, but Greece will default on its IMF debt this Wednesday, and as a result the slow motion run on Greek banks is about to get a lot more fast motion unless capital controls are imposed. If you want to get into the weeds, Deutsche Bank put out a note, available here, that I think is both a well-written and comprehensive take on the facts at hand. As for the big picture, I’ve attached last week’s Epsilon Theory note (“Inherent Vice“), as this referendum is EXACTLY the sort of self-binding, “rip your brakes and steering wheel out of the car” strategy I wrote about as a highly effective way to play the game of Chicken.
Look, I have no idea whether or not Tsipras will be successful with this gambit. But I admire it. It’s a really smart move. It’s a wonderful display of what de Tocqueville praised as the “condition of semi-madness” that was so politically effective in 1848, and I suspect will be today. Plus, you can’t deny the sheer entertainment value of hearing Dijsselbloem splutter about how he was open to a revised, revised, Plan X from Greece all along, if only Tsipras would continue with this interminable charade. “The door was still open, in my mind.” Priceless.
So long as Tsipras can avoid market anarchy and TV coverage of violent ATM mobs this week, I think the NO vote is likely to win. The referendum is worded and timed in a way that allows very little room for Antonio Samaras and other Syriza opponents to turn the vote into a referendum on the Euro itself, which has proven to be a successful approach in the past. Particularly as the Eurogroup rather ham-handedly denied the request for a one-week extension in the default deadline, the referendum is being framed by Syriza as what Cormac McCarthy called a “condition of war”, an over-arching game where “that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.” It may well be a close vote, but it’s hard to vote YES for a public humiliation of your own country under any circumstances, much less when that YES vote is being portrayed as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Here’s how I see the game playing out after the vote.
If Greece votes to accept the Eurogroup reform proposal after all, then the game of Chicken resolves itself within the stable Nash equilibrium of a shamed Greece and a triumphant Euro status quo. I would expect an enormous risk-on rally in equities and credit, particularly in Euro-area financials. Hard to say about rates … peripheral Euro debt (Italy, Spain) should rally, and German Bunds might, too, as the Narrative will be that Germany “won”. But reduction of systemic risk is a negative for any flight-to-safety trade, so this outcome is probably not good for Bunds in the long term, or US Treasuries over any term.
If Greece votes to reject the proposal, then either the game resolves itself within the stable Nash equilibrium of a shamed Euro status quo and a triumphant Greece (if the ECB and EU decide to cave to some form of the original Greek proposal), or we enter the death spiral phase of a game of Chicken, as all parties start to talk about how they “have no choice” but to crash their cars. That latter course is the far more likely path, I think, given how the various Euro Powers That Be are already positioning themselves. It’s all so very 1914-ish. Draghi’s cap on bank-supporting Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) is the modern day equivalent of Czar Nicholas II’s troop mobilization. Good luck walking that back.
If we go down the death spiral path and some form of Greek exit from the Euro-system, I expect the dominant market Narrative to be that Greece committed economic suicide and that the rest of Europe will be just fine, thank you very much. That should prevent a big risk-off market move down, or at least keep it short-lived (although you should expect Bunds and USTs to do their risk-off thing here). Unless you’re a hedge fund trying to make a killing on those really cheap Greek bonds you bought two years ago, there’s no reason to panic even if we’re on the death spiral.
Over time, however, I expect that dominant Narrative to be flipped on its head. Greece will quickly do some sort of deal with Russia (hard currency for port access?), and then the IMF will strike a deal because that’s what the IMF does. More and more people will start to say, “Hey, this isn’t so bad”, which is actually the worst possible outcome for Draghi and Merkel. At that point, you’ll start to see the Narrative focus on the ECB balance sheet and credibility, and as Italian and Spanish rates start to creep up and as the spread to Bunds starts to widen, people will recall that ECB QE only has national banks buying their own debt … the Bundesbank ain’t propping up Italian sovereign debt. I suspect it will be a slow motion contagion, all taking place in the Narrative and expressed in Italian, Spanish, and French politics over the next 12 months or so.The Red King will start to wake.
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.
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.
So you never knowingly played with a football that was under 12.5 pounds?
– 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.
Fletcher, there’s an old saying to the victors belong the spoils.
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”:
Alex Rodriguez has routinely used steroids and PED’s of various stripes since he was a sophomore in high school.
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.
Janet Yellen has routinely leaked market-moving information to favored private sector conduits, and has also sought to quash internal investigations of same.
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.
The more I practice, the luckier I get. – Gary Player (b. 1935)
Luck is the residue of design. – Branch Rickey (1881 – 1965)
I’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit. – Ted Williams (1918 – 2002)
They say that nobody is perfect. Then they say that practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds. – Wilt Chamberlain (1936 – 1999)
They say that nobody is perfect. Then they say that practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds. – Wilt Chamberlain (1936 – 1999)
It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course. – Hank Aaron (b. 1934)
Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. – Stephen King (b. 1947)
At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that – the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not. – William Faulkner (1897 – 1962)
Talent is its own expectation, Jim: you either live up to it or it waves a hankie, receding forever. – David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest” (1996)
What is most vile and despicable about money is that it even confers talent. And it will do so until the end of the world. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881)
Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation. – Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880)
There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. – Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891)
Mrs. Fletcher! Can I see you for a minute? [pause] Do me a favor, please, and tell me what goes on in this town!
I’m sorry, but …
I’ve been here one year, and this is my fifth murder. What is this, the death capital of Maine? On a per capita basis this place makes the South Bronx look like Sunny Brook farms!
But I assure you, Sheriff …
I mean, is that why Tupper quit? He couldn’t take it anymore? Somebody really should’ve warned me, Mrs. Fletcher. Now, perfect strangers coming to Cabot Cove to die? I mean look at this guy! You don’t know him, I don’t know him. He has no ID, we don’t know the first thing about this guy.
– “Murder, She Wrote: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Part 1” (1989)
Dr. Yen Lo: His brain has not only been washed, as they say … It has been dry cleaned. – “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
That’s three. Nobody should have more than one talent.
– “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)
My singular talent is seeing patterns that others don’t. That’s not a boast, but a fact, and frankly it’s been as much a source of alienation in my life as a source of success. As my father was fond of saying, “You know, Ben, if you’re two steps ahead it’s like you’re one step behind.” I can’t explain how I see the patterns – they just emerge from the fog if I stare long enough. It’s always been that way for me, for as far back as I have memories, and whether I’m 5 years old or 50 years old I’m always left with the same realization: I only see the pattern when I start asking the right question, when I allow myself to be, as Faulkner said, “ruthlessly intolerant” of anything that proves false under patient and curious observation.
For example, I think the wrong question for anyone watching “Murder, She Wrote” is: whodunit? The right question is: how does Jessica Fletcher get away with murder this time? Once you recognize that it’s a Bayesian certainty that the woman is a serial killer, that she controls the narrative of Cabot Cove (both figuratively as a crime novelist and literally as a crime investigator) and thus the behavior of everyone around her, you will discover a new appreciation for both the subliminal drivers of the show’s popularity as well as the acting genius of Angela Lansbury. Seriously, go back and watch the original “Manchurian Candidate” and focus on Lansbury. She’s a revelation.
Or take the Masters tournament earlier this month. I was lucky enough to attend Wednesday’s practice round, and I was sitting in a shady spot on the 10th green watching the players come by and try their luck at 15 foot putts. At first, like the other spectators, my question was: how are they such good putters? This was “the obvious fact,” to quote Sherlock Holmes, and I watched for any clues that I could adopt for my laughable game – a forward tilt of the wrist, a stance adjustment … anything, really. We all watched carefully and we all dutifully oohed and aahed when the ball occasionally dropped in the cup. But suddenly, a new pattern emerged from the fog, and I realized that we were all asking the wrong question. Instead, I started to ask myself, why are they such poor putters?
Now I realize that I just alienated at least half of the reading audience, but bear with me. I’m not saying that professional golfers are poor putters compared to you or me. Of course not. They are miracle workers compared to you or me. But it’s a stationary ball with a green topography that never changes. The speed of the greens is measured multiple times a day to the nth degree. These players have practiced putting for thousands of hours. They have superior eyesight, amazing muscular self-awareness, and precision equipment. And yet … after charting about 50 putts in the 12 – 15 foot range, the pattern of failure was unmistakable. These professional golfers were aiming at a Point A, but they would have sunk exactly as many putts if the cup had actually been located 6 inches to the right. Or 6 inches to the left. Or 12 inches back. Or 12 inches forward. The fact that a putt actually went in the hole from a distance of 12 – 15 feet was essentially a random event within a 15 x 30 inch oval, with distressingly fat probabilistic tails outside that oval. This from the finest golf players in the world. I saw Ben Crenshaw, a historically great putter who was playing in something like his 44th Masters and probably knows the 10th green better than any other living person, miss a long putt by 6 feet.
But here’s the thing. When a player took a second putt from the same location, or even close to the same location, his accuracy increased by well more than an order of magnitude. Suddenly the ball had eyes. So I went to the practice green, where I saw Jordan Spieth putt ball after ball from exactly the same location about 10 feet from the hole. He made 50 in a row before I got tired of watching. Now granted, Spieth is a wizard with the putter, a lot like Tiger was at the same age. See it; make it. But then I watched one of the no-name amateurs for a while, a guy who had no chance of making the cut, and it was exactly the same thing – putt after putt after putt rolled in from the same spot at a considerable distance.
The best golfers in the world are surprisingly poor aimers. Surprising to me, anyway. They are pretty miserable predictors of where a de novo putt is going to end up, even though we all believe that they are wonderful at this activity. But they are phenomenally successful and adaptive learners, even though we rarely focus on this activity.
I think the same pattern exists in other areas of the sports world. Take basketball free throws. I’d be willing to make a substantial bet that whatever a professional’s overall free throw shooting percentage might be – whether it’s DeAndre Jordan at 50% or Steph Curry at 90% – their shooting percentage on the second of two free throws is better at a statistically significant level than their shooting percentage on the first of two free throws. I have no idea where to access this data, but with the ubiquitous measurement of every sports function and sub-function I’m certain it must exist. Someone give Nate Silver or Zach Lowe a call!
I think the same pattern exists in the investing world, too. We are remarkably poor aimers and predictors of market outcomes, even though we collectively spend astronomical sums of money and time engaged in this activity, and even though we collectively ooh and aah over the professional who occasionally sinks one of these long putts. True story … in 2008 the long/short equity hedge fund that I co-managed was up nicely, and we were deluged by investors and allocators asking the wrong question: how did you have such a great year? At no point did anyone ask the right question: given your fundamental views and avowed process, why weren’t you up twice as much? Most investors, just like the spectators at Augusta, are asking the wrong questions … questions that conflate performance with talent, and questions that underestimate the role of process and learning in translating talent into performance.
I’m not saying that idiosyncratic talent doesn’t exist or that it isn’t connected to performance or that it can’t be identified. What I’m saying is that it’s as rare as Jordan Spieth. What I’m saying is that the talents that are most actionable in the investment world are not found in the predictions and the aiming of a single person. They are found within the learned and practiced behaviors that exist across a broad group of investment professionals. Jordan Spieth is a very talented putter and he works very hard at his craft. But there is no individual golf pro, not even Jordan Spieth, who I would trust with my life’s savings to make a single 15 foot putt. On the other hand, I would absolutely put my life’s savings on the line if I could invest in the process by which all golf pros practice their putting. I am far more interested in identifying the learned behaviors of a mass of investment professionals than I am in identifying a specific investment professional who might or might not be able to sink his next long putt.
What’s the biggest learned behavior of professionals in the investing world right now? Simple: QE works. Not for the real economy– I don’t know any professional investor who believes that the trillions of dollars in Fed balance sheet expansion has done very much at all for the real economy – but for the inflation of financial asset prices. This is what I’ve called the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence, the overwhelmingly powerful common knowledge that central bank policy determines market outcomes. The primary manifestation of this learned behavior today is to go long Europe financial assets … stocks, bonds, whatever. QE worked for US markets – that’s the lesson – and everyone who learned that lesson is applying it now in Europe. China, too. Here’s a great summary of this common knowledge position from a market Missionary, Deutsche Bank’s Chief International Economist Torsten Slok:
In my view, every asset allocation team in the world should have this chart hanging on their wall. Based on forward OIS curves the market expects the Fed to hike in March 2016 and the ECB to hike in December 2019. A year ago, the expectation was that the Fed and the ECB would both hike in November 2016. This discrepancy has significant relative value implications for FX, equities and rates. EURUSD should continue to go down and European equities will look attractive for many more years. Another consequence of this chart is that with ECB rates at zero for another five years, many European housing markets should continue to do well. The investment implication is clear: Expect that the benefits we have seen of QE in the US over the past 3 to 5 years will be playing out in Europe over the coming 3 to 5 years. – Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank Chief International Economist, April 9, 2015
Just as a recap on how to play the Common Knowledge Game effectively, the goal here is to read Torsten’s note for its description and creation of common knowledge (information that everyone thinks that everyone has heard), not to evaluate it for Truth with a capital T. That’s the mistake many investors make when they read something like this … they start thinking about whether or not they personally agree with the Fed hike expectations embodied in forward OIS curves, or whether or not they personally agree with Torsten’s macroeconomic predictions on things like the European housing market, or whether or not they personally agree with the social value of the Fed or ECB policies that are impacting markets. In the Common Knowledge Game, fundamentals – whether they are of the stock-picking sort or the macroeconomic sort – don’t matter a whit, and your personal view of those fundamentals matters even less. The only thing that matters is whether or not the QE-works lesson has been absorbed by the learning process of investment professionals, and that’s driven by the lesson’s transformation into common knowledge by Missionaries like Torsten. From that perspective I don’t think there’s any doubt that what Torsten is saying is true, not with a capital T but with a little t, and that the long-Europe-because-of-ECB-QE trade has got a lot of behavioral life left to it.
