The Problem with Brussels Sprouts

I think it started in 2010.

Within six months of patient zero, they were everywhere. Every gastropub. Every upscale comfort food concept. Every ‘American Brasserie’ in a gentrifying neighborhood. Every farm-to-table that became an OK-maybe-a-little-Sysco-to-table after six months of food cost realities.

Brussels sprouts.

No, not the actual vegetable. That would be gross. No, I mean Brussels sprouts! These things that we quartered, soaked in olive oil and butter, bathed in salt and pepper and scorched until the memory of green was all that was left. These were things that, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire industry sold aggressively to a generation whose smell memory could still produce on command that acrid, metallic scent of unseasoned frozen sprouts being microwaved in water in a shallow Corningware dish – you know, the one with flowers or a cornucopia-style collection of earthy vegetables on the side?

Y’all, the only reason anyone orders this vomitous cabbage is because it is transformed into a cartoon of itself.

But hold that thought for a moment.


I had a colleague – now, sadly, passed away – who had a favorite expression: blue light, blue suit.

The idea behind the idiom was that the job of a fiduciary was not to blindly deliver what a client wanted, but what they needed. Still, one couldn’t get around the fact that clients want to be sold on what they want. If they want a blue suit, then give them a blue suit, dammit. But not an actual blue suit that would be wrong for them. Give them the gray suit they need – and shine a blue light on it if you have to.

I had a boss whose oft-used variant was the red convertible. Do your analysis, add whatever conclusions, bells and whistles you want, even take it up a notch. But the thing I get at the end of the day better at least look like a red convertible.

I met another wealth advisor once who favored a food-related analogy for the same concept. Investors need to eat their broccoli, he said, so figure out a way to make it taste good. It was, as you might imagine, a story offered in defense of investment policy statements which emphasized asset classes and strategies which (nominally, anyway) diversified home country equity risk. Heavy on foreign equities, alternatives, real assets, that kind of thing. After 10 years of S&P dominance, nobody really wanted them, but they needed them. The trick, he figured, was making the clients OK with getting the things they needed but didn’t really care about.

It occurs to me now, I suppose, that the food-related examples of this idea are overwhelmingly common. I know a CIO, for example, who characterized some of his firm’s strategies as hiding the pill in the cheese, a tactic immediately recognizable to any dog owner. It’s your job to give him what he needs, and it doesn’t matter how he gets it.

This is the heart of the meta-game of money management.

It is easy to see for those inside the industry why this meta-game playing is necessary. I hope that it is also easy for those same people to see how it might go very wrong. In practice, however, our own self-deception about why we sell investment advice in certain ways makes it far more difficult to detect. In the interest of circumventing that self-deception, let me offer another axiom:

There is no wealth management firm in the world for which investment expertise is a sustainable competitive advantage.

This is the Brussels sprouts are objectively gross statement of the story I am telling here. The only difference is that whereas some of you may have sufficiently bad food opinions to reasonably disagree with that statement, if you disagree with the above statement about investment expertise, I think you are probably just wrong.

If you think that the edge in your advice service is performance, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is investment selection, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is investment insight, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is uncovering new investment ideas, you are probably wrong. And yet, if prospective clients don’t believe that we can do each of these things, we will almost certainly fail to build a business. What’s worse, those prospective clients will do business instead with someone less scrupulous.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but the only reason we are usually hired is because we have been transformed into a cartoon of ourselves. A cartoon of relative expertise. A plate of Brussels sprouts, charred and covered with so much fat and salt as to be almost unrecognizable.

The inevitable path of the meta-game conscious financial adviser, then, is the creation of that cartoon of expertise. What does that cartoon look like? Well, we either celebrate some expertisey-sounding thing about our firm that really has nothing to do with expertise or the odds of any investment outcome, or we hold out the notion that something we are doing may be related to producing better investment results without exactly saying it.

We tout the home office’s resources.

We talk about the depth of our teams and resources.

We talk about team credentials.

We talk about our access to unique investments.

We talk about our ESG framework.

We talk about our research, our data, our analyst team.

We talk about our process.

We turn ourselves into a talking head. An expert.

In each of these cases, we may not say that these traits are definitely or explicitly related to better investment outcomes, but the reason we cultivate them and talk about them is absolutely to satisfy the client’s desire to hire a financial adviser with the most investment expertise. It is how we create a cartoon about our expertise, knowing full well that the client will associate that with their expected investment outcomes.

So if you’re a financial adviser, here’s the question you’ve probably asked yourself more than once: is this honest? Is it fair and good and right to heavily emphasize things in marketing that aren’t false, but which don’t really matter that much to the client’s outcomes, simply because we know the prospect or client cares about them? Does the fact that we really are delivering a very credible, high quality advice product at a really competitive fee that is far better than what the charlatans and churn artists out there are pitching mean that we can feel less bad about mentioning our amazing stock guy who’s had a great run the last few years ? Or the fact that our US-tilted portfolios outperformed our peer RIA across town, even though our positioning reflected bad diversification hygiene and our results reflected simple good fortune?

There’s a lot of salt and butter on those Brussels sprouts, y’all. These are hard questions. I don’t have an answer. But I do have a process: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts.  

Clear eyes: There’s no way around it. We have got to talk about these things. Our clients are grown-ups, and don’t deserve our condescension. Yes, we’ve gotta have a page in our deck with the team’s years of experience and degrees. Yes, it’s OK to talk about our process and why we think it works. Yes, it’s OK to talk about historical client outcomes, provided we’re doing it in a seriously, honestly, humbly non-promissory (and compliant) way.

