American Hustle

Irving Rosenfeld:   Did you ever have to find a way to survive and you knew your choices were bad, *but* you had to survive?

“American Hustle” (2013)

Only when I wake up in the morning. Nothing but caper movie quotes today. Seems appropriate.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-the-sting

Doyle Lonnegan: I put it all on Lucky Dan; half a million dollars to win.
Kid Twist: To win? I said *place*! “Place it on Lucky D-” That horse is gonna run second!
Doyle Lonnegan: [There is a pause, and Lonnegan runs horrified to the betting booth] There’s been a mistake! Gimme my money back!
― “The Sting” (1973)

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-gaga

I suspect there were more than a few Doyle Lonnegan moments in Silicon Valley and the Hamptons last Tuesday night. Here, for example, is Lady Gaga looking particularly distraught, as photographed in her Rolls Royce. No, really.

Wanda: [after Otto breaks in on Wanda and Archie in Archie’s flat and hangs him out the window] I was dealing with something delicate, Otto. I’m setting up a guy who’s incredibly important to us, who’s going to tell me where the loot is and if they’re going to come and arrest you. And you come loping in like Rambo without a jockstrap and you dangle him out a fifth-floor window. Now, was that smart? Was it shrewd? Was it good tactics? Or was it stupid?
Otto West: Don’t call me stupid.
Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?
Otto West: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.
“A Fish Called Wanda” (1988)

Gonna be lots of Ottos in this administration. I count three in cabinet-level appointments so far.


epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-the-grifters

Lilly Dillon: You’re working some angle, and don’t tell me you’re not because I wrote the book!
Roy Dillon: What about you? You still handling playback money for the mob?
Lilly Dillon: THAT’s me. That’s who I am. You were never cut out for the rackets, Roy.
Roy Dillon: How come?
Lilly Dillon: You aren’t tough enough.
Roy Dillon: Not as tough as you, huh?
Lilly Dillon: Get off the grift, Roy.
Roy Dillon: Why?
Lilly Dillon: You haven’t got the stomach for it.
“The Grifters” (1990)

Anjelica Huston’s best work. Worth watching just for Bobo and the oranges, hands down one of the most psychologically horrific scenes in American cinema. John Cusack plays Lily’s son, and she’s right: he doesn’t have the stomach for this line of work. Neither do a lot of portfolio managers.

Randolph Duke: Exactly why do you think the price of pork bellies is going to keep going down, William?
Billy Ray Valentine: Okay, pork belly prices have been dropping all morning, which means that everybody is waiting for it to hit rock bottom, so they can buy low. Which means that the people who own the pork belly contracts are saying, “Hey, we’re losing all our damn money, and Christmas is around the corner, and I ain’t gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip! And my wife ain’t gonna f… my wife ain’t gonna make love to me if I got no money!” So they’re panicking right now, they’re screaming “SELL! SELL!” to get out before the price keeps dropping. They’re panicking out there right now, I can feel it.
Randolph Duke: [on the ticker machine, the price keeps dropping] He’s right, Mortimer! My God, look at it!
“Trading Places” (1983)

Like any good trader, Billy Ray has internalized the Common Knowledge Game.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-trading-places

Louis Winthorpe III: Randolph. Mortimer.
Mortimer Duke: Winthorpe, my boy, what have you got for us?
Louis Winthorpe III: Well, it’s that time of the month again. Payroll checks for our employees, which require your signatures. And no forgetting to sign the big ones!
Mortimer Duke: We seem to be paying some of our employees an awful lot of money.
Louis Winthorpe III: [laughs] Can’t get around the old minimum wage, Mortimer.
“Trading Places” (1983)

Europeans take racial differences and put them on the dimension of class. Americans take class differences and put them on the dimension of race. Randolph and Mortimer do both.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-matchstick-men

Angela: She said you were a bad guy. You don’t seem like a bad guy.
Roy: That’s what makes me good at it.

Roy: For some people, money is … money is a foreign film without subtitles.
“Matchstick Men” (2003)

Nicolas Cage can act. When he wants to. Ridley Scott can direct. Always. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 90% of alpha is just showing up.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-oceans

Linus Caldwell: Um, all right, let’s go over the list again. Ah, “Swinging Priest”?
Basher Tarr: Not enough people.
Linus Caldwell: “Crazy Larry”?
Turk Malloy: Not enough people.
Linus Caldwell: “Soft Shoulder”?
Basher Tarr: Not enough people.
Linus Caldwell: “Baker’s Dozen”?
Basher Tarr: No woman
[pause]
Basher Tarr: and not enough people.
Turk Malloy: “Hell in a Handbasket”?
Linus Caldwell: [sigh] We can’t train a cat that quickly
[pause]
 Linus Caldwell:  and…
All: Not enough people.
“Ocean’s 12” (2004)

This is my new go-to line for every business or policy challenge: we can’t train a cat that quickly.