One last point … I know that I’m a broken record in the fervency and persistence of my belief that Big Data is going to rock the foundations of the investment world, but this topic of talent, learning, and asking the right question is just too on-point for me to let it slide. I started this note with the alienating observation that I don’t believe that professional golfers are particularly good putters, certainly not in their ability to size up and sink a de novo putt from 15 feet or more. On the other hand, I am pretty certain that with a few months and a few million dollars, it’s possible to build a mobile robotic system with the appropriate sensors and mechanical tolerances that would sink pretty much every de novo putt it took from a distance of 15 feet. Or a robotic system that would hit 99% of its free throws. Machines are far more accurate aimers and more precise estimators of the environment than humans, and that’s a useful observation whether we’re talking about sports or investing.
But that’s not my point about Big Data. My point about Big Data is that such systems are ALSO better than humans at learning. They are ALSO better than humans at pattern recognition. I can remember when this wasn’t the case. As recently as 20 years ago you could read artificial intelligence textbooks that praised the computer’s ability to process information quickly with various backhanded compliments … yes, isn’t it amazing how wonderfully a computer can sort through a list, but of course only a human brain can perform tasks like facial recognition … yes, isn’t it amazing how many facts a computer can store in its memory chips, but of course only a human brain can truly learn those facts by placing them within the proper context. We have entire social systems – like sports and markets – that are designed to reward humans who are superior learners and pattern recognizers. Why in the world would we believe that clever and observant humans will continue to maintain their primacy in these fields when challenged by non-human intelligences that are, quite literally, god-like in their analytical talents and ruthless intolerance of what is false? At least in sports it’s illegal to have non-human participants … honestly, I can see a day where investing is reduced to sport, where we maintain human-only markets as part of a competitive entertainment system rather than as a fundamental economic endeavor. In some respects I think we’re already there.
I’ll close with a teaser. There’s still a path for humans to maintain an important role, even if it’s not a uniformly dominant role, within markets that we share with non-human intelligences. Humans are more likely than non-human intelligences to ask the right question within social systems, like markets, that are dominated by strategic interactions (i.e., games). That’s not because non-human intelligences are somehow thinking in an inferior fashion or aren’t asking questions at all. No, it’s because Big Data systems are giant Induction Machines, designed to ask ALL of the questions. The distinction between asking the right question and asking all of the questions is always interesting and occasionally vital, depending on the circumstances. More on this to come in future notes, and hopefully in a future investment strategy …
The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method? ― Confucius (551 – 479 BC)
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. “Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud. Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?” “I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?” ― Nyogen Senzaki, “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings” (1957)
In 1995, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.253 to .250) In 1996, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.321 to .314) In 1997, David Justice had a superior batting average to Derek Jeter (.329 to .291) Yet from 1995 – 1997, Derek Jeter had a superior batting average to David Justice (.300 to .298) ― example of Simpson’s Paradox, aka The Yule-Simpson Effect (1951)
A student says, “Master, please hand me the knife,” and he hands the student the knife, blade first. “Please give me the other end,” the student says. And the master replies, “What would you do with the other end?” ― Alan W. Watts, “What Is Zen?” (2000)
Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.” I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category mistake. ― Gilbert Ryle (1900 – 1976)
The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there. ― Gertrude Stein (1874 – 1946)
Dr. Malcolm: Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. ― “Jurassic Park” (1993)
It’s a big enough umbrella But it’s always me that ends up getting wet. ― The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” (1981)
Everyone who lost money on the SNB’s decision to reverse course on their three and a half year policy to cap the exchange rate between the CHF and the Euro made a category error. And by everyone I mean everyone from Mrs. Watanabe trading forex from her living room in Tokyo to a CTA portfolio manager sitting in front of 6 Bloomberg monitors to a financial advisor answering a call from an angry client. It will take me a bit of verbiage to explain what I mean by a category error and why it’s such a powerful concept in logic and portfolio construction. But I think you’ll find it useful, not just for understanding what happened, but also (and more importantly) to protect yourself from it happening again. Because this won’t be the last time the markets will be buffeted by a forex storm here in the Golden Age of the Central Banker.
A year and a half ago, when I was just starting Epsilon Theory, I wrote a note called “The Tao of Portfolio Management.” It’s one of my less-downloaded notes, I think largely because its subject matter – problems of misunderstood logic and causality in portfolio construction – doesn’t exactly have the sexiness of a rant against Central Bank Narrative dominance, but it’s one of my personal favorites. That note was all about the ecological fallacy – a pervasive (but wrong-headed) human tendency to infer qualities about the individual from qualities of the group, and vice versa. Today I’ve got the chance to write once again about the logic of portfolio construction AND work in some of my favorite Zen quotes AND manage something of a Central Bank screed … a banner day!
I’ve titled this note “The Ghost in the Machine” because it starts with another pervasive (but wrong-headed) human tendency – the creation of a false dualism between mind and body. I know, I know … that sounds both really daunting and really boring, but bear with me. What I’m talking about is maybe the most important question of modern philosophy – is there a separate thing called “mind” or “consciousness” that humans possess, or is all of that just the artefact of a critical mass of neurons firing within our magnificent, but entirely physical, brains? I’m definitely in the “everything is explained by neurobiology” camp, which I’d say is probably the more widely accepted view (certainly the louder view) in academic philosophy today, but for most of the 19th and 20th centuries the dualist or Cartesian view was clearly dominant, and it was responsible for a vast edifice of thought, a beautiful cathedral of philosophical constructs that was … ultimately really disappointing and empty. It wasn’t until philosophers like Gilbert Ryle and Van Quine started questioning what Ryle called “the ghost in the machine” – this totally non-empirical but totally accepted belief that humans possessed some ghostly quality of mind that couldn’t be measured or observed but was responsible for driving the human machine – that the entire field of philosophy could be reconfigured and take a quantum leap forward by incorporating the insights of evolutionary biology, neurobiology, and linguistics.
Unfortunately, most economists and investors still believe in ghosts, and we are a long way from taking that same quantum leap.There is an edifice of mind that dominates modern economic practice… a beautiful cathedral where everything can be symbolized, where everything can be securitized, and where everything can be traded. We have come to treat these constructed symbols as the driver of the economic machine rather than as an incomplete reflection of the real world things and real world activities and real world humans that actually comprise the economy. We treat our investment symbols and thoughts as a reified end in themselves, and ultimately this beautiful edifice of symbols becomes a maze that traps us as investors, just as mid-20th century philosophers found themselves trapped within their gorgeous constructs of mind. We are like Ekido in the Zen koan of the muddy road, unable to stop carrying the pretty girl in our thoughts and trapped by that mental structure, long after the far more sensible monk Tanzan has carried the girl safely over the real world mud without consequence, symbolic or otherwise.
The answer to our overwrought edifice of mind is not complex. As Confucius wrote in The Analects, the door is right there in front of us. Exiting the maze and reducing uncompensated risk in our portfolios does not require an advanced degree in symbolic logic or some pretzel-like mathematical process. It requires only a ferocious commitment to call things by their proper names. That’s often not an easy task, of course, as the Missionaries of the Common Knowledge Game – politicians, central bankers, famous investors, famous economists, and famous journalists – are dead-set on giving things false names, knowing full well that we are hard-wired as social animals to respond in ant-like fashion to these communication pheromones. We are both evolved and trained to think in terms of symbols that often serve the purposes of others more than ourselves, to think of the handle rather than the blade when we ask for a knife. The meaning of a knife is the blade. The handle is not “the other end” of a knife; it is a separate thing with its own name and usefulness. The human animal conflates separate things constantly … maybe not a big deal in the kitchen, but a huge deal in our portfolios. Replace the word “knife” with “diversification” and you’ll get a sense of where I’m going with this.
Here’s what I mean by calling things by their proper names. The stock ticker “AAPL” or the currency ticker “CHF” are obviously symbols. Less obviously but more importantly, so are the shares of Apple stock and the quantities of Swiss francs that AAPL and CHF represent. Stocks and bonds and commodity futures and currencies are symbols, not real things at all, and we should never forget that. The most common category error that investors make (and “category error” is just a $10 phrase for calling something by the wrong name) is confusing the symbol for what it represents, and as a result we forget the meaning of the real world thing that’s been symbolized.
A share of stock in, say, Apple is a symbol. Of what? A limited liability fractional ownership position in the economic interests of Apple, particularly its free cash flows.
A futures contract in, say, copper is a symbol. Of what? A commitment to receive or deliver some amount of real-world copper at some price at some point in the future.
A bond issued by, say, Argentina is a symbol. Of what? A commitment by the Argentine government to repay some borrowed money over an agreed-upon period of time, plus interest.
A currency issued by, say, Switzerland is a symbol. Of what? Well, that’s an interesting question. There’s no real world commitment or ownership that a currency symbolizes, at least not in the same way that stocks, bonds, and commodity contracts symbolize an economic commitment or ownership stake. A currency symbolizes government permission. It is a license. It is an exclusive license (which makes it a requirement!) to use that currency as a medium for facilitating economic transactions within the borders of the issuing government, with terms that the government can impose or revoke at will for any reason at all. That’s it. There’s no economic claim or right inherent in a piece of money. As Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, there’s no there there.
Why is this examination of underlying real world meaning so important? It’s important because there is no positive long-term expected return from trading one country’s economic license for another country’s economic license. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for stock. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for bonds. There is a positive long-term expected return from trading money for commodities and other real assets. But there is no positive long-term expected return from trading money for money.
Unfortunately, we’ve been trained and encouraged – often under the linguistic rubric of “science” – to think of ANY new trading vehicle or security, particularly one that taps into as huge a market as foreign exchange, as a good thing for our portfolios. We are deluged with the usual narratives that alternatively seek to tempt us and embarrass us into participation. On an individual level we are told stories of savvy investors who look and act like we want to look and act, taking bold advantage of the technological wizardry (look! it’s a heat map! that changes color while I’m watching it!) and insanely great trade financing now at our fingertips in this, the best of all possible worlds. On an institutional level we are told stories of liquidity and non-correlation (what? you don’t understand what an efficient portfolio frontier is? and you call yourself a professional?), both good and necessary things, to be sure. But not sufficient things, at least not to cast the powerful magic that is diversification.
There are only a few sure things in investing. First, taxes and fees are bad. Second, compound growth is a beautiful thing. Third, portfolio diversification works. At Salient we spend a lot of time thinking about what makes diversification work more or less well for different types of investors, and if you’re interested in questions like “what’s the difference between de-risking and diversification?” I heartily recommend our latest white paper (“The Free Lunch Effect”) to you. One thing we don’t do at Salient is include currency trading within our systematic asset allocation or trend-following strategies. Why not? Because Rule #1 for tapping into the power of portfolio diversification is that you don’t include things that lack a long-term positive expected return. Just because we can trade currency pairs easily and efficiently doesn’t mean that we should trade currency pairs easily and efficiently, any more than cloning dinosaurs because they could was a good idea for the Jurassic Park guys. The point of adding things to your portfolio for diversification should be to create a more effective umbrella, not just a bigger umbrella. I like a big umbrella just as much as the next guy, but not if I’m going to get wet every time a forex storm whips up.
So if not for diversification, why do smart people engage in currency trading? There’s a good answer and a not-as-good answer to that question.
The good answer is that you have an alpha-driven (i.e. private information-driven) divergent view on the terms of the government license embedded within any modern currency. This is why Stanley Druckenmiller is an investing god, and it’s why anyone who put money with him before, during, and after he and George Soros “broke the Bank of England” in 1992 has been rewarded many times over.
The not-as-good answer is that you have identified a predictive pattern in the symbols themselves. I say that it’s not as good of an answer, but I’m not denying that there is meaning in the pattern of market symbols. On the contrary, I think there is real information regarding internal market behaviors to be found in the inductive study of symbolic patterns. This information is alpha, maybe the only consistent source of alpha left in the world today, and acting on these patterns is what good traders DO. But because it’s inductively derived, anyone else can find your special pattern, too. Or if they can’t, it’s because you’ve carved out a nice little parasitic niche for yourself that’s unlikely to scale well. More corrosively, the natural human tendency is to ascribe meaning to these patterns beyond the internal workings of the market, something that makes no more sense than to say that goose entrails have meaning beyond the internal workings of the goose. The meaning of the Swiss franc didn’t change just because you had a consistent pattern of market behavior around the EURCHF cross. Deviation in the expected value of the Swiss franc in Euro terms did not become normally distributed just because you can apply statistical methodology to the historical exchange rate data. I get so annoyed when I read things like “this wasn’t just the greatest shock in the history of forex, it was the greatest shock in the history of traded securities! a 30 standard deviation event!” Please. Stop it. Just because you can impose a normal distribution on the EURCHF cross doesn’t mean that you should. And if you’re making investment decisions because you think that this normal distribution and the internal market stability it implies is somehow “real” or has somehow changed the fundamental nature of what a currency IS … well, eventually that category error will wipe you out. Sorry, but it will.
I don’t mean to be snide about any of this (although sometimes I can’t help myself). The truth is that an aggregation of highly probabilistic entities will always surprise you, whether you’re building a baseball team or an investment portfolio. Portfolio construction – the aggregation of symbols and symbols of symbols, all of which are ultimately based on massive amounts of real world activities that may have vastly different meanings and underlying probabilistic natures – is a really difficult task under the best of circumstances for a social animal that evolved on the African savanna for an entirely different set of challenges. And these are not the best of circumstances. No, the rules always change as the Golden Age of the Central Banker begins to fade. The SNB decision was a wake-up call, whether or not you were directly impacted, to re-examine portfolios and investment behavior for category errors. We all have them. It’s only human. The question, as always, is whether we’re prepared to do anything about it.
Four times during the first six days they were assembled and briefed and then sent back. Once, they took off and were flying in formation when the control tower summoned them down. The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining. All through the night, men looked at the sky and were saddened by the stars. All through the day, they looked at the bomb line on the big, wobbling easel map of Italy that blew over in the wind and was dragged in under the awning of the intelligence tent every time the rain began. The bomb line was a scarlet band of narrow satin ribbon that delineated the forward most position of the Allied ground forces in every sector of the Italian mainland.
For hours they stared relentlessly at the scarlet ribbon on the map and hated it because it would not move up high enough to encompass the city.