Full hearts: No, we don’t have to build our entire proposition on a cartoon of relative expertise. We don’t have to treat clients like children, but we also don’t have to treat them like marks. I think that means emphasizing, not just in marketing but in practice, the elements of financial and investment expertise that are real, important and rare. I can think of six:  

  1. Identifying and consistently reevaluating and delivering the right level of risk.
  2. Delivering a nuanced, real understanding of diversification.
  3. Really influencing household expense management.
  4. Financial, estate, tax and philanthropy management.
  5. Business consulting for entrepreneurs and business owners.
  6. Structuring investments to properly complement existing illiquid holdings.

The more important truth, of course, is that the single most important thing an adviser can deliver isn’t any of these things. It isn’t a question of investment expertise at all. It’s…well…advice. When risk appetites are high, restraining exuberant behaviors. When risk appetites are low, restraining fearful behaviors. And in all cases, working constantly to ensure that when these times arise, we have the kind of relationship and trust with our clients that will make them listen. The relationship is the thing. And while I’m not saying that you, individual FA, don’t have a couple relationships that are strong enough to withstand a pretty rough go of it, I think we all need to be pretty clear-eyed about how much of these relationships will boil down over time to the perception of the results we produce.

I am also not saying that you should not earnestly try to outperform peers. I believe that there are behaviorally-driven strategies that will (nearly) always work over sufficiently long periods, even if those periods do seem to be getting, ahem, a bit longer. I believe that there are inefficiencies driven by non-economic actors in a variety of financial markets that can create opportunities with uncorrelated sources of return. I believe that there are changes in the structure of markets that occur from time to time that can create periodic sources of return. Ben and I spend half our time on these things, for God’s sake.

But they can’t be the fundamental value proposition. Not for someone who wants to do this the right way. Control your cartoon, but don’t let it turn you into a raccoon.

Mailbag: A Modern Vocational Curriculum

Few topics seem to arouse the kind of interest, creativity and occasional rancor as our diversions into higher education. When we wrote about a vocational curriculum that we thought would do a far better job achieving the true professional preparation aims of a mixed post-secondary educational system, we received a lot of thoughtful comments – enough that it made sense to make sure all of our readers saw them:

Interesting selection. You might be interested to know that something very similar (https://lambdaschool.com/) already exists. I have no association with them, other than working with some graduates and recommending people send their kids there as opposed to University. There are a couple of changes:
1. Students pay no tuition until the graduate and get a job that pays $50K plus/year.
2. The annual amount they pay is charged as a percentage of their salary and is capped both in what’s paid in a year (I think around $17K) and in total (I think its around $30).
3. There is testing to get in.
4. It is based around software engineering.
5. The program takes 9 months to complete.
6. Lambda school is incentivized to get the students jobs, though there is more demand for graduates than there are graduates.

I can attest that their graduates are excellent.

– Andrew Meyer (ET Subscriber, via website)

We are big fans of Lambda . That said, it is a software development-focused program, whereas we think the problem it would solve is much larger. Still, both our theoretical solution and the solution Lambda is actually pursuing are both incapable of solving the credentialing problem on their own. This is a demand-side problem (w/r/t labor), not a supply side problem.

I’ll add an anecdote from my earlier years…..I knew a Burmese family that was rather wealthy – the men told me that as part of their social education, they had to spend one month as Buddhist monks , and beg for food on the streets every day . Regardless of the fact that they lived in big houses with multiple servants or that their parents drove expensive European cars.
The idea – to teach them humility ……
Of course, they cheated by asking friends and relatives to give them food every day but I thought the original concept – humility – was a good one.

– Cartoox (ET Subscriber, via website)

One of the primary challenges of the American public school setting, I think, is its inability to cultivate humility. The entire experience teaches most students that strident confidence is the path to success. In fairness, that is ONE path to a form of financial success in some professions, but the kind of self-introspection and honesty necessary to achieve more meaningful forms of success don’t come easily to those who (like me) were educated in environments where maximizing relative comparisons was the most immediately profitable path.

I could quibble in detail and pick nits around the edges, but my first reaction is that I wish that had been there for me. This would change the world, and it got me wanting to start a school.

– Howard Wetsmann (ET Subscriber, via website)

Thanks, Howard. Me too.

This is stellar. I’d add a module on design/aesthetics and probably pull the calculus. Just a tiny bit of design training makes a world of difference in almost every aspect of business.

– Brent Beshore (Via Twitter)

I struggled over this exact thing. I don’t know that I’d swap out calculus (it’s a hill I’ve chosen to die on, for better or worse), but Brent is right – design is huge. The ability to frame an idea in words is powerful. The ability to frame it in visuals is no less powerful, and in some circumstances even more indispensable.

If this was your reaction, too, I probably agree with you.

You inspired me to take a stab at this myself, @EpsilonTheory: (link: https://blog.dthomason.com/a-better-vocational-curriculum-for-university/) blog.dthomason.com/a-better-vocat…. Quite similar to @WRGuinn‘s answer, but with a bit more focus on meta-skills. Interested in your thoughts!

– Daniel Thomason (Via Twitter)

Please take a look at Daniel’s link.

There are some things here with which I’m in violent agreement, and a few which I’m not sure about. Most notably, Daniel’s list is high on meta-skills, as he points out, which I think is spot on in terms of what leads to professional, financial and personal success. These are things like ‘discipline’, ‘decision-making’ and the like.