Basher Tarr: You don’t run the same gag twice … you run the next gag.
“Ocean’s 13” (2007)

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-steve-bannon

The only question that matters for surviving the next four years: what’s the gag they’re running on us? What’s the narrative they’re constructing? Behold Steve Bannon, gag-meister extraordinaire.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-trump-graffiti

Rusty Ryan: Turn the machine off guys.
Turk Malloy: It is off.
Rusty Ryan: Are you kidding?
Turk Malloy: Does it sound like I’m laughing, sweetheart?
“Ocean’s 13” (2007)

Sometimes when you fire up an earthquake machine, you get a real earthquake.

There are three questions I’d like to answer in this Epsilon Theory note: what did the Narrative Machine tell us about the market immediately before and immediately after the November 8 election, what am I preparing for now as an investor, and what am I preparing for now as a citizen? I’m giddy about the first, quietly confident about the second, and pretty darn depressed about the third. Could be worse, I suppose.

On the first question, the Narrative Machine gave clear, actionable, and non-consensus signals prior to the U.S. election last week. For readers who aren’t familiar with what I mean by the Narrative Machine, I’ll refer you to this note by the same title. In a nutshell, I’m using a technology called Quid to take Big Data snapshots of large numbers of financial media articles. These snapshots show the connectivity and influence of each article to every other article, constructing a neural network or “star map” of the narratives and meaning clusters that link the articles. By looking at measures of sentiment and connectivity associated with the network, I think that I can get a good sense of market complacency around events like a Trump victory, as well as the likely direction and magnitude of market moves if an event like that comes to pass. Bottom line: I think that the Narrative Machine gives us a good sense of what’s priced into markets.

Here’s the Quid map of Bloomberg articles talking about Trump in weeks T-5 through T-2.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-quid-bloomberg-trump-sentiment

The skinny: there was never any complacency in markets about a Trump win. There was negative sentiment, but no complacency. Maybe the Huffington Post thought there was only a 5% chance of a Trump win, but markets were taking it much more seriously than that.

Now here’s the Quid map of Bloomberg articles talking about Trump in the week immediately preceding the election.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-quid-bloomberg-trump

Still just as focused (the 7.6 score here is only slightly less attentive and concentrated than the 8.5 score of markets after the Brexit vote), but look at the sentiment score. We’ve moved from highly negative to only slightly negative. More to the point, it’s the change in score that’s really important, so this Narrative map is telling us that not only is a Trump victory priced into current market price levels, but if he were to win, the market wouldn’t go down much, if at all. That’s in sharp contrast to the consensus view (you know who you are), that not only was the market highly complacent about the prospects of a Trump win, but also that a Hillary defeat would be a disaster for markets, with projections for as much as 12% down.

My commitment to the Narrative Machine research project is to make it as public as possible. Mass email is a poor distribution method, so I tweeted about these findings on Monday, November 7 (@EpsilonTheory) and spoke about them on a Salient-hosted conference call on Tuesday, November 8. But I’m also managing portfolios for Salient now as part of the internal reorganization we announced in October, so I have a responsibility there, too. Long story short … follow me on Twitter to stay the most engaged with this project.

So what’s next for markets?

First, the positive market Narrative regarding tax repatriation, regulatory reform, and fiscal stimulus in the form of infrastructure spending is for real. And by “real”, I don’t mean that I have any confidence AT ALL that these policies will have any permanent effect or multiplier effect or anything like that on the real economy. Sorry. Maybe regulatory reform has a long-lasting impact. Maybe. No, by “real”, I mean that this policy “reform” is a highly effective signal in the Common Knowledge Game and that it will make stocks go up regardless of its impact (or not) on the real economy. Ain’t that enough? It’s enough for me. The Trump reform and infrastructure Growth Narrative is a tailwind for stocks and a headwind for bonds for the next four years because we want to Believe. True that.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-borgSecond, nothing about the Trump reform and infrastructure Growth Narrative is sufficient, in my view, to undo the overwhelmingly negative constraints that massive global debt places on global growth. The Silver Age of the Central Banker is still in full force,with a shrinking global trade pie and domestic political imperatives that accelerate that decline rather than reverse it. Competitive monetary policy is the Borg. First it swallows up currencies, because that’s what currencies are — a reflection of your country’s monetary policy versus other countries’ monetary policies. Then it swallows up commodities — things that don’t have their own cash flow dynamics. Then it swallows up entire economies and swaths of the markets that are levered to commodities — emerging markets in general and developed market segments like industrials, energy and transports in particular. Ultimately it all comes down to monetary policy, and its primary reflection in currencies. It’s the Borg. Resistance is futile.