When night fell, they congregated in the darkness with flashlights, continuing their macabre vigil at the bomb line in brooding entreaty as though hoping to move the ribbon up by the collective weight of their sullen prayers. “I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”
In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna. – Joseph Heller, “Catch – 22” (1961)
A visitor to Niels Bohr’s country cottage, noticing a horseshoe hanging on the wall, teased the eminent scientist about this ancient superstition. “Can it be true that you, of all people, believe it will bring you luck?”
“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not.”
― Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962)
Here’s an easy way to figure out if you’re in a cult: If you’re wondering whether you’re in a cult, the answer is yes. – Stephen Colbert, “I am America (And So Can You!)” (2007)
I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said. – William F. Buckley Jr. (1925 – 2008)
A new type of superstition has got hold of people’s minds, the worship of the state. – Ludwig von Mises (1881 – 1973)
The cult is not merely a system of signs by which the faith is outwardly expressed; it is the sum total of means by which that faith is created and recreated periodically. Whether the cult consists of physical operations or mental ones, it is always the cult that is efficacious. – Emile Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912)
At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily. – Flannery O’Connor (1925 – 1964)
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens. – Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)
Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880)
One Ring to rule them all; one Ring to find them.
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. – J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954)
I still love you, oh, I still love you.
Only slightly, only slightly less
Than I used to. – The Smiths, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” (1987)
So much of education, I think, relies on reading the right book at the right time. My first attempt at Catch-22 was in high school, and I was way too young to get much out of it. But fortunately I picked it up again in my late 20’s, after a few experiences with The World As It is, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The power of the novel is first in the recognition of how often we are stymied by Catch-22’s – problems that can’t be solved because the answer violates a condition of the problem. The Army will grant your release request if you’re insane, but to ask for your release proves that you’re not insane. If X and Y, then Z. But X implies not-Y. That’s a Catch-22.
Here’s the Fed’s Catch-22. If the Fed can use extraordinary monetary policy measures to force market risk-taking (the avowed intention of both Zero Interest Rate Policy and Large Scale Asset Purchases) AND the real economy engages in productive risk-taking (small business loan demand, wage increases, business investment for growth, etc.), THEN we have a self-sustaining and robust economic recovery underway. But the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to force market risk-taking and inflate financial assets discourage productive risk-taking in the real economy, both because the Fed’s easy money is used by corporations for non-productive uses (stock buy-backs, anyone?) and because no one is willing to invest ahead of global growth when no one believes that the leading indicator of that growth – the stock market – means what it used to mean.
If X and Y, then Z. But X denies Y. Catch-22.
There’s a Catch-22 for pretty much everyone in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. Are you a Keynesian? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is expansionary fiscal policy and deficit spending. Good luck getting that through your polarized Congress or Parliament or whatever if your Central Bank is carrying the anti-deflation water and providing enough accommodation to keep your economy from tanking. Are you a structural reformer? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is elimination of bureaucratic red tape and a shrinking of the public sector. Again, good luck with that as extraordinary monetary policy prevents the economic trauma that might give you a chance of passing those reforms through your legislative process.
Here’s the thing. A Catch-22 world is a frustrating, absurd world, a world where we domesticate despair and learn to live with it happily. It’s also a very stable world. And that’s the real message of Heller’s book, as Yossarian gradually recognizes what Catch-22 really IS. There is no Catch-22. It doesn’t exist, at least not in the sense of the bureaucratic regulation that it purports to be. But because everyone believes that it exists, then an entire world of self-regulated pseudo-religious behavior exists around Catch-22. Sound familiar?
We’ve entered a new phase in the Golden Age of the Central Banker – the cult phase, to use the anthropological lingo. We pray for extraordinary monetary policy accommodation as a sign of our Central Bankers’ love, not because we think the policy will do much of anything to solve our real-world economic problems, but because their favor gives us confidence to stay in the market. I mean … does anyone really think that the problem with the Italian economy is that interest rates aren’t low enough? Gosh, if only ECB intervention could get the Italian 10-yr bond down to 1.75% from the current 1.85%, why then we’d be off to the races! Really? But God forbid that Mario Draghi doesn’t (finally) put his money where his mouth is and announce a trillion euro sovereign debt purchase plan. That would be a disaster, says Mr. Market. Why? Not because the absence of a debt purchase plan would be terrible for the real economy. That’s not a big deal one way or another. It would be a disaster because it would mean that the Central Bank gods are no longer responding to our prayers. The faith-based system that underpins current financial asset price levels would take a body blow. And that would indeed be a disaster.
Monetary policy has become a pure signifier – a totem. It’s useful only in so far as it indicates that the entire edifice of Central Bank faith, both its mental and physical constructs, remains “efficacious”, to use Emile Durkheim’s path-breaking sociological analysis of a cult. All of us are Yossarian today, far too rational to think that the totem of a red line on a map actually makes a difference in whether we have to fly a dangerous mission. And yet here we are sneaking out at night to move that line on the map. All of us are Niels Bohr today, way too smart to believe that the totem of a horseshoe actually bring us good luck. And yet here we are keeping that horseshoe up on our wall, because … well … you know.
The notion of saying our little market prayers and bowing to our little market talismans is nothing new. “Hey, is that a reverse pennant pattern I see in this stock chart?” “You know, the third year of a Presidential Administration is really good for stocks.” “I thought the CFO’s body language at the investor conference was very encouraging.” “Well, with the stock trading at less than 10 times cash flow I’m getting paid to wait.” Please. I recognize aspects of myself in all four of these cult statements, and if you’re being honest with yourself I bet you do, too. No, what’s new today is that all of our little faiths have now converged on the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. It’s the One Ring that binds us all.
I loved this headline article in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – “Eurozone Consumer Prices Fall for First Time in Five Years” – a typically breathless piece trumpeting the “specter of deflation” racing across Europe as … oh-my-god … December consumer prices were 0.2% lower than they were last December. Buried at the end of paragraph six, though, was this jewel: “Excluding food, energy, and other volatile items, core inflation rose to 0.8%, up a notch from November.” Say what? You mean that if you measure inflation as the US measures inflation, then European consumer prices aren’t going down at all, but are increasing at an accelerating pace? You mean that the dreadful “specter of deflation” that is “cementing” expectations of massive ECB action is entirely caused by the decline in oil prices, something that from the consumer’s perspective acts like an inflationary tax cut? Ummm … yep. That’s exactly what I mean. The entire article is an exercise in Narrative creation, facts be damned. The entire article is a wail from a minaret, a paean to the ECB gods, a calling of the faithful to prayer. An entirely successful calling, I might add, as both European and US markets turned after the article appeared, followed by Thursday’s huge move up in both markets.
When I say that a Catch-22 world is a stable world, or that the cult phase of a human society is a stable phase, here’s what I mean: change can happen, but it will not happen from within. For everyone out there waiting for some Minsky Moment, where a debt bubble of some sort ultimately pops from some unexpected internal cause like a massive corporate default, leading to systemic fear and pain in capital markets … I think you’re going to be waiting for a loooong time. Are there debt bubbles to be popped? Absolutely. The energy sector, particularly its high yield debt, is Exhibit #1, and I think this could be a monster trade. But is this something that can take down the market? I don’t see it. There is such an unwavering faith in Central Bank control over market outcomes, such a universal assumption of god-like omnipotence within this realm, that any internal market shock is going to be willed away.
So is that it? Is this a brave new world of BTFD market stability? Should we double down on our whack-a-mole volatility strategies? For internal market risks like leverage and debt bubble scares … yes, I think so. But while the internal market risk factors that I monitor are quite benign, mostly green lights with a little yellow/caution peeking through, the external market risk factors that I monitor are all screaming red. These are Epsilon Theory risk factors – political shocks, trade/forex shocks, supply shocks, etc. – and they’ve got my risk antennae quivering like crazy. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can’t remember a time when there was such a gulf between the environmental or exogenous risks to the market and the internal or behavioral dynamics of the market. The market today is Wile E. Coyote wearing his latest purchase from the Acme Company – a miraculous bat-wing costume that prevents the usual plunge into the canyon below by sheer dint of will. There’s absolutely nothing internal to Coyote or his bat suit that prevents him from flying around happily forever. It’s only that rock wall that’s about to come into the frame that will change Coyote’s world.
My last three big Epsilon Theory notes – “The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil”, “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey”, and “The Clash of Civilizations” – have delved into what I think are the most pressing of these environmental or exogenous risks to the market: the “supply shock” of collapsing oil prices, a realigning Greek election, and the realpolitik dynamics of the West vs. Islam and the West vs. Russia. I gotta say, it’s been weird to write about these topics a few weeks before ALL of them come to pass. Call me Cassandra. I stand by everything I wrote in those notes, so no need to repeat all that here, but a short update paragraph on each.
First, Greece. And I’ll keep it very short. Greece is on. This will not be pretty and this will not be easy. Existential Euro doubt will raise its ugly head once again, particularly when Italy imports the Greek political experience.
Second, oil. I get a lot of questions about why oil can’t catch a break, about why it’s stuck down here with a 40 handle as the absurd media Narrative of “global supply glut forever and ever, amen” whacks it on the head day after day after day. And it is an absurd Narrative … very Heller-esque, in fact … about as realistic as “Peak Oil” has been over the past decade or two. Here’s the answer: oil is trapped in a positive Narrative feedback loop. Not positive in the sense of it being “good”, whatever that means, but positive in the sense of the dominant oil Narrative amplifying the uber-dominant Central Bank Narrative, and vice versa. The most common prayer to the Central Banking gods is to save us from deflation, and if oil prices were not falling there would be no deflation anywhere in the world, making the prayer moot. God forbid that oil prices go up and, among other things, push European consumer prices higher. Can’t have that! Otherwise we’d need to find another prayer for the ECB to answer. By finding a role in service to the One Ring of Central Bank Omnipotence, the dominant supply-glut oil Narrative has a new lease on life, and until the One Ring is destroyed I don’t see what makes the oil Narrative shift.
Third, the Islamist attack in Paris. Look … I’ve got a LOT to say about “je suis Charlie”, both the stupefying hypocrisy of how that slogan is being used by a lot of people who should really know better, as well as the central truth of what that slogan says about the Us vs. Them nature of The World As It Is, but both are topics for another day. What I’ll mention here are the direct political repercussions in France. The National Front, which promotes a policy platform that would make Benito Mussolini beam with pride, would probably have gotten the most votes of any political party in France before the attack. Today I think they’re a shoo-in to have first crack at forming a government whenever new Parliamentary elections are held, and if you don’t recognize that this is100 times more threatening to the entire European project than the prospects of Syriza forming a government in Greece … well, I just don’t know what to say.
There’s another thing to keep in mind here in 2015, another reason why selling volatility whenever it spikes up and buying the dip are now, to my way of thinking, picking up pennies in front of a steam roller: the gods always end up disappointing us mere mortals. The cult phase is a stable system on its own terms (a social equilibrium, in the parlance), but it’s rarely what an outsider would consider to be a particularly happy or vibrant system. There’s no way that Draghi can possibly announce a bond-buying program that lives up to the hype, not with peripheral sovereign debt trading inside US debt. There’s no way that the Fed can reverse course and start loosening again, not if forward guidance is to have any meaning (and even the gods have rules they must obey). Yes, I expect our prayers will still be answered, but each time I expect we will ask in louder and louder voices, “Is that all there is?” Yes, we will still love our gods, even as they disappoint us, but we will love them a little less each time they do.
And that’s when the rock wall enters the cartoon frame.
Thomas Cole, “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)
In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.
– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)
The argument now that the spread of pop culture and consumer goods around the world represents the triumph of Western civilization trivializes Western culture. The essence of Western civilization is the Magna Carta, not the Magna Mac. The fact that non-Westerners may bite into the latter has no implications for their accepting the former.
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)
Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)
Q: What do you think of Western civilization? A: I think it would be a good idea.
– Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the world has problems.
No, but it takes a room full of morons to think they’re small enough for you to handle.
– “Watchmen” (2009)
Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.
– Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451” (1953)
Upon learning of Cardinal Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban VIII is alleged to have said, “If there is a God, then Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.” – Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy” (1994)
Corrupt politicians make the remaining ten percent look bad.
– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)
Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world.
– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)
The most fundamental problem of politics is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.
– Henry Kissinger, “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22” (1957)
Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy.
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
A more immediate issue concerns North Korea, to which Bismarck’s nineteenth-century aphorism surely applies: “We live in a wondrous time, in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.”
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
In the end, peace can be achieved only by hegemony or by balance of power.
– Henry Kissinger (b. 1923)
Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Ya know? I read it in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, ya know, get some bricks and baseball bats, and really explain things to ’em.
There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed page of the Times, just devastating.
Whoa, whoa. A satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point of it.
Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.
No, physical force is always better with Nazis.
– “Manhattan” (1979)
Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger. Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger but never sufficiently escaped the ivory towers of Harvard to make a difference in Washington. Like me, Kissinger bolted academia at his first real opportunity for a better gig and never looked back, which is probably why I always found him to be so personally engaging and fun to be around. Sam Huntington … not so much.
But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics. It’s a lens for seeing the world differently – a lens constructed from history and, yes, game theory – and that’s what makes this a foundational topic for Epsilon Theory.
Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word), which basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant. Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that. As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.
The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations. Those cultures – Western, Orthodox (Russian), Islamic, African, Latin American, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Buddhist, and Japonic – are persistent and profoundly influential in ways that national borders and national institutions aren’t. Huntington argues that these 9 cultures are the most meaningful current expressions of the human animal’s inherent social imperatives, and that the logic of competition between these cultures explains and illuminates human history far better than competing notions, particularly those (like Marxism and liberalism) that assume an up-and-to-the-right direction to the arrow of history.
Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world. For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture. To insert the practices and institutions of liberalism into the Sinic culture, for example, might look awfully pretty to the Western eye and fill us with righteous pride, but it’s just a veneer. It won’t stick. The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.