When we consider education, however, I personally think that we must separate what is important from what a formal direct educational platform is the best venue to convey. I agree with Daniel, for example, that personal discipline, self-control and decision-making processes are going to be far greater indicators of success than whether you remember the derivation of Black-Scholes. Where I differ, perhaps, is that I think that these are skills that are best developed in live workplace situations. Entry-level professional projects have a comparative advantage vs. formal education in developing them, and I would not focus on them in a vocational program. Your mileage may vary, however – just my take.

I’d add a course in ethics. I took an ethics course in biz school that was revealing. The class was mostly mock situations wherein collaboration produced a satisfactory result, but individual promise breakers came out better. Everyone needs to know how it feels to be cheated.

– George Hill (Via Twitter)

Unfortunately, everyone will learn how it feels to be cheated pretty quickly in their career.

This is a similar point to the one I would make to Daniel: much of what we teach is based on what we believe is important, even if the setting isn’t one that will most effectively convey the lesson. Unlike Daniel’s point, however, I think that ethical behavior is a thing which – if it isn’t clear by the time someone has graduated high school – is probably either unlikely to be grasped at all or which has been very consciously ignored by the student. In either case, post-secondary instruction doesn’t seem as useful to me.

If reinforcement is useful, it will be in assuring young professionals that there is a path to financial success and opportunity that permits reciprocity and full heart behavior. Again, however, I think that is a thing that can only be learned in practical settings.

Get Up and Dance

That line about dancing by Chuck Prince is the perfect quote for any age and any asset class where institutions intentionally take risks they know are foolish, but risks they believe are manageable because there’s a greater fool looking to get on the dance floor after them.

The greater fool theory is the driving force behind the bid for negative-yielding debt, whether it’s European government bonds or European investment grade corporate debt . . .

 

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Every Shot Must Have a Purpose

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I rather enjoy playing golf. But there’s no denying golf is infested with raccoons trying to sell you stuff. Swing trainers. Special clubs. Systems “guaranteed” to lower your handicap.

This ranges from the oversold…

…to the utterly ridiculous.

Not to mention a fair bit of coattail riding on anyone with an aerospace engineering background.

Golf’s a lot like investing that way. And a lot like life, for that matter. Once I realized this, I began to enjoy the game much more, as an exercise in both mental and physical discipline.

Any progress I’ve made on that front, I credit first and foremost to the book Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, by Pia Nilsson, Lynn Marriott and Ron Sirak. It’s rather critical of current methods of golf instruction and training—particularly of what the authors see as an overemphasis on technical mechanics at the expense of player psychology. Early on, they write:

This is where honesty comes into play. The first step toward expanding our perception of the game in general and reaching a better understanding of our own game in particular is to face reality. If that bad swing was caused because you tensed up under pressure, hitting a million practice balls won’t fix the problem.

Rather than the minutiae of swing mechanics, or gimmicky shortcuts, you’re better off focusing on:

  • Course strategy and risk management
  • Shot commitment
  • Focus and tempo

We see this in investing, too. Particularly when we’re investing other people’s money. The most grievous portfolio construction issues I see inevitably seem to center on basic issues of strategy and commitment. Particularly around whether a portfolio should be built to seek alpha or simply harvest beta(s). 

You don’t have to shape your shots every which way and put crazy backspin on the ball to break 90 in golf. Likewise, not every portfolio needs to, or even should, strive for alpha generation.

There are few things more destructive (or ridiculous) you can witness on a golf course than a 20 handicap trying to play like a 5 handicap. And it’s the same with portfolios. For example, burying a highly concentrated, high conviction manager in a 25 manager portfolio at a 4% weight. Or adding a low volatility, market neutral strategy to an otherwise high volatility equity allocation at a 2% weight. (See: Chili P is My Signature

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest very few financial advisors and allocators build portfolios capable of generating meaningful amounts of alpha. The hallmarks of portfolios purpose-built for alpha generation are concentration and/or leverage.

The hallmark of a portfolio lacking strategic direction and commitment, on the other hand, is optical diversification that rolls up into broad market returns (more pointedly: broad market returns less expenses).

I’m absolutely not arguing every portfolio should be highly concentrated. Or that every portfolio should use leverage. I’m merely arguing that portfolios should be purpose-built, with portfolio construction and manager selection flowing logically from that purpose. 

How is it we end up with portfolios that are not purpose-built?

We don’t commit to the shot.

Nilsson, Mariott and Sirak describe a textbook golf example:

Patty Sheehan, the LPGA Hall of Fame player, was playing the final hole of a tournament when she needed to hit a fairway wood second shot to a green protected by water on a par-5 hole. A birdie was essential to play in contention, and the possibility of an eagle was a chance she had to take. What resulted, however, was her worst swing of the day–in fact, probably one of the worst swings she ever made in competition—and she cold topped the shot. As the ball bounded down the fairway and into the creek short of the green, she watched her chances of winning disappear with it. […]

[T]he TV commentators missed the point. If they wanted to run a meaningful replay they should have shown the tape of the indecision BEFORE Sheehan hit the shot. First she had her hand on a fairway wood, then she stepped away from the ball and her caddie handed her an iron. Then she went back to the fairway wood. The indecision in the shot selection led to a lack of commitment during the shot. The poor swing resulted from poor thinking.

For an investment committee, the rough equivalent is the four-hour meeting that results in a 50 bps change (from 4.50% to 5.0%) to the emerging markets weight in the Growth model portfolio.

At best you are rearranging deck chairs with these kinds of moves.