Here’s an updated chart showing the massive negative correlation between the dollar and oil. This is the trade-weighted broad dollar index in white, as measured by the vertical axis on the left, and this is the inverted spot price of crude oil in green, as measured by the vertical axis on the right. The chart starts in June 2014, because that’s when competitive monetary policy and the Silver Age of the Central Banker begins, when Mario Draghi doubled down on ECB asset purchases and negative interest rates at the same time that Janet Yellen declared her intentions to raise interest rates and forswore more asset purchases.

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-quid-bloomberg-commodity

Source: Bloomberg, L.P. as of 11/8/16. For illustrative purposes only.

Yes, you get short-lived divergences in the lockstep negative correlation, first at the end of 2014 when OPEC announces that they’re out of the price-fixing game, and then again a month ago when OPEC announces that they’re back in the price-fixing game. The joke’s on OPEC. And global macro investors who still think that OPEC matters, I suppose, but mostly on OPEC. The half-life of whatever OPEC does or doesn’t do is measured in days … weeks at most. What is persistent, what is irresistible, what is the Borg in this equation is whether the dollar is going up or down.

The Trump reform and infrastructure Growth Narrative makes the dollar go up. If the Fed raises rates in December the dollar will go up still more. If you get a bad vote in Italy in a few weeks the dollar will go up still more. If you get any sort of geopolitical shock or U.S. domestic political craziness the dollar will go up still more. Dollar up is bad. Dollar down is good. I don’t know how to say it more plainly than that, and all the Belief in the world about tax reform and repealing Dodd-Frank and all that doesn’t change this reality. Maybe you see that and maybe you don’t. I can promise you, though, that China sees it.

So that’s where I am as an investor. I’m positive on U.S. equities because we’ve got a four year tailwind from the Trump reform and infrastructure Growth Narrative. That’s not going away no matter what China or Europe does. On the other hand, I’m negative on global risk assets, particularly anything connected to global trade finance, because we’re players in several giant games of Chicken and I think at least one of these is going to break bad. But at least I’m looking at the right things (I think), like what’s happening to the dollar and to European financial credit spreads, and that’s what gives me the hope that I can navigate these risks and these rewards. That and the ability to go short.

So I’m giddy about the potential of the Narrative Machine and I’m hopeful that I can maneuver through the investment storms out there. Why am I so down about American politics?

epsilon-theory-american-hustle-november-17-2016-cutlerWell, you gotta admit that this September Epsilon Theory note, “Virtue Signaling, or Why Clinton is in Trouble”, has aged pretty well. Turns out that Hillary Clinton was, in fact, the Jay Cutler of this election cycle, a highly talented but highly flawed performer whose team refused to sell out for her. I stand by everything I wrote in this piece — each candidate will be remembered in Common Knowledge as the Yoko Ono of their respective party, breaking up an all-time great band to make an album or two of dubious, to be generous, quality.

And that means I also stand by what I wrote about Donald Trump. I think he breaks us. Why? Because everything is a deal to Trump. Everything is a transaction, from a vote to a policy to a personal relationship. We all know people like this, men who — as the old Wall Street saying goes — would sell their mother for an eighth. Donald Trump transforms positive-sum Cooperative Games into zero-sum Competitive Games. It’s his nature … his great gift as a New York real estate developer, but his fatal flaw as a politician. Is he “a fighter”? Can he “get deals done”? Sure, and there’s value in that. But OUR great gift as Americans is that we are blessed with positive-sum Cooperative Games in the form of limited government and the political culture to maintain those limitations. Our political culture has been changed by Trump. The teacup has been broken. Can we glue it back? I suppose. But like a broken marriage or a broken partnership it’s never the same. It’s always a broken teacup.

I’m not saying that this broken political culture is Trump’s fault. Like I said, it’s his nature to transform everything he touches into a competitive strategic interaction. I can’t blame him any more than I can blame my Sheltie for barking at the wind. If you don’t want barking, don’t get a Sheltie. But the FACT is that we’ve got a Game Changer for our political culture as president, and there’s no walking that back.