A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does. I believe that the principles of liberalism are the best ideas on social organization that the human animal has ever devised, and I’d like to spread these ideals into every corner of the globe. And you know what? On a personal level, Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger believed exactly the same thing. Kissinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He won the freakin’ Bronze Star for his work tracking down Gestapo agents in Hanover. Does that sound like a moral relativist? Huntington served in the Jimmy Carter administration, for god’s sake. Talk about personal sacrifices …
But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise. The World As It Is today includes the birth of an Islamic Caliphate, effectively erasing Western colonialist borders from Iraq to Syria to Libya as it spews anti-modern carnage. The World As It Is today includes the violent sundering of Ukraine along Orthodox/Western cultural lines. The World As It Is today includes an insane Sinic theocracy in North Korea with nuclear weapons. The World As It Is today includes a Japonic culture that is, in a very real sense, dying. Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations. They’re not going away no matter how hard some American President stomps his feet or how many drones he releases or how stern an op-ed piece is printed in the New York Times or how warm and fuzzy we feel when we see a picture of an Iraqi woman proudly displaying her finger freshly inked from voting. Yes, I know I’m an a-hole for criticizing the whole “purple revolution” thing. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
Kissinger wasn’t kidding when he said that there were two and exactly two solutions to international problems: 1) hegemony (i.e., empire) over the opposing Civilization, or 2) balance of power with the opposing Civilization. The problem, of course, is that Door #1 is awfully expensive. For example, if you’re not prepared to push Germany into recession and risk a lot of lives – and I mean a LOT of lives – by expanding the NATO umbrella over Ukraine, then there’s no way you’re going to reverse a basic balance of power reality like “Russia gets a warm water port on the Black Sea, no matter what the petty satraps in Kiev think about that”. Sorry, but that’s the “solution” if you’re not happy with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and I have yet to meet anyone who’s willing to pay that price. Are there aspects of The World As It Is where you ARE prepared to pay the high price of empire to prevent a balance of power equilibrium? It’s a short list for me, but yes, there is a list, headed by the preservation of Israel and South Korea as (largely) Western outposts in the middle of non-Western cultures. Is nation-building in Afghanistan on the list? Don’t make me laugh.
I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name. We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.
And here’s the kicker: change is coming. The Clash of Civilizations is not going to get better in 2015. It’s going to get worse. Why? Because for the past five years we have had a US government that was willing to pay the high price of empire to extend its monetary policy hegemony over the entire world to save the infrastructure of modern Western civilization: the US banking system and its collateral assets. Five trillion dollars later, the Fed has now declared victory and is demobilizing the QE troops. Is it a lasting victory? I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a useless question. In the immortal words of Bill Parcells, you are what your record says you are, and the Fed’s record looks pretty darn good. So they’re declaring victory and that’s how it will go down in the history books. The better question is: what now? What happens in the rest of the world now that the peace-keeping and price-raising and prosperity-bringing delivered by five trillion dollars in asset purchases … stops?
Part of the answer – a small part of the answer – is that other central banks with printing presses will try to take up some of the slack. The BOJ will continue to weaken the yen and monetize the government’s debt, and the ECB will do the same thing, although they will do less and will be forced to jump through bizarre hoops to preserve the pleasant fiction that they’re not monetizing government debt. I say that this is a small part of the answer to the question of “what now?” – even though if you listen to the prognosticators in financial media you would think that this is the entire answer – because monetary policy divergence, as important as it is, pales in comparison to political divergence. I don’t think it’s an accident that Ukraine starts ripping itself apart as the largest monetary experiment in the history of man starts to wind down. Or that ISIS starts to remap the entire Middle East. Or that North Korea attacks Sony. Or that the price of oil drops by half as OPEC faces its greatest existential threat. Did the Fed cause these events? Of course not. But they’re not unrelated. They’re all part of the fabric of global deleveraging. This is what happens when you have a global debt crisis and politicians respond to maintain the status quo by any means necessary – the political center does not hold. Whether you’re talking about the 1870’s or the 1930’s or today, it’s always the same story … domestic coalitions and sovereign nations and international alliances that were held together by mutual absolute gains in the good times are driven apart by relative gains and losses in the bad times, and those domestic coalitions and sovereign nations and international alliances that bridge two ancient civilizations are thrown into the centrifuge most of all.
The market flash points for 2015 are not limited to the obvious suspects, like Ukraine and ISIS. In fact, most of the obvious suspects are not terribly impactful on major markets, and some have the perverse effect of providing “good news” for markets the worse their situation becomes. For example, to the degree that Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia damage German growth rates, the market believes that this forces still greater ECB market accommodation and direct propping-up of financial asset prices in the Eurozone. The non-obvious suspects I’m looking at are countries that, like Ukraine, find themselves with one foot in one civilization and one foot in another but, unlike Ukraine, are much more central to global markets. Those countries are Greece, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and South Korea.I wrote about Greece two weeks ago, so won’t repeat all that here. Turkey, Iran, and Egypt are all the same basic story – ancient civilizations that had their day in the sun many centuries ago and are now being consumed by the Borg-like entity that is Islam. Persia, the most potent of the three cultures, is completely lost. Egypt is lost but hasn’t realized it yet, like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Turkey, the least of the three, has adopted enough Western antibodies to provide some resistance, but it’s just a matter of time before it becomes the Sick Man of Europe once again. South Korea … judging from how little it is discussed in the Western press it sometimes seems like no one cares about South Korea, and that’s a mistake. No country on earth is split between more civilizations, and no country is as sensitive AND vulnerable to the clashes that are coming down the pike.
What scares me about the Clash of Civilizations is that the three leaders of the three biggest civilizations – the US (Western), China (Sinic), and Russia (Orthodox) – will misplay their hands and take on another civilization directly or, worse, take on each other, and that will vaporize the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence in a nanosecond. The existential risk here for markets is not that China/Russia/Europe/America might “collapse”, whatever that means. No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of America’s finest diplomat since Benjamin Franklin, writing in his final book and delivering his most important warning.
Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …
Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
I can’t over-emphasize how important I think this passage is, and I’ll be returning to it again in future Epsilon Theory notes. For now, though, I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.
First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. When Kissinger writes about how “the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits”, he’s talking about how ordinary diplomatic maneuvers can deteriorate into brinksmanship, the hallmark of the game of Chicken. I’ve written a little bit about this game in the context of the Fed-inspired “Taper Tantrum” in the summer of 2013, when Bernanke et al misread the market impact of a change in the acceleration of monetary easing, but that little episode will look like a gentle spring shower compared to the market storm that could result from a full-scale game of Chicken between, say, China and Japan over trade, exchange rates, and offshore oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. This constant cycling of one unstable outcome to another typically ends in disaster because the least worst outcome for each player – the “move” that each player makes to respond strategically to the other player’s most recent limit-testing actions – doesn’t remain constant but gets progressively worse over time. The game of Chicken is a mutual spiral into oblivion, and once you start down this road it’s really hard to stop because stopping means admitting defeat.
Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game. When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation.But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next. Imagine if you sat down at a poker table, were dealt one hand, and were then informed that everyone would have to get up and find another table with new players, at which point only one hand would be dealt there, too. That’s a series of single-play games, and it’s just as unpleasant as it sounds, whether you’re playing poker or you’re playing politics.
It won’t surprise many regular readers of Epsilon Theory if I say that I think much of what Kissinger warns about – “societies driven by mass consensus”, “gestures geared towards passions”, “manipulation of information” – has now reached, if not its full fruition, then at least a new quantum level of advanced and ubiquitous practice. And not just in the US, but also Russia and China and everywhere in between. Twenty-three years after Sam Huntington first presented his “Clash of Civilizations” argument, the conditions for that realist confrontation to be terribly severe are finally met. 2014 wrote an unpleasant story of nascent international splintering and conflict. Unfortunately, I think it was just an introductory chapter in a much longer book.
Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story titled “OPEC Sees Less Demand for Its Oil in 2015”, as well as another article with the following quote: “OPEC’s output exceeded its quota by 50,000 barrels a day in November, the group said.”
Wanna know what else is true? November OPEC production was down 390,000 bbls/day from October and down 510,000 bbls/day from September. But, hey, we can’t have crucial facts get in the way of a dominant Narrative, now can we?
And here’s another thing that’s true. That horrific “demand reduction” that OPEC is forecasting for 2015? If you’re talking about global demand for crude oil, OPEC reduced its 2015 forecast by 120,000 bbls/day on an aggregate forecast of 91.1 million bbls/day, which is all of a 13 basis points reduction and still includes demand growth of close to 1 million bbls/day. Yes, OPEC reduced projected 2015 demand for its oil by 300,000 bbls/day (about 1% of current production targets), but that’s a good thing for oil prices if it’s the rationale required for further production cuts within OPEC.
And because I can’t help myself, here’s one more thing that’s true. You won’t find that sentence about exceeding the quota – which was a main thrust of the original story – because it’s been eliminated in the afternoon revisions. Flushed down the memory hole. After the markets close. After the Narrative damage is done.
Not trying to pick on the WSJ here, as every media mouthpiece is doing exactly the same thing. Reuters report on the monthly OPEC news release spoke only to the reduced demand forecast and “hefty oversupply” with zero mention of the production cuts. Bloomberg did the same, with a 1,000 word article on the oversupply “paradigm shift” and a tacked-on sentence noting the production cuts in passing. Some of the media headlines were downright schizophrenic. My personal fave was from USA Today, with an article titled “OPEC Slashes Oil Production Estimate” – as if that were a bad thing for oil prices! – and that this is why crude was down because … well … because … you know … if we use the word “slash” it must be a bad thing.
Sigh. After a 25-year professional career of studying media Narratives and their amazingly powerful impact on investor and voter behavior alike, you’d think that I’d be numb to this stuff. But it never ceases to amaze me.
Earlier today I tweeted that “I should write a note on Draghi today, but after 2.5 yrs of reviewing the same song and dance I’d rather put out my eye with a rusty spoon.” I feel the same way about writing a note on Jon Hilsenrath’s Missionary statements on monetary policy, but the potential ramifications of today’s jobs report and how the Narrative is being shaped around that report are just too important – particularly for the price of oil and the energy complex – to leave it alone. Over the past two weeks I’ve tried to provide an Epsilon Theory perspective on both the price of oil (“The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil”) and the signaling role of the price of oil on energy stocks (“Signs and Portents”), and here’s the skinny: so long as the dominant Narrative around oil prices is based on global supply/demand fundamentals – even if those fundamentals are somewhat negative – that is far more constructive for oil prices and energy stocks than if the dominant Narrative around oil prices is based on monetary policy. When Saudi Arabia said, “we’re happy with oil in the 60’s”, here’s what value investors heard: “we’re not happy with oil in the 50’s”. So long as there is a perception of a floor … so long as value investors do not fear catching a free-falling knife … they will buy stuff that looks cheap. That’s what value investors DO.
The dominance of the OPEC meeting-inspired supply/demand Narrative is, I fear, short-lived, as we appear today to be returning to the regularly scheduled programming of all central banks, all the time. The dollar is starkly higher today, as the yen and euro plumb new depths. That’s on the back of the much stronger than expected jobs report today, which – as Fed amanuensis Hilsenrath “reports” – means that the Fed will be still more resolute in tightening even as the BOJ and ECB double-down on extraordinary liquidity operations. Oil is down a bit … less than I’d expect from a currency move of this magnitude … which I think is indicative that the fundamentals-driven Narrative still narrowly holds sway. How narrow? Can’t tell yet. I’ll be watching Narrative development closely next week, but there’s a non-trivial chance that the monetary policy “explanation” for oil prices will resume its pole position, and that’s problematic for the energy sector. Sorry, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.
Young nanny: Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you.
[she jumps off a roof, hanging herself] – “The Omen” (1976)
When one has little faith, one must survive from day to day signs.
– Stephen King, “Bag of Bones” (1998)
Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible … a … a …
– Bob Kane and Bill Finger, “Batman” (1939)
When clouds appear, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, the winter is at hand; When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
― William Shakespeare, “Richard II” (1595)
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point at me.
― William Shakespeare, “Othello” (1603)
Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that.
― Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
Like the criminals that Bruce Wayne fought as Batman, we investors are a superstitious, cowardly lot. We are constantly ascribing way too much import to this sign or that sign, constantly freaking out over the meaning and significance of this market event or that market event. It doesn’t help that the financial media world has devolved into fiefdoms of rah-rah soothsayers on the one hand and doom-seeing end-timers on the other, so that whatever our predispositions might be we can easily find Voices of Authority to read the entrails to our liking. And it really doesn’t help that we are in the midst of the greatest crisis of faith in the markets since the 1930’s, so that – as Stephen King wrote – we survive by looking for day-to-day signs to show us what to do.
And yet sometimes a little freaking out over the signs and portents is clearly the right thing to do. Sure, if your nanny declares her loyalty to your adopted-under-mysterious-circumstances devil-child as she hangs herself outside the nursery window it’s probably a case of mental illness, but I’d also listen a little more closely to what that pesky priest says. If you’re Pierce Brosnan in the “Bag of Bones” mini-series and you think that your dead wife is sending you cryptic messages via a handful of refrigerator magnets … well, maybe you should drive into town and buy more refrigerator magnets, see if she’s got anything interesting to say. If you’re Desdemona and you’re worried that Othello’s lip-biting is a sign that he’s about to fall into a jealous, murderous rage … well, maybe you should run out of the room instead of hanging around to see if you’re right.
It’s a tough call, evaluating what’s a “true” sign and what’s a “false” sign. Are we being foolish to sell our energy stocks after oil prices took another big hit, or are we reading the market’s tea leaves correctly and saving ourselves a lot of future pain? Are we acting as Shakespeare says any wise person would in a knowable and deterministic world, by putting on our cloaks as clouds appear and looking for the night as the sun sets? Or are we mistaking our play-acting market world for the real world, putting on our cloaks as the projectionist shows us a picture of clouds and looking for the night as the stage lights dim?
Here’s the Epsilon Theory answer: the latter mistake is 1,000 times more common than the former wisdom, and the vast majority of investors would be better off if they never read the newspaper and never turned on the TV. Why? Because what they think is a “sign” is actually a signal, neither true nor false in and of itself but only more or less influential in changing their mind and other investors’ minds about the world. (for more on signals and Information Theory, see “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Music of the Spheres”) Signals are constructed. Signals are malleable. And unless you are focused on how and why signals are constructed and shaped, you will be whipsawed. You will be shaken out. You will be roped in. You will catch a falling knife. Pick your own analogy or metaphor … there are a million to choose from and anyone who has spent any time at all in the market has experienced most of them. We’ve all been there.