Granted, when it comes to investing some of us will have a more difficult time managing shot commitment than others. For the self-directed individual, this is simply a matter of managing your own behavior. Advisors and institutions, on the other hand, must manage other people’s behavior, often in group settings.

There’s no easy solution to this issue. It can be fiendishly difficult to manage. But there’s at least one essential precondition for shot commitment in investing and that’s a shared investment philosophy. A code.

I’m not talking about the obligatory investment philosophy slide of everyone’s investor deck that’s included to pay lip service to a “process orientation.” I’m talking about genuine philosophical alignment. The kind of philosophical alignment that runs deep into the marrow of the decision makers’ bones and therefore permeates every aspect of portfolio design and management.

What does this look like in practice?

More time spent on philosophical discussions around persistent sources of returns and, more importantly, whether the investor(s) can credibly access them.

Significantly less time spent on chasing shiny objects, debating the merits of individual investment manager performance and statistical rankings of investment manager performance. (In fact, it’s okay to spend basically no time on this at all)

Significantly more time spent on managing the alignment of expectations across investment professionals, clients and other stakeholders in an accessible, plain-language manner. 

This is fairly straightforward in principle, but extremely challenging to execute.



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The Spanish Prisoner

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It’s an interesting setup, Mr. Ross. It is the oldest confidence game on the books. The Spanish Prisoner. Fellow says him and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the home country. He got out, girl and the money stuck in Spain. Here is her most beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl. Oldest con in the world.

– David Mamet “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997)

Mark Zuckerberg is not The Spanish Prisoner. He’s the guy running the con.


Seven or eight years ago, I was on a commuter flight, sitting in an aisle seat. Two rows ahead of me, across the aisle on my right, a guy was arguing with his wife/girlfriend. It wasn’t a ferocious argument, but any sort of personal disagreement is noticeable in these circumstances, and it had been simmering since I noticed them boarding the plane.

There were two other things I noticed when they sat down. The wife/girlfriend had the husband/boyfriend’s name – Randy – tattooed on the back of her neck, and Randy had the letters T – R – U – S – T tattooed on the fingers of his left hand. I remember smiling to myself when I saw this. Obviously these two were from a very different background than me, but I really appreciated the public display of commitment they had made by getting these tattoos. I remember thinking to myself that I bet their relationship was a strong one, even though the disagreement seemed to simmer throughout the flight.

The plane landed and we all stood up. And then I saw the letters tattooed on Randy’s right hand.

N – O – O – N – E

All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this guy’s name wasn’t Randy. All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this relationship wasn’t likely to last.

I feel like I have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands today, and if you’ve been working in finance for more than 10 years, I bet you feel exactly the same way.

Used to work for Bear? I know you feel this way.

Used to work for Lehman? I know you feel this way.

Used to work for Citi? I know you feel this way.

Used to work for Merrill? I know you feel this way.

Used to work for Deutsche Bank? I know you feel this way.

Yeah, we’ve all got these tattoos today. We have them as a reminder, as a figurative reminder (or literal in the case of “Randy”), that we really really really shouldn’t trust anyone AGAIN.

Because we need a reminder. Because we want to trust again.

Jimmy Dell: I think you’ll find that if what you’ve done for them is as valuable as you say it is, if they are indebted to you morally but not legally, my experience is they will give you nothing, and they will begin to act cruelly toward you.

Joe Ross: Why?

Jimmy Dell: To suppress their guilt.

– David Mamet “The Spanish Prisoner” (1997)

Jimmy Dell is the con man in the 1997 David Mamet movie, played by Steve Martin in his finest dramatic role. In lines like above and below, Jimmy builds a personal trust with the mark by calling his attention to the lack of trust in business relationships. Effective consultants do this a lot, speaking of confidence games.

Jimmy Dell: Always do business as if the person you’re doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he’s not, you can be pleasantly surprised.

That’s the thing about the Spanish Prisoner con. It doesn’t work on saints. It doesn’t work on people who forgive and forget, who turn the other cheek and have an unending reservoir of faith in their fellow humans. It also doesn’t work on sociopaths. It doesn’t work on people who truly trust no one, who can lie to themselves and others without consequence or remorse.

The Spanish Prisoner con works best on smart and accomplished people who think they have TRUST NO ONE figuratively tattooed on their hands, who think they’re too clever to be fooled again, but end up only being too clever by half.

The Spanish Prisoner con works best on coyotes.

Who is a coyote? A coyote is a clever puzzle-solver who really has the best of intentions. Who really wants to be successful for the right reasons. Who really wants to accomplish something of meaning in the world. Who is smart and aware and nobody’s fool. Who has been beaten up professionally a bit and has a healthy skepticism about the business and political world.

And who is just a little bit on the make. 

The defining characteristic of the Spanish Prisoner con is that the mark believes he is doing well while doing good. The mark believes that he is doing the right thing, that he’s the good guy in this story. And if the liberated Prisoner is financially grateful, or if the Prisoner’s sister is grateful in her own way if you know what I mean and I think you do … well, that seems only fair, right?

Now the Spanish Prisoner doesn’t have to be an actual person that needs rescuing. That’s a con for the rubes. The Spanish Prisoner is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – anything that serves as an Object of Desire for the mark, anything that motivates the mark and furthers the narrative arc of the con.

In fact, the most effective MacGuffins are rarely simple signifiers of wealth like an rich Spanish dude. No, the most compelling Spanish Prisoners are Big Ideas like social justice or making America great again or resisting the Man. That’s what gets a coyote’s juices going. Especially if there’s also a pot of gold associated with being on the right side of that Big Idea.