Example: look at the prevalent Democratic meme today, that Trump voters were either motivated by racism directly, or that they willfully tolerated a racist candidate … which is just a paler shade of racism. Okay. I get the argument, although I would ask why Clinton didn’t get the support of working class white voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who voted for Obama twice. Were they racist all along and just hiding it really well? But leave aside the merits of the argument, because there’s no changing anyone’s mind these days on the merits of anything (which is kinda my point). My question is a different one. If you really believe this … if you believe in your heart of hearts that Trump voters are racists … where do you go with this? Or rather, what does politics mean to you now? Politics is no longer a “marketplace of ideas” if you think the other side is comprised of bad guys. You’re not trying to win them over. You’re trying to beat them. Not because you think you’re right (although you do), but because you think you MUST beat them or else your own survival is at stake. It’s not only a zero-sum Competitive Game; it’s a zero-sum Competitive Game of self-defense, which means that anything — anything! — goes.

I’m not trying to pick on the Democratic memes (although they’re such easy targets). You see exactly the same sort of popular Narratives on the Republican side about Democratic voters. To summarize this vast oeuvre, if you’re willing to vote for the evil Hillary and her coven of soul-devouring, child-stealing, gun-confiscating, tax-raising, war-starting warlocks and witches … well, you must either be a sheep or a thieving Team Elite wannabe. Either way, you’re contemptible. Contemptibles and Deplorables, not Democrats and Republicans. My point is that if you believe that the people on the other side of a political argument are not just wrong, but are basically bad people, then the meaning you ascribe to politics — your political culture — is entirely different than if you think the other side is comprised of basically good people. You don’t cooperate with bad people, and the political institutions you favor if you’re surrounded by bad people are very different — and very un-American, in the de Tocqueville-ian sense of that word — than what the Founders came up with.

Look, Trump is no Hitler — that’s Erdogan’s shtick — and Trump’s preening egomania is actually a good thing because it crowds out ideological fervor. I mean, he’s not building a political machine to instantiate His Hugeness in institutional form. But there will be people around him who will try, and unfortunately, if I were a betting man — and I am — I’d bet on them to succeed. The rewards are too great and the technological tools at their disposal are too powerful and the political culture is too conducive to the effort and if it’s not them it will be the Thermidorean political reaction of the Left, and that depresses the bejeezus out of me. True that, too.

But that’s the World As It Is, a world of incredible technological promise that thrills the puzzle-solver in me, a world of reasonably interesting market patterns that gives hope to the investor in me, and a world of ascendant soft authoritarians that chastens the small-l liberal in me. I don’t think I’m alone. Put it all together, and my attitude is perfectly summed up by the most perfect ending in all of American literature.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Onwards. Together. Please.

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16184/

Optical Illusion / Optical Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Nuff said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh wait, I wrote that. Good stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16276/

You Can Either Surf, or You Can Fight

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

– Apocalypse Now (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Bloomberg, January 2016.

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

But wait, there’s more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16344/

“Suddenly, Last Summer”

A quick Epsilon Theory email and a quick announcement. Announcement first. I’ll be giving a 1-hour webcast on Risk Premia strategies next Tuesday, August 4th, along with Salient President Jeremy Radcliffe and Salient Portfolio Manager Rob Croce, who knows more about the guts of these strategies than anyone should. The webcast qualifies for CE credit if you care about such things (and who doesn’t!) and is hosted by our friends at RIA Database. The catch … you have to be a professional investor / financial advisor to sign up. Sorry. For more information or to register for the webcast, check out: “Alternative Return Streams in Challenging Markets”

epsilon-theory-suddenly-last-summer-july-29-2015-suddenly

Dr. Cukrowicz: Mrs. Venable, loving your niece as you do, you must know there’s great risk in this operation. Whenever you enter the brain with a foreign object …
Mrs. Venable: Yes.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Even a needle thin knife.
Mrs. Venable: Yes.
Dr. Cukrowicz: In the hands of the most skilled surgeon …
Mrs. Venable: Yes, yes.
Dr. Cukrowicz: There is a great deal of risk.
Mrs. Venable: But it does pacify them. I’ve read that … it quiets them down. It suddenly makes them peaceful.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Yes, that it does do, but …
Mrs. Venable: But what?
Dr. Cukrowicz: Well, it will be years before we know if the immediate benefits of the operation are lasting or maybe just passing or perhaps … there’s a strong possibility that the patient will always be limited. Relieved of acute anxiety, yes, but limited.
Mrs. Venable: But what a blessing, Doctor, to be just peaceful. To be just suddenly peaceful. After all that horror. After those nightmares. Just to be able to lift up their eyes to a sky not black with savage devouring birds.

“Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)

I figure not one Epsilon Theory reader in a thousand has seen “Suddenly, Last Summer”, but let me tell you … it’s got everything. Katherine Hepburn in a phenomenal performance as bizarro Aunt Vi. Elizabeth Taylor cavorting in the surf. Montgomery Clift. Lobotomies. Pedophilia. Cannibalism. Honestly, it’s kind of what you would expect if Gore Vidal took a Tennessee Williams script and just went gonzo with it. Which, in fact, is exactly what happened.
The subtext, as with so much of Southern Gothic in general and Tennessee Williams in particular, is mendacity and its crushing psychological damage. I found this quote, where Katherine Hepburn is trying to convince Montgomery Clift to lobotomize Elizabeth Taylor so that she’d forget her former life and be less fearful and anxious … less volatile, in other words … to be an eerily apt description of what Central Bankers have tried to do with markets.
We endured an event last summer that, just as in the movie, ultimately brings all the mendacity out of the shadows and into the open. When Yellen declared last summer that the Fed had now firmly embraced a tightening bias, followed by the rest of the world declaring that they were doubling down on extraordinary monetary policy easing, the entire world was set on a path where all of the political fragmentation – all of the deep fissures within and between countries – would be inexorably revealed. Suddenly last summer, the mask of global monetary policy cooperation was ripped away, and the investment world will never be the same.
epsilon-theory-suddenly-last-summer-july-29-2015-bloomberg

Here are two Bloomberg charts that show what I mean. On the top is a 5-year chart of DXY – the trade-weighted dollar index. On the bottom is a 5-year chart of WTI crude oil spot prices. Does this look like an accidental relationship to you? Can we just stop with all the hand-wringing about how there’s suddenly too much oil in the world, or how the Saudis are trying to crush US shale production, or any of the other spurious supply-and-demand “explanations” for why oil prices have collapsed? Seriously. Can we just stop?

Monetary policy divergence manifests itself first in currencies, because currencies aren’t an asset class at all, but a political construction that represents and symbolizes monetary policy. Then the divergence manifests itself in those asset classes, like commodities, that have no internal dynamics or cash flows and are thus only slightly removed in their construction and meaning from however they’re priced in this currency or that. From there the divergence spreads like a cancer (or like a cure for cancer, depending on your perspective) into commodity-sensitive real-world companies and national economies. Eventually – and this is the Big Point – the divergence spreads into everything, everywhere. Some things will go up, and some things will go down. But the days of ALL financial assets inflating in lock-step … the days of everything, everywhere going up together … that’s over.

For a lot of active investment managers, this is great news. For a lot of politicians and central bankers – particularly the weaker ones, either in resources or in willpower (yes, I’m looking at you, Alexis Tsipras) – this is terrible news. For investors? Well, it’s a mixed bag. Certainly it’s a more difficult bag, where so many of the learned behaviors of the past five years that worked so well in an environment of monetary policy coordination will fail miserably in an environment of monetary policy competition. But it beats getting a lobotomy. I think. We’ll see.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16353/

Catch – 22

epsilon-theory-catch-22-january-12-2015-catch-22

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)

epsilon-theory-catch-22-january-12-2015-bohr

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)

Nothing’s changed.
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. 

epsilon-theory-catch-22-january-12-2015-eye

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.

epsilon-theory-catch-22-january-12-2015-coyote

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.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16226/

Narrative Uber Alles

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.”

That’s all true, and all supportive of today’s dominant Narrative that OPEC is broken and oil is now in free fall.

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.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16208/

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

epsilon-theory-we-now-return-to-our-regularly-scheduled-programming-december-5-2014-stand-by

Hilsenrath Analysis: Friday’s Jobs Report Assures Global Central Banks Going in Two Directions ― Wall Street Journal, December 5th, 9:59a ET

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.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16201/

Signs and Portents

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-the-omen

Young nanny: Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you.  

[she jumps off a roof, hanging herself] 
– “The Omen” (1976)  

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-bag-of-bones

When one has little faith, one must survive from day to day signs.

– Stephen King, “Bag of Bones” (1998)

epsilon-theory-signs-and-portents-december-1-2014-batman

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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”.
  4. 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.

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16194/

The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil

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

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

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

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

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

[pause]

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

― “Syriana” (2005) 

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

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

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

― Rene Magritte

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

– New York Times Crossword Puzzle, Saturday November 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF Download (Paid Membership Required):

http://www.epsilontheory.com/download/16188/