Case in point: why are many investors puking energy sector stocks today? It’s not because they have a detailed cash flow model of the specific companies they’re selling and have calculated the incremental earnings impact of oil prices moving from a $70 handle to a $60 handle. It’s also not because there’s some credit freeze roiling financial markets and a careful balance sheet analysis shows imminent dividend cuts or debt stress throughout the sector. Will lower oil prices over a long period of time hurt earnings and crimp growth for the entire sector? Well, sure. That’s kinda what it means to invest in a cyclical stock, and if this comes as a surprise to you then I really don’t know what to say. Will lower oil prices over a long period of time create balance sheet distress in the energy sector’s more levered, go-go stocks? Absolutely. If you’re not stress testing the balance sheet, capital allocation, and distribution coverage models of the energy stocks you own, then you’re not doing your job as a risk manager. But neither earnings risk nor balance sheet risk explains why you see a spasm of energy sector selling today or back in October.
No, the selling is because the dominant Common Knowledge regarding energy sector stocks is that they move up and down with the price of oil. Common Knowledge is not what everyone knows; that’s the consensus.Common Knowledge is what everyone knows that everyone knows, and it’s the driving force behind the Game of Sentiment. Everyone knows that everyone knows energy stocks are tied to oil prices, we just took another sharp leg down in oil prices, and so energy stocks must be sold. The fact that energy stocks are down “proves” the relationship (a wonderful example of Soros’s concept of reflexivity), which adds to the selling. And “Even After Selloff, Energy Stocks Attract Few Buyers” because, as the WSJ breathlessly announces, “prices could soon plumb new depths.” Or not, but … hey, all the better to set-up that “rebound that no one was expecting” story. Until that story is written, any oil price increases are merely because “traders who had bet on lower prices locked in gains.” I find it awfully telling that this WSJ article now titled “U.S. Oil Prices Trade Higher After Selloff” was originally titled and archived as “Oil Slides as Market Struggles To Get Grip” (you can track URL’s to identify this stuff), but then the market failed to cooperate and they had to change the title!
A couple of Epsilon Theory points on all this.
The reality (not that it matters) is that energy stocks are barely correlated with the price of oil, and their correlation with each other is barely driven by oil prices. We’ve run some basic regression analyses on MLP portfolios, and since 2012 only about 7% of the total return profile of MLP’s can be “explained” (statistically speaking) by change in oil prices. The largest explanatory factor is just the S&P 500, with about 4 times the “power” of oil prices to predict MLP prices. My interpretation is not that a rising overall market is “causing” MLP stocks to work, but that the same non-fundamental monetary policy-driven forces that are driving up the overall market are also at work in the MLP space. MLP’s have both growth and yield – the two rarest things in a Fed-dominated world – so whatever market dynamics work for stocks overall have really worked for MLP’s.
For another perspective, take a look at this recent piece by Ed Tom and the Credit Suisse Equity Trading Strategy team, titled “What’s Driving Energy Sector Correlation? (Hint: It’s NOT Oil)”. Ed and his team do stellar econometric analysis of equity market derivative contracts, which means that their papers typically need some translation into plain English. Here’s the skinny: most investors think that energy stocks traded off in unison in October because they’re highly correlated to the decline in oil prices. Not true. Yes, there’s some correlation to oil, but what’s really driving this across-the-board decline is the fact that “long energy” has become a very crowded trade. So if you get a signal that spooks the long energy crowd, you’re going to get a mad rush of investors heading for the exit even if the signal isn’t truly that relevant for the fundamentals or the historical beta of energy stocks. When a trade is crowded on the long side, everyone has an itchy trigger finger to sell.
So what does matter? How can we improve our investing around energy sector stocks by thinking about oil prices as a malleable signal that drives sentiment dynamics (at least in the short and medium term) rather than as a deterministic and inexorable sign of things to come? I think what happens from here depends on the strategic interaction of four factors:
How crowded is the trade (still)? The good news here is that the Credit Suisse team believes a lot of the air was let out of the long-energy crowded trade balloon in October. I think that’s probably true, although I certainly wouldn’t call it un-crowded. I also think there’s a tremendous amount of air in the more general “the Fed has got your back” crowded trade balloon, which is worrisome for all equity market sectors, including energy.
What’s the investing DNA – value or growth – of the majority of energy sector holders? The notion of population dynamics and evolutionary theory is something I explored earlier this year in Epsilon Theory (here and here), and it’s a topic that I’m going to refocus on in 2015. The basic idea is that different investors have different linguistic grammars (value investors possess a mean-reversion grammar, while growth investors possess a momentum grammar), and that for a stock or sector to “work” you need the dominant Narrative grammar to fit the dominant investor type.
How is the oil price Narrative framed – supply/demand fundamentals or monetary policy? I wrote about this at length in last week’s Epsilon Theory note, so won’t repeat all that here. Everything I wrote then remains true: the supply/demand fundamentals Narrative is now ascendant and I suspect will remain so for at least a couple of weeks, maybe longer. That’s important because at current supply/demand projections it’s hard (not impossible, but hard) for oil prices to get much below $70 and stay there for a long time if you believe in this Narrative. A fundamentals-driven “explanation” places a martingale on oil prices that does not exist with monetary policy-driven “explanations”.
What will China and the US do with their monetary policy, and what will Saudi Arabia and Russia do with their foreign policy? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have a crystal ball on outcomes or timing, but this is where my risk antennae are focused 99% of the time.
I don’t have settled answers to any of these questions. And I don’t have a predictive model (a risk-based econometric analysis), because not only don’t I have settled answers, but I don’t even have a sense of potential outcomes or rough probability distributions for #4. I know that’s unsatisfying to many readers (certainly it’s unsatisfying to me!), but you have to take what the market gives you, not what you wish were there. My goal is not to be a hero and make bold predictions in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. My goal is to be a survivor. My goal is to play the game a bit better than the crowd by paying attention to the construction and shaping of market signals, all the while keeping my attention focused on how politicians and bankers wrestle with a global debt crisis. Call it being reactive if you like. I prefer to call it Adaptive Investing, and that’s what I want to communicate with Epsilon Theory.
Jett Rink: Everybody thought I had a duster. Y’all thought ol’ Spindletop Burke and Burnett was all the oil there was, didn’t ya? Well, I’m here to tell you that it ain’t, boy! It’s here, and there ain’t a dang thing you gonna do about it! My well came in big, so big, Bick and there’s more down there and there’s bigger wells. I’m rich, Bick. I’m a rich ‘un. I’m a rich boy. Me, I’m gonna have more money than you ever *thought* you could have – you and all the rest of you stinkin’ sons of … Benedicts! Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he’s too rich to kill. ― “Giant” (1956)
Mussawi: Bob, what do you know about the torture methods used by the Chinese on the Falun Gong? Huh? Method number one. What’s your guess?
Water dungeon. Did you guess water dungeon? Number two method? Number two, twisting arm and putting face in feces. Not interested in two? Number three. Number three is called ‘pulling nails from fingers’. What do you think, Bob? Number three sound good to you? The purpose is to get the monks or whatever to recant their beliefs. What if I had to get you to recant? That would be pretty difficult right? Because if you have no beliefs to recant then what? Then you’re f****d is what.
― “Syriana” (2005)
And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition. ― Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well. ― Rene Magritte
9 Down Clue:
– New York Times Crossword Puzzle, Saturday November 16
There is a real world connected to markets, of course, a world of actual companies selling actual goods and services to actual people. And these real world attributes of good old fashioned economic supply and demand – the fundamentals, let’s call them – matter a great deal. Always have, always will. I don’t think they matter nearly as much during periods of global deleveraging and profound political fragmentation – an observation that holds true whether you’re talking about the 2010’s, the 1930’s, the 1870’s, or the 1470’s – but they do matter.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as looking at some market outcome – the price of oil declining from $100/bbl to $70/bbl, say – and dividing up the outcome into some percentage of monetary policy-driven causes and some percentage of fundamental-driven causes. These market outcomes are always over-determined, which is a $10 word that means if you added up all of the likely causes and their likely percentage contribution to the outcome you would get a number way above 100%.Are recent oil price declines driven by the rising dollar (a monetary policy-driven cause) or by over-supply and global growth concerns (two fundamental-driven causes)? Answer: yes. I can make a case that either one of these “explanations” on its own can account for the entire $30 move. Put them together and I’ve “explained” the $30 move twice over. That’s not very satisfying or useful, of course, because it doesn’t help me anticipate what’s next. Should I be basing my risk assessment of global oil prices on an evaluation of monetary policy divergence and what this means for the US dollar? Or should I be basing my assessment on an evaluation of global supply and demand fundamentals? If both, how do I weight these competing explanations so that I don’t end up overweighting both, which (not to get too technical with this stuff) will have the effect of sharply increasing the volatility of my forward projections, even if I’m exactly right in the ratio of the relative contribution of the potential explanatory factors.
Here’s the short answer. I can’t. As a social animal in the financial services ecosystem I can’t avoid some overweighting of the explanatory factors. The longer answer is that I believe I can reduce the naïve overweighting by a rigorous focus on Narrative formation and dissemination, a process that I’ll describe below. But before we get to that let’s examine the consequences of an investment world where the overwhelming majority of market participants are not even thinking about mitigating the naïve overweighting of the various explanatory factors for oil price movements that are rolling through their heads, and where the entire financial services sector is designed to magnify this overweighting behavior.
What do I mean by that last bit? I mean that when there’s a large move in an important aspect of the market – and a $30 plunge in the price of oil certainly qualifies on that score! – it creates an overwhelming demand from global investors, from trillions of dollars of investment capital, for an answer to a single question: WHY? Anyone in the financial services world, from the smallest FA to the largest institutional allocator, must supply an answer to that question of Why, or else the capital that you advise or allocate for will start looking for a new advisor or allocator. The rarest answer in the financial services world is “I don’t know”, even though that’s almost always the most honest answer, because the business risk of “I don’t know” is overwhelming during large market moves. Global capital creates a multi-trillion dollar demand for The Answer, and financial service providers (or at least successful financial service providers) willalways provide it.
When there’s a multi-trillion dollar market for The Answer, it should surprise no one that there is competition around the supply of The Answer. Many, many, many answers with a small-a will be supplied, each vying for contention for a slice of The Answer market. Not only is every advisor or allocator in the world today an answer-supplier in his or her own right, but also there are layers upon layers of answer supply and demand within the financial services world itself. The result is an artillery barrage of answers raining down on every market participant, including guys like me who have our own howitzers. ALL of us are caught in this barrage, and it’s LOUD.
All of us may be caught in the barrage, but very few of us have an independently grounded view of what’s going on in oil markets or a process for assimilating the answers. Unfortunately, without that independent grounding or process the sheer volume of the shouted answers becomes a form of torture.
The vast majority of market participants are like George Clooney’s CIA agent in Syriana – ungrounded and without personal conviction in the competition at hand. When Clooney is tortured, it’s only pain – pure, unadulterated, senseless pain – with no purpose or process. Clooney will say or do anything to avoid the pain, but there is nothing he can say or do that will assuage his torturer because he doesn’t have what his torturer wants. You can’t repudiate grounded beliefs under torture if you don’t have grounded beliefs to start with, and whatever belief you espouse under torture will never be a grounded belief. All you can do is shout out some new belief, some new Answer, each time you get another nail pulled off a finger … or, as we might say down in Houston, each time the price of oil goes down another $10/bbl.
Okay, Ben, interesting metaphors and all that, but what’s the investable implication of what you’re saying? Simply this: whatever volatility you think exists in future oil prices … you’re too low. There is a behavioral and market structure dynamic in play today that will amplify oil price volatility beyond whatever your combination of fundamental-driven or monetary policy-driven rationales might imply. The loudness of the artillery barrage of answers to the question of “Why is oil down” is itself a driver of increased volatility in the price of oil and energy sector stocks. And yes, this loudness (more formally, the degree and scope of competition in the answer-supply market) can be measured, which may be an interesting thing for traders to think about. Just sayin’.
Now please note that I do not mean volatility as the word is all too commonly used, as a synonym for “down”. This isn’t some self-fulfilling prophecy, where more people talking about why oil is down somehow pushes oil prices down further. That’s not it at all. What I’m saying is that when more people talk loudly and competitively about their particular Answer to why oil is down, ALL answers become more and more over-weighted. The price of oil becomes more and more over-determined. Events that seem to fit one of the Answers are trumpeted to the high heavens, and everyone rushes to buy or sell according to that event and that Answer. Until, of course, the next event comes along which fits another Answer and is in turn trumpeted on high and is in turn followed by a mad rush to buy or sell according to that event and that Answer. Risk On / Risk Off. Bigger and faster price movements up AND down. Greater than expected “error” from whatever alpha or beta model you’re using. That’s what I mean by volatility.
And the reverse is true, too. When fewer people talk loudly and competitively about their particular Answer to a pressing question of Why, I expect volatility to decline. It’s no accident, in my view, that US equity market volatility has declined with almost perfect inverse correlation to the advance in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. Today I am hard-pressed to find anyone who argues that equity markets are at current levels because economic fundamentals are so good, or more generally that market outcomes – good or bad – are driven by economic fundamentals. Instead it’s all central banks all the time. There is zero competition in the marketplace of Answers on this enormous question of Why, and I think that’s the driving force behind not only reduced volatility, but also – and far more importantly for the financial services sector – reduced market activity and reduced market interest.
What I’m describing here is another way of getting a handle on the Common Knowledge Game, which I’ve argued is the principal strategic interaction in markets where grounded beliefs are few and far between. I won’t belabor all that again, as you can read about it here and here. But whether you’re thinking in terms of Keynes’ Newspaper Beauty Contest or the Island of the Blue-Eyed Tribe or how a CIA agent responds to torture, it’s all the same dynamic. When you’re not sure of yourself and you’re trying to figure out what consensus view to adopt, as likely as not everyone else is trying to do the same thing. In these situations it’s Common Knowledge – public signals that we all believe that we all heard, aka Narratives – that largely determines each of our individual behavioral decisions.