The most successful con operators are the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy. Why? Well, partially because you’ve gotta have some heft to credibly commit to rescuing a Big Idea from the clutches of whatever Big Baddie has it now. But mostly because running the con for money is just thinking waaaay too small.

The Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy don’t need your money. They already have it!

The con here is to gain your trust – again – so that you willingly hand over your autonomy of mind. So that you accept without thought or reflection the naturalness of your current relationship to the State and the Oligarchy.

You’d never fall for this con if it were part of a straightforward commercial arrangement like a job or a purchase. Please! You’re much too savvy for that. You have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on your hands, remember?

But for the chance to help rescue a Big Idea …

But for the chance to make a few bucks or enjoy yourself a bit more as part of doing the right thing …

There’s not a coyote in the world that can resist that bait. And that’s why once you start looking for the Spanish Prisoner con, you will see it everywhere.

Libra, the cryptocoin promoted by Facebook, is a Spanish Prisoner con.

What’s the Big Idea? Why it’s banking the unbanked. It’s facilitating cross-border remittances. It’s bringing the benefits of crypto to the global masses. ALL OF THIS IS TRUE. So far as it goes.

And if it facilitates e-commerce along the way? if it’s possible to make a few bucks or enjoy some greater conveniences as part of Facebook and its partners executing on this Big Idea? Well, what’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that this is how Bitcoin dies.

This is how a censorship-embracing coin replaces a censorship-resistant coin. This is how the State and the Oligarchy co-opt crypto. Not with the heel of a jackboot. But with the glamour of convenience and narrative.

And in a few years it will all seem so natural to you.

Using government-approved electronic money will be the water in which you and your children swim. You will not be able to imagine a world where a censorship-embracing coin is not everywhere.

Yay, capitalism!

Libra was designed to co-opt Bitcoin.

Libra was designed to allow government oversight over your economic transactions.

Libra was designed to provide a transparent regulatory window and control mechanism over your money.

Libra was designed for Caesar.

From the Libra consortium:

This is why we believe in and are committed to a collaborative process with regulators, central banks, and lawmakers to ensure that Libra helps with the kind of issues that the existing financial system has been fighting, notably around money laundering, terrorism financing, and more. At the core, we believe that a network that helps move more cash transactions – where a lot of illicit activities happen – to a digital network that features regulated on and off ramps with proper know-your-customer (KYC) practices, combined with the ability for law enforcement and regulators to conduct their own analysis of on-chain activity, will be a big opportunity to increase the efficacy of financial crimes monitoring and enforcement.

“Boo, terrorists!”

A year from now, the narrative story arc regarding “criminal activity” through cash transaction networks AND censorship-resistant transaction networks like Bitcoin will be louder, not softer. In three years, it will be deafening.

Libra and its e-commerce convenience, together with its Big Idea skin of helping The Poors … that’s the carrot.

The “Boo, terrorists! narrative … that’s the stick.

Will Bitcoin itself be outlawed? Maybe. But I really doubt it. It’s too useful as a societal steam valve, now that we’ve got Libra and (soon) other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-supported cryptos in circulation.

What does Bitcoin become in a world where state-approved e-money is in wide circulation?

It becomes an act of effete rebellion, like a non-threatening tattoo on your upper arm that you can cover up with a shirt if you like.

Bitcoin becomes a signifier of Resistance rather than a tool of Resistance.

Owning Bitcoin will make you a Bad Boy! or a Bad Girl! … a safe malcontent that the Nudging State and Nudging Oligarchy are delighted to preserve.

What’s my message to the true-believers who continue to see Bitcoin as a tool for Resistance?

For the next fifty years, you get to play the role of the grumpy old man yelling at clouds.

You know, the role that gold true-believers got to play for the past fifty years.

It’s a miserable way to live.

It’s a miserable way to live for two reasons.

First, and most crucially, this role that the Nudging State is laying out for you is steeped in negative energy. You will find yourself rooting for catastrophe. You will find yourself hoping for decline and collapse. You will find yourself conflating justice with loss and comeuppance. You will take on sadness and schadenfreude as your resting psychic state. Trust me when I say that I know of which I speak. Negative energy is deadly. That is not a figurative statement. It will literally kill you.

Second, you’ll be infested by raccoons, which will be tolerated if not encouraged by regulators, in exactly the same way they are tolerated if not encouraged by regulators in gold-world. Sure, you’ll have the occasional show trial of egregiously aggressive security frauds and Crypto-Funded Criminals ™, but the run of the mill hucksters and con men will walk with impunity.

Because this is what ALWAYS happens.

The money quote from Too Clever By Half:

And that brings me to what is personally the most frustrating aspect of all this. The inevitable result of financial innovation gone awry, which it ALWAYS does, is that it ALWAYS ends up empowering the State. And not just empowering the State, but empowering the State in a specific way, where it becomes harder and harder to be a non-domesticated, clever coyote, even as the non-clever, criminal raccoons flourish.

That’s not an accident. The State doesn’t really care about the raccoons, precisely because they’re NOT clever. The State — particularly the Nudging State — cares very much about co-opting an Idea That Changes Things, whether it changes things in a modest way or massively. It cares very much about coyote population control.

It’s all about coyote population control. It always is.

Is there a way out of this for Bitcoin? No. Co-option by the State and Oligarchy was the Doom of Bitcoin from the beginning.

I mean … I say “Doom” like it’s going to be hurled into the fires of Mordor, but that’s not it at all. There will still be true-believers and raccoons alike generating tradable narratives. You’ll still be able to make money by trading Bitcoin on these narratives (and altcoins, too, I’d expect, although I have no idea how you generate a compelling altcoin narrative these days).