I mentioned earlier that I believe it’s possible to mitigate these behavioral and structural impulses to overweight explanatory factors through a rigorous assessment of Narrative creation and dissemination, so I’ll turn to that now. To be clear … I don’t have The Answer for what drives oil prices. I have MY answer, which is a small-a answer because it adapts to Narrative shifts in the relative prominence of fundamental-driven factors and monetary policy driven factors. It’s also a small-a answer because it’s a self-consciously Bayesian effort at arriving at a useful assessment of what’s going on, not a Platonic effort at uncovering some eternal Truth with a capital-T. All it really means to say that you’re a Bayesian decision maker is that you ground yourself with some set of prior beliefs and then you update those beliefs with new information. Here, then, are my grounded beliefs, first on fundamentals and then on monetary policy.
On fundamentals … we have good models (good in the sense that they’ve been nicely predictive over the past several decades) for the relationship between global growth and oil prices. What all the models basically show is that US growth sets the floor and Chinese growth is the marginal driver above that floor, at least for the demand function. Without a US recession and/or a Chinese hard landing – neither of which are anywhere in sight – it’s really hard for oil to get very far below, say, $70/bbl and it’s almost impossible for the price to stay there for very long.
We also have good models for the relationship between oil supply and oil prices. Currently we have significant over-supply in the global energy markets, driven by two factors: the continued success of shale production efforts in the US (see the amazing chart below from Deutsche Bank’s Torsten Slok) and the mysteriously high production levels being maintained by Saudi Arabia.
I say mysteriously high because with 30% price declines Saudi Arabia has historically been rather quick to cut production, but they’ve been largely quiet of late. There’s a widespread belief (which I share) that there is geopolitical pressure on Saudi Arabia to maintain production levels in order to squeeze the economic vise on Russia and Iran. There are limits to this US geopolitical pressure, however, particularly with such a mistrusted Administration, and I think we’re now well past those limits.There’s also a somewhat less widespread belief (which I don’t share) that Saudi Arabia is content to maintain (or even increase) production in order to put more downward pressure on oil prices and force US shale production into unprofitable positions. While the proponents of this view are absolutely right that the threat of opening the production floodgates has always been the Saudi big stick used to maintain cartel discipline within OPEC, there’s just too much non-cartelized money, technology, and political capital invested in US shale production to slow it down in this way. It’s the Bick Benedict / Jett Rink problem from the classic movie Giant … if you’re Rock Hudson and you despise James Dean, you better get rid of him while he’s a dirt-poor wildcatter, because once he succeeds he’s too rich to kill.
Also, regardless of what happens in the short term with OPEC production targets, when you look at the production profiles of most major oil fields in the world today I think it’s very hard to see the current over-supply condition as anything but temporary, even with continued efficiency advances in the US shale fields (for a particularly apocalyptic view on all this, see the latest quarterly letter from GMO’s Jeremy Grantham). As with the global growth models, it’s really hard to get oil much below $70/bbl from a supply model perspective.
But then there’s monetary policy. For the past 30 years we’ve had general global coordination around a weaker dollar (which supports higher prices of assets, like oil, that are priced in dollars) and for the past 5 years we’ve had intensive global coordination to promote massive dollar liquidity (which also supports higher oil prices). Today that coordination has stopped, and the dollar is getting very strong very quickly as the Fed cuts back on dollar liquidity at the same time that other central banks continue to increase their own liquidity operations. As I hope that I’ve made clear in recent Epsilon Theory notes (here and here), I think that this monetary policy divergence is a very significant risk to markets, as there’s no direct martingale on how far monetary policy can diverge and how strong the dollar can get. As a result I think there’s a non-trivial chance that the price of oil could have a $30 or $40 handle at some point over the next 6 months, even though the global growth and supply/demand models would say that’s impossible. But I also think the likely duration of that heavily depressed price is pretty short. Why? Because the Fed and China will not take this lying down. They will respond to the stronger dollar and stronger yuan (China’s currency is effectively tied to the dollar) and they will prevail, which will push oil prices back close to what global growth says the price should be. The danger, of course, is that if they wait too long to respond (and they usually do), then the response will itself be highly damaging to global growth and market confidence and we’ll bounce back, but only after a near-recession in the US or a near-hard landing in China.
So now for the balancing act … is the price of oil today driven more by global growth and supply/demand factors or by monetary policy factors? I hope it doesn’t surprise anyone when I say that I think monetary policy dominates ALL markets today, including the global oil market. What’s the ratio? My personal, entirely subjective view is that oil prices over the past 3+ months have been driven by 3 parts monetary policy to 1 part fundamentals. How do I come up with this ratio? For the past 3+ months the oil Narrative has been dominated by public statements from influential answer-suppliers talking up the oil price dynamic of a rising dollar and monetary policy divergence. That’s the source of my subjective view of a 3:1 dominance for monetary policy-driven factors over fundamental-driven factors.
However – and this is the adaptive part where I play close attention to Narrative development and dissemination – the noise level surrounding this Thursday’s OPEC meeting is absolutely deafening. I mean, when the Sunday morning talking head shows are discussing OPEC and its influence on gasoline prices you know that something dramatic is happening with the Narrative. For at least this week and next the oil Narrative is going to be dominated by public statements from influential answer-suppliers talking up the oil price dynamic of OPEC decisions on fundamental global oil supply. For at least this week and next my personal, entirely subjective view of the ratio of explanatory factors is going to flip to 3 parts fundamentals to 1 part monetary policy. And since it’s hard to get the price of oil much lower than it is today on the fundamentals … well, you can draw your own conclusions about the risk/reward asymmetry over the next two weeks. Beyond that? I have no idea. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens to the Narrative.
I know this process probably sounds very reactive, as if I’m lacking all conviction about how the world works. Guilty as charged on the first count; innocent on the second. I don’t pretend that I have The Answer. I don’t pretend to have a crystal ball that tells me what OPEC is going to do this Thursday or when the next central banker will jawbone his currency down. I don’t know. Sorry. There are plenty of answer-suppliers out there who will be more than happy to tell you that they DO have that crystal ball, and if that’s what you need you’re wasting your time reading Epsilon Theory. I think that investing in a reactive manner – or as I like to call it, adaptive investing – is the best way to survive a profoundly uncertain world. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong ideas about how the world works, about how both monetary policy and fundamentals impact the price of oil. What it means is that it doesn’t matter what I think about the way the world works. The only thing that matters is what the market thinks about the way the world works, and in times like these the market will think whatever Common Knowledge says it should think.
It’s crucial to have strong views about how the world works, to have an independently grounded vision of the world, because otherwise I might start to think that whatever Common Knowledge is dominant at some given time … US dollar strength for the past 3+ months, OPEC impact on supply fundamentals for the next 2+ weeks … is The Answer for oil prices, forever and ever amen, and I will be whipsawed mercilessly when the Narrative shifts. And it will shift. But it’s equally crucial not to become a prisoner of my strong views about how the world works, or else at best I will miss the path that the market takes from here to there, and at worst I might be … wrong.
Here’s my Answer: there is no Answer. In a structurally unstable market, there is no stable deterministic model of discrete market-exogenous factors like global supply/demand and monetary policy to “explain” oil prices. Oil prices are systematically over-determined, particularly during times of pricing distress, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you can find the world’s secret eternal code that hides behind market outcomes. The market itself – the strategic interaction of social animals all trying to outsmart each other – is part and parcel of the code. Strategic interactions are not factors that you can plug into your model or regression analysis. They are emergent properties of a game … a game with rules and stable patterns of behavior, so it’s knowable and predictable, but not predictive in the same deterministic fashion that the econometric toolbox promises. For investors and allocators steeped in this predictive promise of econometrics, game theory will always seem like thin gruel, as postdictive rather than predictive. Fair enough. But rather than cling to my econometric toolkit and make market predictions that are less and less useful in this, the Golden Age of the Central Banker, I’d rather look at the market through the lens of game theory and Common Knowledge and Narrative so that I can adapt quickly to what IS rather than what I’d prefer it to be.
Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them. ― Immanuel Kant
Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency? ― Joseph Welch, counsel for the US Army, confronting Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1954)
Trust Cramer! – CNBC ad campaign
We are all wrong so often that it amazes me that we can have any conviction at all over the direction of things to come. But we must. – Jim Cramer
Pro wrestling is not fake; it’s sports entertainment. We go out there and we perform, and a lot of what we do out there is real, but we’re not going to insult anyone’s intelligence – there is a predetermined winner. It’s just the fans don’t know who it is, and that’s what makes it so intriguing. ― Kurt Angle, professional wrestler
People never understood that there was a Brian and there was the Boz.They were two completely different people.
– Brian Bosworth, flamboyant pro football bust
“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)
Oliver Sacks is both a gifted neurologist and a gifted writer. I want to begin this note with a passage from his book “An Anthropologist on Mars”. It’s a long selection, but worth the effort.
He was, I noted, somewhat weak and spastic in all his limbs, more on the left, and more in the legs. He could not stand alone. His eyes showed complete optic atrophy – it was impossible for him to see anything. But strangely, he did not seem to be aware of being blind and would guess that I was showing him a blue ball, a red pen (when in fact it was a green comb and a fob watch that I showed him). Nor indeed did he seem to “look”; he made no special effort to turn in my direction, and when we were speaking, he often failed to face me, to look at me. When I asked him about seeing, he acknowledged that his eyes weren’t “all that good”, but added that he enjoyed “watching” the TV. Watching TV for him, I observed later, consisted of following with attention the soundtrack of a movie or show and inventing visual scenes to go with it (even though he might not even be looking toward the TV). He seemed to think, indeed, that this was what “seeing” meant, that this was what was meant by “watching TV”, and that this was what all of us did. Perhaps he had lost the very idea of seeing.
I found this aspect of Greg’s blindness, his singular blindness to his blindness, his no longer knowing what “seeing” or “looking” meant, deeply perplexing. It seemed to point to something stranger, and more complex, than a mere “deficit”, to point, rather, to some radical alteration within him in the very structure of knowledge, in consciousness, in identity itself.
― Oliver Sacks, “An Anthropologist on Mars” (1995)
And now for an observation and diagnosis of my own.
About 3 years ago I was on a flight, sitting in an aisle seat, and I couldn’t help but notice the young couple having a mild argument one row in front of me, across the aisle to my right. As the woman settled into the middle seat, I saw that she had her husband/boyfriend’s name – Randy – tattooed on the back of her neck, and I saw that Randy had the letters T – R – U – S – T tattooed on the fingers of his left hand. When I saw this, I found myself thinking warm thoughts towards the couple. Clearly these were two people from a very different background than my own, but I appreciated the sacrifice and public display each had made to show a commitment to the relationship, and it reminded me of the (non-tattooed) commitment my wife and I have made to each other. I remember thinking, “you know, I bet these crazy kids are going to make it,” even though the argument never seemed to totally fade during the flight.
The plane landed and we all stood up to disembark, and I remember still smiling to myself as Randy and his wife/girlfriend moved into the aisle, still mildly arguing. And then I saw the letters tattooed on Randy’s right hand.
N – O – O – N – E
And just like that my internal Narrative flipped by 180 degrees. I didn’t know what this guy’s name was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t Randy. I didn’t know what they were arguing about, but I was pretty sure that this wasn’t a relationship built to last.
But it’s not just that we have lost the ability to trust, particularly when it comes to markets and investing. The larger problem is that – like Oliver Sacks’ patient who was blind to his blindness – most of us don’t even recognize that we have lost the ability to trust. Many of us create bizarre simulacra of trust – like the notion that the mass media persona of Jim Cramer is somehow deserving of trust in the same way as a flesh-and-blood financial advisor with a fiduciary responsibility to his clients. Just as Sacks’ patient came to believe that “seeing” meant constructing mental imagery to go along with audio stimuli, and that everyone “saw” this way, so have we come to believe that “trusting” means giving mental allegiance to a disembodied, mediated representation of a human being, and that we all “trust” this way.
I’m making a big deal out of the distinction between a public persona and a real person because it is, in fact, a big deal when it comes to questions of trust. The “Jim Cramer” we see on TV is not Jim Cramer, any more than “Hulk Hogan” is Terry Bollea, any more than “The Boz” is Brian Bosworth, any more than “Marcus Welby” is Robert Young. But while Marcus Welby was an outright fictional character, and he was clearly understood as such when he was called “the most trusted man in America”, all of the other stage names in this list are presented and re-presented as non-fictional characters, as somehow more “real” than Marcus Welby. And in a way they are more real. Certainly the stage persona of “Jim Cramer” draws heavily from the actual experiences and views of Jim Cramer, but I think the right way to think about this is that Jim Cramer writes the dialog for “Jim Cramer” and performs the role of “Jim Cramer” in a highly personal, improvisational way that Robert Young was never allowed with “Marcus Welby”. Jim Cramer performs “Jim Cramer” in the same way that Terry Bollea performs “Hulk Hogan” – as a serious, non-tongue-in-cheek (which separates these guys from how Stephen Colbert performs “Stephen Colbert”), yet highly stylized representation of a financial adviser and a wrestler, respectively. Both Cramer and Bollea are incredibly talented – if you can’t recognize that Cramer has got some serious market chops, the equivalent of Bollea’s crazy musculature, I don’t know what to tell you – but what makes them so successful in their chosen fields is the combination of these talents with outstanding showmanship and a phenomenal ability to project authenticity.
My point is not that mass-mediated financial advice is kinda like professional wrestling. My point is that mass-mediated financial advice is EXACTLY like professional wrestling. And I know that it must seem like I’m slamming Cramer and CNBC and the rest of the mass media financial guru-sphere by equating their efforts with professional wrestling, but I’m really not. I just want to call things by their proper names. I LOVE professional wrestling. Second only to professional politics, professional wrestling demonstrates Narrative creation and execution at an extremely high level of artistry,with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. And it’s NOT a fake representation of wrestling in the way that an episode of “Marcus Welby, M.D.” is a fake representation of medical practice. Professional wrestling is scripted and choreographed, like a TV medical drama, but there are actual athletic feats executed here. It is “real wrestling” in that sense, where there is no “real medicine” being practiced in the filming of “House”. But no one in his right mind believes that professional wrestling is the same thing as Olympic wrestling or collegiate wrestling. Professional wrestling is its own thing – a marvelous and entertaining thing – and it deserves to be understood in that light.
Well … mass-mediated financial advice is its own thing, too, where Narrative creation and execution is the only thing that matters, and everything you see or read is driven by the economic diktat of driving the Narrative du jour forward. No one in his right mind should believe that mass-mediated financial advice is the same thing as professional, individuated financial advice. And yet here we are, in a world where the notion of trust has become so warped that every day, thousands of investors question the trustworthiness of their flesh-and-blood financial advisors and tens of thousands more act on their own because they trusted a piece of Narrative-driven advice they heard on the TV or read in the newspaper.
Why is it so important to distinguish between real people and mass media representations of people when it comes to matters of trust? Because in the wise words of J.K. Rowling, never trust anything that thinks for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain. I know exactly where an individual human being like Jim Cramer keeps his brain, but I have no idea where the brain of “Jim Cramer” resides. It’s certainly not (only) inside the human Jim Cramer, but also within the contract between Jim Cramer and CNBC, within the various humans who produce and executive produce the various shows on which “Jim Cramer” appears, within the corporate imperatives of Comcast and NBC Universal, and a myriad of other locations. The brain of “Jim Cramer” is a thoroughly distributed and hidden set of preferences, totally unlike the brain of Jim Cramer the person, and as a result it is impervious to the tools and strategies that game theorists use to understand and develop trust.
Game theory can tell us a lot about the construction and preservation of trust between individual decision makers. I can develop a rational basis for trust with Jim Cramer the person (if I knew him), because I can model the pay-offs associated with cooperation (the foundation of trust) and defection (the destruction of trust) within the parameters of a repeated-play strategic interaction (a game). So if I’m some Comcast exec negotiating a new contract with Jim Cramer the person, or if I were an investor in Jim Cramer the person’s hedge fund back in the day, I could use game theory both to measure how much I should trust the guy and to suggest ways to increase the level of trust between us (I won’t develop that idea in this note, but if you’re interested in the subject you should start with Robert Axelrod’s classic book, “The Evolution of Cooperation”). On the other hand, it is impossible to develop this notion of interpersonal trust with “Jim Cramer” because “Jim Cramer” is not a person and does not possess a person’s discrete, transitive, and ordered set of preferences … a brain. It’s hard for some people to believe this, I know, because CNBC (smartly) does everything in its power to suggest that everyone watching CNBC has a personal relationship with “Jim Cramer”. Well, you don’t. You can’t. “Jim Cramer” is real in exactly the same way that “Hulk Hogan” is real, and trusting in these mass-mediated representations of actual human beings to be somehow more than what they are makes you a sucker. Maybe you won’t see a “heel turn” out of “Jim Cramer” the way you did out of “Hulk Hogan” (the most thrilling 180-degree turn in a Narrative I have ever witnessed), but at some point you will find yourself on the wrong end of a Narrative shift if you trust and rely on “Jim Cramer” or any other mass media persona for your financial advice. I’m not saying that flesh-and-blood financial advisors are always right in how they think about markets and investing … of course they’re not. But they are worthy of trust, or at least eligible for trust, in a way that mass media personae of pure Narrative can never be.
Here’s the other thing, the darker side of a world where we all bear the “TRUST NO ONE” tattoo … it’s all well and good when mass-mediated representations of financial advice and ersatz authenticity generate characters like “Jim Cramer”, who I believe is relatively harmless in a larger political or social sense. But this is how characters like “Senator Joe McCarthy” are created, too, and they are anything but harmless. The flip side of a world where no one is trusted and nothing is believed is that anyone can be trusted and everything can be believed. I’ve recently experienced this modern-day McCarthyism and fear-mongering first hand. It makes me angry, of course (one day I’ll write an “Angry Ben” note on this topic), but even more than that it makes me sad. I’m sad because I see more and more intelligent, engaged, well-meaning people withdrawing from anything with a public face or function, asking themselves “why would I subject myself to this particular form of social torture”, and ceding the field to the McCarthy’s and their media stooges.
What’s to be done? I really don’t know. McCarthy was undone when an institution of overwhelming authenticity and popular trust – the US Army – challenged him directly and got the newspapers to print the story. I just don’t know if any modern institution, including the Army, still commands that sort of trust, and I’m certain that there’s no modern institution that has the broadly dispersed and widely available reservoir of authenticity necessary to combat the pandemic of mistrust that has swept through modern markets. Everyone’s an expert today, and we think nothing of dismissing the advice we receive from our traditional bastions of professional advice – doctors, lawyers, financial advisors – in favor of our own views, almost always channeled from some charming disembodied voice we hear on TV or read on the Internet. We’re all our own doctor and lawyer and financial advisor today, precisely because we mistrust so thoroughly, and as a result we leave ourselves open to false notions of trust. We need new pockets of authenticity, a disaggregated source of authenticity to combat the disaggregated McCarthyism that is bursting spore-like all across the country. In my more optimistic moments I look at the Internet’s ability to eliminate media intermediaries and gatekeepers, and I think that there must be hope in the vast array of blogs and comment communities and Twitter-verses out there today. But then I actually spend some time in these virtual communities and I start to despair.
I shouldn’t, though … despair, I mean. It’s amazing how messy community building and small-l liberalism can be, and the whole idea here is to let 1,000,000 flowers bloom, no matter how inane or misguided some of those communities may seem to me. Cream rises. Leaders emerge. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be fast, but it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll continue to try to build my own community around Epsilon Theory. I’ve got a pretty good microphone now, and I won’t deny the emotional gratification of speaking to more and more people. But it’s time to deepen the personal relationships here rather than just broaden the readership, as it’s the strength of individual connections with outstanding people that builds trust and a lasting community. As Kant wrote, “number not voices, but weigh them.” That’s how I’d like people to evaluate me. That’s how I’d like people to evaluate Salient. And it’s how I’m going to evaluate the success of Epsilon Theory.
People think it must be fun to be a super genius, but they don’t realize how hard it is to put up with all the idiots in the world.
― Bill Watterson, “Calvin And Hobbes”
Here is the most fundamental idea behind game theory, the one concept you MUST understand to be an effective game player. Ready?
You are not a super genius, and we are not idiots. The people you are playing with and against are just as smart as you are. Not smarter. But just as smart. If you think that you are seeing more deeply into a repeated-play strategic interaction (a game!) than we are, you are wrong. And ultimately it will cost you dearly. But if there is a mutually acceptable decision point – one that both you and we can agree upon, full in the knowledge that you know that we know that you know what’s going on – that’s an equilibrium. And that’s a decision or outcome or policy that’s built to last.
Fair warning, this is an “Angry Ben” email, brought on by the US government’s “communication policy” on Ebola, which is a mirror image of the US government’s “communication policy” on markets and monetary policy, which is a mirror image of the US government’s “communication policy” on ISIS and foreign policy. We are being told what to think about Ebola and QE and ISIS. Not by some heavy-handed pronouncement as you might find in North Korea or some Soviet-era Ministry, but in the kinder gentler modern way, by a Wise Man or Woman of Science who delivers words carefully chosen for their effect in constructing social expectations and behaviors.
It’s always for the best of intentions. It’s always to prevent a panic or to maintain confidence or to maintain social stability. All good and noble ends. But it’s never a stable equilibrium. It’s never a lasting legislative or regulatory peace. The policy always crumbles in Emperor’s New Clothes fashion because we-the-people or we-the-market have not been brought along to make a self-interested, committed decision. Instead the Powers That Be – whether that’s the Fed or the CDC or the White House – take the quick and easy path of selling us a strategy as if they were selling us a bar of soap.
This is what very smart people do when they are, as the Brits would say, too clever by half. This is why very smart people are, as often as not, poor game players. It’s why there aren’t many academics on the pro poker tour. It’s why there haven’t been many law professors in the Oval Office. This isn’t a Democrat vs. Republican thing. This isn’t a US vs. Europe thing. It’s a mass society + technology thing. It’s a class thing. And it’s very much the defining characteristic of the Golden Age of the Central Banker.
Am I personally worried about an Ebola outbreak in the US? On balance … no, not at all. But don’t tell me that I’m an idiot if I have questions about the sufficiency of the social policies being implemented to prevent that outbreak. And make no mistake, that’s EXACTLY what I have been told by CDC Directors and Dr. Gupta and the White House and all the rest of the super genius, supercilious, remain-calm crew.
I am calm. I understand that a victim must be symptomatic to be contagious. But I also understand that one man’s symptomatic is another man’s “I’m fine”, and questioning a self-reporting immigration and quarantine regime does not make me a know-nothing isolationist.
I am calm. I understand that the virus is not airborne but is transmitted by “bodily fluids”. But I also understand why Rule #1 for journalists in West Africa is pretty simple: Touch No One, and questioning the wisdom of sitting next to a sick stranger on a flight originating from, say, Brussels does not make me a Howard Hughes-esque nutjob.
I am calm. I understand that the US public health and acute care infrastructure is light years ahead of what’s available in Liberia or Nigeria. I understand that Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas is not just one of the best health care facilities in Texas, but one of the best hospitals in the world. But I also understand that we are all creatures of our standard operating procedures, and what’s second nature in a hot zone will be slow to catch on in the Birmingham, Alabama ER where my father worked for 30 years.
I am calm. But I am angry, too. It doesn’t have to be this way … this consensus-by-fiat style of policy leadership where we are always only one counter-factual reveal – the sick nurse or the sick economy – away from a breakdown in market or governmental confidence. I am angry that we have been consistently misjudged and underestimated, treated as children to be “educated” rather than as citizens to be trusted. I am angry that our most important political institutions have sacrificed their most important asset – not their credibility, but their authenticity – on the altar of political expediency, all in a misconceived notion of what it means to lead.
And yet here we are. On the precipice of that breakdown in confidence. A cold wind of change is starting to blow. Can you feel it?
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.
Everything under the sun is in chaos. The situation is excellent.
– Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
– Chinatown (1974)
Language is conceived in sin and science is its redemption.
– W.V.O. Quine (1908 – 2000)
I am, as I am; whether hideous, or handsome, depends upon who is made judge.
– Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
All -ism’s end up in schisms.
– Huston Smith (b. 1919)
What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.
– Lee Kuan Yew (b. 1923)
Two years ago, the new seven-member Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo – the most powerful political entity in the country – was introduced to great fanfare. All seven men walked on stage wearing a dark suit and a red tie, but to me the most striking aspect of their appearance was their hair. Yes, their hair. Their dark, immaculately coifed, powerful hair. Despite an average age of 65, not one of these men has EVER been seen in public without sporting a mane that would make their grandsons proud.
On the other hand, consider this handsome man, Bo Xilai. Once the princeling of princelings, the son of a Long March vet, Bo was enormously popular for his Redder-than-Thou politics and enormously rich from his mayoral “crackdown” on organized crime in Chongqing, a municipality with about the same urban population as New York City. To put Bo Xilai in a US context, he was richer than Michael Bloomberg and more politically ambitious than Rudy Giuliani, if either of those two qualities can be imagined. And of course, this 65 year old politician had the luxurious jet-black hair as befits a man of his position.
But alas, Bo’s political reach exceeded his political grasp. Undone publicly for abuse of office and a murder conspiracy, privately for his creation of a top-notch intelligence operation that spied on his fellow Politburo princelings (again to put in a US context, imagine if a mega-billionaire mayor of New York City created his own electronic FBI that could monitor everyone’s market activities … crazy, right?), Bo found himself on the wrong end of a show trial and is currently living out the rest of his days in a Madoff-style cell. How do we know that Bo is gone for good, that he has lost whatever political support he formerly commanded? Because they took away his hair dye. He’s “gone gray”, as they say in the Chinese political lingo, portrayed to the world as a frail old man who not only lost his freedom but much more importantly lost his mojo.
Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death!”, a sentiment that makes sense in Western political culture but is met with puzzled looks in the East. Personal liberty is, in an important sense, everything in Western political culture. In Chinese political culture … not so much. On the other hand, signifiers of personal potency – like maintaining dark hair – have enormous meaning in China and, at times, a diametrically opposed meaning in the West.
Okay, Ben, kinda interesting in a cultural anthropology sort of way, but what in the world does this have to do with investing? Simply this, and it’s a core Epsilon Theory tenet: the meaning of events and market signals differ hugely from country to country, tribe to tribe, generation to generation. Ferguson does not mean the same thing as Hong Kong. Hong Kong does not mean the same thing as Tahrir Square or even Tiananmen Square. Monetary policy does not mean the same thing in Beijing as monetary policy means in Washington, which in turn does not mean the same thing as monetary policy in Paris or Rome. But we have an innate tendency to act as if these signals DO mean the same thing, and we can totally wrong-foot our investments as a result.
The biggest thing happening in the world today is the growing divergence between US monetary policy and everyone else’s monetary policy. There is a schism in the High Church of Bernanke, with His US acolytes ending the QE experiment in no uncertain terms, and His European and Japanese prelates looking to keep the faith by continued balance sheet expansion. That divergence plays out mostly in exchange rates, and it has three HUGE implications, one for investment strategy selection, one for global growth, and one for … (gulp!) gold.
First, this is great news for global macro strategies and their low-cost, populist cousins, so-called “alternative beta” strategies. Global macro performance has been absolutely atrocious over the past five years, driven primarily by a coordinated global monetary policy regime that squeezed out the historical patterns of difference between geographies and asset classes. Now that monetary policy is uncoordinated, with every major economic region essentially fending for itself, global macro and alternative beta strategies have “room” to work. To be sure, some of these strategies will still be confounded by an investment regime where monetary policy trumps economic fundamentals at every turn, but the sine qua non for ANY active investment strategy is distinction and dispersion. For the first time in more than five years, we can see this sort of distinction and dispersion in regional macroeconomic policies, giving traditional global macro strategies at least a chance of success. Vive la difference!