It’s not like Bitcoin is going to go away.

But Bitcoin is going to be permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Libra and other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing crypto currencies. Bitcoin will never again mean what it used to mean.

You know … just like gold was permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing fiat currencies. Just like gold will never again mean what it used to mean.

I wrote this note six years ago. It was the first Epsilon Theory note to get widespread recognition. You’ll see hints – more than hints, actually – of all the big ET themes over the past few years, particularly The Three-Body Problem.

The core of this note is a quote by Bob Prince, Bridgewater’s co-CIO and an actual prince of a guy. I just think he’s wrong when he says this:

The relationships of asset performance to growth and inflation are reliable – indeed, timeless and universal – and knowable, rooted in the durations and sources of variability of the assets’ cash flows.

I think Bob Prince is wrong in exactly the same way that JP “Jupiter” Morgan was wrong when he said this:

Gold is money. Everything else is credit.

If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this:

There are no timeless and universal relationships between asset performance and ANYTHING.

The only determinant of price for a non-cash-flowing thing is Narrative. Actually, the only determinant of price for a cash-flowing thing is Narrative, too, but we can save that argument for another day. And what I am saying about these non-cash-flowing things is this:

The introduction of Libra changes the Bitcoin narrative in exactly the same way that the introduction of fiat currency changed the gold narrative. And by change I mean crush.

That makes me sad. That makes me angry. I am convinced that it is part and parcel of a Spanish Prisoner con game. But I refuse to give into the negative energy of that realization AND I refuse to give up on the Big Ideas that I believe in.

So what do I do?

I con the con man.

I know what Mark and Sheryl and all the other Davos-going Team Elite sociopaths are about.

I see what they are offering me and I TAKE it. Without hesitation. Without remorse. I take it just as they are trying to take from me … in full sociopathic bloom.

And what do I give them in return?

NOTHING.

Do I care about banking the unbanked and cross-border remittances? Yes, I do. Very much. So I will TAKE the protocols and the KYC procedures and everything else Libra offers, and I will USE all of that to further the social justice goals that I maintain. And they will get NOTHING from me in return. I will keep my autonomy of mind. I do NOT forget what they are trying to steal from me. I do not ALLOW them to steal that from me.

I refuse to give them my trust.

And I will look for every opportunity to destroy their Little Kingdom.

Seriously.

Do I really have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands? No.

I trust lots of people. I trust my pack.

But Mark and Sheryl and Christine and Jay and Donald and Barack are not in my pack. And they never will be.

Trust no one? No.

I just don’t trust THEM.

Take back your vote.

Take back your distance.

Take back your data.

It’s that simple. And that difficult.

As wise as serpents. As harmless as doves.


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Life in the Gyre

I been watchin’ you watchin’ her watchin’ herself in the mirror.

High Tone Woman, from Somewhere Down in Texas by George Strait (2005)

I wanted to write something about Andy Ngo.

Andy is an independent journalist who was badly beaten by members of Antifa last weekend. He writes for Quillette, a provocative, liberal centrist publication that you will probably see (oddly) described as conservative. His public actions haven’t made him a saint in the eyes of everyone, but he didn’t deserve to be physically assaulted.

I wanted to write about how most media outlets weren’t talking about the attack in the way they would if Ngo’s politics were different. Because that’s how it felt to me. So I looked at our database of media coverage of other attacks on journalists that have taken place in the last year or so.

What I felt to be true, well, wasn’t.

Clear eyes. The attack on Andy – in no small part because of the graphic video capturing it – has gotten more coverage in the first three days of its aftermath than almost any attack on a journalist in the United States in 2019. More than coverage of journalists in D.C. being knocked down by Capitol Police, or a longtime Sacramento Bee cameraman receiving similar treatment. More than a journalist who took similar injuries from objects flying out of a car (hurled with epithets) when covering dueling pro-choice / pro-life rallies. More than the recent injuries to journalists covering the Memphis police protests. In fact, the only event in 2019 with comparable coverage was the attack on the press pool – and a BBC cameraman in particular – at a Trump rally in February.

We will be the first to say that quantity of coverage isn’t necessarily what is most important. Is there a cohesive narrative indicative of a collaborative desire of missionaries to tell readers how to think about this event? Can we spot the affected language we call Fiat News – opinions parading as fact – in news stories about it? Is there a detectable bias embedded in the qualities of the language used to discuss this event relative to similar ones? Yes. Yes. And yes.

And while demonstrating each of those things is what drew me to the topic, when I saw the narrative structure, it wasn’t what struck me. What jumped out at me was just how much of the coverage of this issue was about others’ response to coverage of the issue. In other words, more than just about any topic we have researched, somebody looking for news about these events was just as likely to instead find ‘news’ that would tell them how the curious case of Andy Ngo was really a symbol of virulent right-wing whataboutism equating childish antics to Nazism, or how it was really an example of mainstream left-wing hypocrisy and indifference to violence and bad behavior if perpetrated against the ‘right kind’ of people. And then it was media outlets trumpeting the content of media outlets making the opposite claim. In other words, if you felt what I felt and wanted to have a mirror engagement with the confirmatory story, or a rage engagement with the people getting it wrong, you had a host of articles to choose from.

How many?

By our estimate, roughly 40% of the 273 articles in our data set written about Andy Ngo between June 29th and July 1st have principally been about the coverage of the event and responses to that coverage by other outlets and people.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Missionaries have been shaking their fingers at us to tell us how to think about issues for a long time now. That is not new. But increasingly, what we are being told isn’t just how to think about issues. We are being told what other people think, how others are covering the events and how everyone else is all wrong. We aren’t even allowed to figure how we’re going to start fighting about some dumb thing. By the time we’ve read a single fact about a story, the ring is built, our gloves on, Michael Buffer already halfway to his car, and the bell still ringing.

It isn’t that there isn’t truth in these claims. I still believe personally that most large outlets were aggressively dismissive of Ngo’s victimhood for political reasons, and I think there’s substantial evidence in language of their coverage to indicate it. I think a lot of people of a different political persuasion would still think – in good faith – that it is ridiculous that we are even talking about this when psychotic, racist white nationalists are out there running people over.

The problem is that when the information we consume ceases to be information about things that happened, and is transformed into information about how important people perceived those things or how the other side is being hypocritical about their coverage or opinions of those things, we descend another layer into the Panopticon – watching the crowd, watching the crowd watch itself. The more of this kind of information we unwittingly consume, the more we unwittingly live our lives in a world in which our reality is defined by the second and third levels of the Common Knowledge Game. Even when we think – even when we know that we are right.

We can’t avoid being in the Widening Gyre. But we can avoid being of it.


It’s not all political theatre.

Let me give you an example. When I was preparing this essay, the New York Times was so sure that I needed to see this article that they paid for the pleasure of putting it on my screen:

What is it?

Well, it’s a promoted tweet from last year, which probably means that the New York Times has a marketing and social media department that has determined that paying for 30-something dads who search for “real metal Tonka trucks” and “foam airplanes with long wings” on Amazon and post dad jokes on Twitter to see this article has a positive ROI.

The article itself, of course, includes zero descriptions of how parenting is any different from what it used to be. The descriptions are of how specific parents have said that they feel they have to do different things for one reason or another. This isn’t the kind of Fiat News we’d usually see in your classic feature piece, trying to guide in a newsesque way in how you think about some Big Social Issue. Instead, it’s news that provides you with reminders that this is how other people are thinking correctly about this.

It sounds melodramatic, but under any reasonable interpretation, the New York Times is literally trying to sell subscriptions to parents by preying on their fear that they will miss an article that will tell them how other parents are defining what parents are supposed to do. It’s a less obtrusive version of Black Mirror’s Fifteen Million Merits, with more nudges and less Big Brother. Click-bait, sure, but more subtle and far more powerful. Don’t mute your audio, or else you’ll be subject to a penalty.

Image result for fifteen million merits don't look away

But no, it also isn’t always gentle nudges. The media-as-principal has determined that vanilla Fiat News isn’t enough, that guiding how you think will be most effective by telling you how other people are thinking about things, how they are getting it wrong, etc. The pattern is everywhere.

It is evident in the editorial selection of news articles and how they are written. Here, for 2015-2018, are the percentages of articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Huffington Post – the most socially important left-leaning news publications in the US – which specifically reference Fox News.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Fox itself, probably as influential and powerful in right-leaning circles as each of those outlets combined in their own milieu, is selling the same thing. The growth is not so dramatic, but part of that is – I think – because the narrative of a general left-wing bias in media was already well-established as the network’s raison d’etre.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

What does this mean? It means that, relative to only four years ago, you are twice (or more) as likely to encounter a ‘news’ article telling you what tragedy the opposing political side isn’t treating the same as they did a different one, a response ‘news article’ which snidely references the first with as many scare quotes as possible, and then a set of third articles which just cover all of the most virulent social media posts the dueling articles spawned.

Oh, think that last one was a throwaway joke?

Yeah, that’s happening, too.

If your response to this is, “Yeah, but that’s just reflective of growth in Twitter and social media in general – it’s just an indication that it is being embraced more broadly by public figures,” well, yeah, no kidding. Y’all, the point isn’t necessarily to convince you that people are doing something wrong here. It’s to show that this is happening. To argue that we can stop predicting and start observing. Some statement or dispute on social media is now newsworthy. A public figure condemning X on Twitter but not condemning Y is now a news event. A random jackass replying to AOC with a racist remark is now a fully fleshed-out feature piece about the New Right Wing, and a search that yields a community college professor who liked a post about punching Nazis is now a wholesale indictment in print of the Lunatic Left.

The peril of this new Panopticon? Fewer of the facts we are provided are divorced from opinions, sure. But fewer still are untarnished by the light shining back on all of us, telling us what the crowd thinks and what it ought to think. Missionaries are taking our Common Knowledge into their own hands.


And it’s working.

Think for a moment about the coverage of the events on America’s southern border. When is the last time you read such a story that was not at least partly meta-commentary about contrasting media treatment of the events? OK, give yourself a little test. How many asylum-seekers have been detained so far in 2018? Just an estimate. Roughly what percentage have come from Guatemala? What about other countries? What are most of them fleeing? How do the conditions and US border policies as currently enforced compare to those of other developed countries?

Cool, cool. OK, now who tweeted out a border photo-shoot in a white outfit? What did some political leaders compare the detention camps to? Who took issue with those characterizations? What biased newspapers and networks have been ignoring and downplaying the current situation in the detention centers? Which biased outlets ignored it during the Obama Administration?