Second, this divergence in regional monetary policy creates enormous strains on the tectonic plates of modern international trade – currency exchange rates. In the absence of a re-convergence of monetary policy I don’t see any compelling reason why recent dollar appreciation should slow down, much less reverse itself, with the obvious consequences for US S&P 500 earnings (negative), commodity prices and commodity-related securities (negative), most EM markets (negative), and European and Japanese earnings (positive). But the greatest risk for global economic stability from a dollar on steroids is, for my money, China. Why? Because as I’ve tried to point out in prior Epsilon Theory notes (here, here, and here), China’s political stability depends on economic growth – it’s the mojo of the Party just as surely as jet-black hair is the mojo of Party leaders – and Chinese growth depends on exports.So long as the yuan is effectively tethered to the dollar, a stronger dollar means a stronger yuan, which means weaker exports to Europe, Japan, and EM’s. Sure, it’s cheaper now to buy more iron ore and copper, so I suppose you could build another ghost city or two to keep the growth train on track, but the Politburo’s only serious answer to the politically existential question of growth is to sell more advanced products to more people, most of whom don’t live in China. That means selling medical devices to Japan and telecom equipment to Germany, tasks made much more difficult by a stronger dollar/yuan. To be clear, I do NOT see some imminent economic collapse in China. But growth is much less certainin China today, and that’s a political problem that the Politburo will stop at nothing to fix. I expect the 180-degree shift in Chinese monetary policy that began this January and paused this summer to accelerate again, which in turn will accelerate political tensions abroad with the US and Japan, as well as political tensions domestically with the mega-rich princeling families. And speaking of domestic political tensions …
Look, I don’t think the meaning of Hong Kong – even to the participants – is some pro-democracy uprising a la the Arab Spring or any of the “color revolutions” our media is so quick to christen. Maybe if we start to see fewer English-language signs and fewer teenagers lifting their smartphone “candles” I’ll change my mind, but right now it seems a lot more like a tepid expression of political identity than a determined effort by determined citizens to change the political system at a fundamental level. This isn’t a release-the-hounds moment like Deng believed Tiananmen Square to be, and it looks like the Gang of Seven in Beijing have decided as much with new orders to pull the police back and let the protesters block traffic and annoy everyone in the city who just wants to get back to business.
But I do think there’s a deeper implication of the Hong Kong protests, one likely to be missed by Western investors who want to project a Western meaning on the events taking place. I think the most important lesson that mainland leaders in the CCP and PLA will take away from the Hong Kong protests is not that the population must be brought to heel, but that they can’t be trusted, that they’re not really one of us. And that’s okay to a certain degree … the potential of “contagion” from Hong Kong to, say, Chongqing seems really remote given the State’s control over media and information flow … but it’s not okay if the “transmission wires” of Hong Kong’s financial system can’t be trusted. Hong Kong is an indispensable financial intermediary for the Chinese State, and I have zero doubt that Beijing will move to cement their control over the sinews of real power here, by any means necessary. One of those sinews of real power is the Hong Kong dollar, which means that Hong Kong monetary policy and the Hong Kong Currency Board – already reduced to a semi-independent satrap – is about to make the transition to full-fledged puppet. This lesson won’t be lost on the mega-rich Chinese princelings, either. The days of parking your mainland wealth in Hong Kong are now over, as it’s no longer a safe haven from the long arm of the CCP.Let the capital flight begin, and watch out below for the Hong Kong dollar.
As for my third point – the implications of monetary policy divergence on gold – I’m always reticent to write about gold because it incites such passion (and I don’t just mean the gold bug camp … poke pretty much any academically-trained economist and you will unleash a furious anti-gold tirade). To be clear, I believe that the meaning of gold today is NOT as a store of value but as an insurance policy against central banks losing control. With market faith in the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence at an asymptotic top, the price of that insurance policy – call it $1,200/oz – is as low as it’s going to go. And now with a schism in the High Church of Bernanke, monetary policy divergence, and growing pressures on the tectonic plates of exchange rates we have catalysts for both a generic and geographically specific central bank loss of control. Now I understand that gold means different things to different people, and to the degree that gold trades as a commodity or a dollar-denominated store of value it can trade cheaper as the dollar advances. I get that. But I don’t think that’s been the principal meaning of gold for the past 5+ years, and if you think as I do that this is the beginning of the end for the Golden Age of the Central Banker (or at least the end of the beginning), gold is pretty interesting here.
There is one great mystery in the high falutin’ circles of the Fed, ECB, and IMF today. Why is global growth so disappointing? There are different variations on this theme – why aren’t businesses investing more? why aren’t banks lending more? – but it’s all one basic question. First the Fed, then the BOJ, and now the ECB have taken superheroic efforts to inflate financial asset prices in order to bridge the gap between the output shock of 2008 and a resumption of normal economic growth. They’ve done their part. Why hasn’t the rest of the world joined the party?
The thinking was that leaving capital markets to their own devices in the aftermath of the Great Recession could result in a deflationary equilibrium, which is macroeconomic-speak for falling into a well, breaking your leg, at night, alone. It’s the worst possible outcome. So the decision was made to buy trillions of dollars in assets, forcing all of us to take on more risk with our money than we would otherwise prefer, and to jawbone the markets (excuse me … “employ communication policy”) to leverage those trillions still further. All this in order to buy time for the global economic engine to rev back up and allow private investment activity to take over for temporary government investment activity.
It was a brilliant plan, and as emergency intervention it worked like a charm. QE1 (and even more importantly TLGP) saved the world. The intended behavioral effect on markets and market participants succeeded beyond Bernanke et al’s wildest dreams, such that now the Fed finds itself in the odd position of trying to talk down the dominant Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. But for some reason the global economic engine never kicked back in. The answer? We must do more. We must try harder. And so we got QE2. And QE3. And Abenomics. And now Draghinomics. We got what we always get in the aftermath of a global economic crisis – a temporary government policy intervention transformed into a permanent government social insurance program.
But the engine still hasn’t kicked in.
So now villains must be found. Now we must root out the counter-revolutionaries and Trotskyites and Lin Biao-ists and assorted enemies of progress. Because if the plan is brilliant but it’s not working, then obviously someone is blocking the plan. The structural villains per Stanley Fischer (who is rapidly becoming a more powerful Narrative voice and Missionary than Janet Yellen): housing, fiscal policy, and the European economic slow-down. Or if you’ll allow me to translate the Fed-speak: consumers, Republicans, and Germany. These are the counter-revolutionaries per the central bank apparatchiks. If only everyone would just spend more, why then our theories would succeed grandly.
Let me suggest a different answer to the mystery of missing global growth, a political answer, an answer that puts hyper-accommodative monetary policy in its proper place: a nice-to-have for vibrant global growth rather than a must-have. The problem with sparking renewed economic growth in the West is that domestic politics in the West do not depend on economic growth. What we have in the US today, and even more so in Europe (ex-Germany), are not the politics of growth but rather the politics of identity. At the turn of the 20th century the meaning of being a Democrat or a Republican was all about specific economic policies … monetary policies, believe it or not. You could vote for Republican McKinley and ride on a golden coin to Prosperity for all, or you could vote for Democrat Bryan and support silver coinage to avoid being “crucified on a cross of gold.”
Today’s elections almost never hinge on any specific policy, much less anything to do with something as arcane as monetary policy. No, today’s elections are all about social identification with like-minded citizens around amorphous concepts like “justice” or “freedom” … words that communicate aspirational values and speak in code about a wide range of social issues. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently bad or underhanded about all this. I think Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” poster is absolute genius, rivaled only by the Obama campaign’s genius in recognizing its power. Nor am I saying that economic issues are unimportant in elections. On the contrary, James Carville is mostly right when he says, “It’s the economy, stupid.” What I am saying is that modern political communications use neither the language nor the substance of economic policy in any meaningful way. Words like “taxes” and “jobs” are bandied about, but only as totems, as signifiers useful in assuming or accusing an identity. Candidates seek to be identified as a “job creator” or a “tax cutter” (or accuse their opponent of being a “job destroyer” or a “tax raiser”) because these are powerful linguistic themes that connect on an emotional level with well-defined subsets of voters on a range of dimensions, not because they want to actually campaign on issues of economic growth. Candidates have learned that while voters certainly care about the economy and their economic situation, the only time they make a voting decision based primarily on specific economic policy rather than shared identity is when the decision is explicitly framed as a binary policy outcome – a referendum. Even there, if you look at the ballot referendums over the past several decades (Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 happened almost 40 years ago! how’s that for making you feel old?), the shift from economic to social issues is obvious.
Both the Republican and the Democratic Party have entirely embraced identity politics, because it works. It works to maintain two status quo political parties that have gerrymandered their respective identity bases into a wonderfully stable equilibrium. The last thing either party wants is a defining economic policy question that would cut across identity lines. But until the terms of debate change such that an electoral mandate emerges around macroeconomic policy … until voters care enough about Growth Policy A vs. Growth Policy B to vote the pertinent rascals in or out, despite the inertia of value affinity … we’re going to be stuck in a low-growth economy despite all the Fed’s yeoman work. I know, I know … what blasphemy to suggest that monetary policy is not the end-all and be-all for creating economic growth! But there you go. At the very moment that elections hinge on the question of economic growth, we will get it. But until that moment, we won’t, no matter what the Fed does or doesn’t do.
What reshapes the electoral landscape such that an over-riding policy issue takes over? Historically speaking, it’s a huge external shock, like a war or a natural disaster, accompanied by a huge political shock, like the emergence of a new political party or charismatic leader that triggers an electoral realignment. In the US I think that the emerging appeal of national Libertarian candidates (all of whom, so far anyway, have the last name Paul) is pretty interesting. The 2016 election has the potential to be a watershed event and set up a realignment, if not in 2016 then in 2020, which hasn’t happened in the US since Ronald Reagan transformed the US electoral map in 1980. And yes, I know that the conventional wisdom is that a viable Libertarian candidate is wonderful news for the Democratic party, and maybe that will be the case, but both status quo parties today are so dynastic, so ossified, that I think everyone could be in for a rude awakening. It’s a long shot, to be sure, mainly because the US economy isn’t doing so poorly as to plant the seeds for a reshuffling of the electoral deck, but definitely interesting to watch.
What’s not a long shot – and why I think Draghi’s recently announced ABS purchase is a bridge too far – is a realigning election in Italy.
I like to look at aggregate GDP when I’m thinking about the strategic interactions of international politics, but for questions of domestic politics I think per capita GDP gives more insight into what’s going on. Per capita GDP gives a sense of what the economy “feels like” to the average citizen. It addresses Reagan’s famous question in the 1980 campaign with Jimmy Carter: are you better off today than you were four years ago? It’s a very blunt indicator to be sure, as it completely ignores the distribution of economic goodies (something I’m going to write a lot about in future notes), but it’s a good first cut at the data all the same. Here’s a chart of per capita GDP levels for the three big Western economies: the US, Europe, and Japan.
The Great Recession hit everyone like a ton of bricks, creating an output shock roughly equal to the impact of losing a medium-sized war, but the US and Japan have rebounded to set new highs. Europe … not so much.
Let’s look at Europe more closely. Here’s a chart of the big three continental European economies: Germany, France, and Italy.
Germany off to the races, France moribund, and Italy looking like it just lost World War III. I mean … wow. More than any other chart, this one shows why I think the Euro is structurally challenged.
First, why in the world would Germany change anything about the current Euro system? The system works for Germany, and how. Alone among major Western powers, the politics of growth are alive and well in Germany. “But Germany, unless you lighten up and embrace your common European identity, maybe this sweet deal for you evaporates.” Ummm … yeah, right. The history books are just chock-full of self-interested creditors with sweet deals that unilaterally made large concessions before the very last second (and often not even then).
Second, why in the world would Italy accept anything about the current Euro system? The system fails Italy, and how. The system fails other countries, too, like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, but these countries are in the Euro by necessity. Their economies are far too small to go it alone. Italy, on the other hand, is in the Euro by choice. Its economy is plenty big enough to stand on its own, and with a vibrant export potential, an independent and devalued lira is just what the doctor ordered to get the economic growth engine revved up. Short term pain, long term gain.
Why doesn’t Italy bolt? Lots of reasons, most of them identity related. Also, let’s not underestimate the power of cheap money to keep the puppet-masters of the Italian State in a Germany-centric system. The system may fail Italy as a whole, but if you’re pulling the strings of the State and can borrow 10-year money at 2.5% to keep your vita nice and dolce … well, let’s keep dancing.
Still, nothing focuses the electoral mind like the economic equivalent of losing a major war. At some point in the not so distant future there will be an anti-Euro realigning election in Italy.
In the meantime, Draghi will go forward with his ABS purchase scheme, a brilliant theory that will deliver frustratingly slim results quarter after quarter after quarter. Until the politics of growth are embraced outside of Germany, European banks will remain reticent to lend growth capital to small and medium enterprises. Until the politics of growth are embraced outside of Germany, large enterprises with plenty of cash and access to cheap loans will remain reticent to invest growth capital. Maybe a little M&A, sure, but no new factories, no organic expansion, no grand hiring plans. The thing is, Draghi knows that he’s pushing on a string with the ABS program and that growth won’t return until the fundamental political dynamic changes in France in Italy, which is why he is calling both countries out by name to institute “structural reforms”. But in typical European fashion this entire debate is Mandarin vs. Mandarin, with almost all of the proposals focused on regulatory reform rather than something that must be hashed out through popular legislation. So long as economic policy reform is imposed from above … so long as we are engaged in modern-day analogs of Soviet Five-Year Plans … I believe we will remain stuck in what I call the Entropic Ending – a long gray slog of disappointing but not catastrophic aggregate economic growth. That’s not a terrible environment for stocks, certainly not for bonds, and the alternative – economic reform based on the hurly-burly of popular politics, is almost certain to be a wild ride that markets hate. But to get back to what we need (real growth) rather than what we want (higher stock prices) this is what it’s going to take. Elections always matter, but in the Golden Age of the Central Banker they matter even more.