I think I know which set of questions the average news-following American would be able to answer and which they wouldn’t. There’s a reason: because the latter, increasingly, is what is produced and consumed. And whether that tendency plays the role of the chicken or the egg in all this, this is happening because it’s increasingly the content that gets shared. In our query of detention facility-related news this year, here are 5 articles from the top one-half of 1% in shares across social media:

Bank of America will no longer do business with companies that run detention centers [CNN]

Wayfair employees plan walkout to oppose furniture sales to migrant detention facilities [Boston Globe]

Alyssa Milano Promotes Fundraiser for Illegal Alien After Mocking Veteran’s Border Wall Crowdfund [Breitbart]

Ocasio-Cortez presses case that U.S. is running ‘concentration camps’ at border amid Republican outcry [Washington Post]

Many in media changing their tune on border ‘crisis’ after claiming it was ‘manufactured’ [Fox News]

I’m not saying that these topics aren’t newsworthy.

But the fact that the ‘what everyone else is thinking/saying/doing’ articles spread like viruses – when reporting of simple facts does not – matters. It is changing the kind of information we get through incentives alone. There is nothing – nothing – a media outlet can do to better position its franchise than to frame every story as being about the hypocrisy or bad behavior of some opposing group. It is squelching the already short supply of pure, unadulterated, fact-based news we have available to us.


Second- and third-degree Common Knowledge posing as news is doing something else, too:

It is killing good faith. It is killing our collective willingness to believe the benevolent / benign intentions of our fellow-citizens.

Some of that is happening through the subtler – if we can even call it that – Fiat News-like stories above. Some of it is happening through much more transparent means. Consider, for example, the below image, which began to make the rounds yesterday (collected by Heather Heying) about the Andy Ngo affair.

It would be an extremely, er, powerful assertion from the American Spectator – except it was never made. The American Spectator never published this article. You could say it was fake news of the type meant to mislead some number of people on simple facts, but I don’t think so. This image exists to break down any lingering belief that the information being circulated outside of our curated on-narrative sources comes from a place of good faith. Here’s the real one below.


I am not ignorant to the fact that much of what we do on this website is the identification of what we see as common knowledge and active narratives. But the danger isn’t in thinking about the second- or third-degrees of the Common Knowledge Game. We should do that. We must do that. The danger lies in treating the second- and third-degree information that we receive as first-degree fact, rather than how we or someone else would like us to interpret the import of those facts.

And the more we allow others to do that interpretation for us, even when it seems sensible – no, especially when it seems sensible – the less sovereignty we retain over our own thoughts, and the further the gyre of our divided politics widens.

Narrative Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Being a full-time missionary – someone who leans on the power of memes and narrative to nudge others into some particular way of looking at the world – often requires a certain amount of sociopathy. Not always, of course. We’ve written several times about when and how we think narrative can be marshaled to serve worthier causes than the interests of a nudging oligarchy. To wit:

Still, it is no coincidence that when we run down our list of professions we collectively associate with corrupt, dishonest people, nearly every one is intrinsically dependent on selling you a story. And every one that isn’t is perceived as being corrupt because they are either seen as the source of that corruption in others (e.g. Lobbyists) or as the agent of structures seemingly designed to fail to live up to promised service standards (e.g. HMO Managers, Nursing Home Operators).

Source: Composite of 2016-2018 responses to Gallup’s Americans’ Ratings of the Honesty and Ethical Standards of Professions Survey

Not all storytellers are missionaries, of course. When we refer to missionaries, we are referring to a game theoretic concept. We mean the people who seek to steer and influence common knowledge – the things that we all know that everyone knows. That, or they’re people who are in a position where they can’t help but influence common knowledge, because their pronouncements are the kind that everyone knows that everyone else has heard. Presidents. Congressmen and women. CEOs. Celebrities. Tech visionaries. Major media personalities and outlets. Within just the investment community, there are similarly prominent voices. Fed Chairs. Activists. Celebrity PMs.

The sort of elective sociopathy that it takes to succeed as a self-interested missionary almost always rests on two malignant abilities: the willingness to stretch the truth, and the fortitude to stick with a story no matter how it goes wrong (or who it hurts). We’ve written a lot about the former.

We have written less about the latter, although it is a crucially important human tendency to monitor in ourselves and others all the same. The unwillingness to admit error is part of an equilibrium-maintaining strategy in a narrative-driven competitive game, and our susceptibility to it is a testament to the human animal as a living embodiment of Gell-Mann Amnesia. In short, we are built to empower unrepentant liars. More disconcertingly, in a widening gyre, those who cultivate the skill are more likely to rise to power of all varieties (yes, even more than normal).

When a missionary permits common knowledge about himself or his ideas to break – the veils of abstraction around their identity or the narrative they’ve promoted nearly always break, too. All of the once-removed models for how we saw and thought about the person and what they meant, the justifications we conjured for their behavior or actions, the cultural significance of believing the reports about them – all disappear almost immediately. Even when the same evidence or factual knowledge exists, absent an admission of error, we still find it brutally difficult to shed the abstractions which color our interpretations of whatever they are purported to be guilty of, especially if we have powerfully positive or negative opinions about the person.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s a fascinating little study on this topic from Richard Hanania at Columbia University’s Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies (h/t to Rob Henderson). The gist is this: if your standard is the public perception and credibility of the offender, apologies don’t work. They hurt.

Admission of error is the enemy of narrative.

Yes, there are consultants and others who counsel these people to admit error, but that isn’t because the apology will aid their public perception or any narrative that they are promoting. It is almost always because our taboos require the act of penance to permit others to do business / interact with that person again in an economic sense, which – since we’re talking about influential and famous people here – will almost always happen.

If we want to see more clearly through narrative abstractions, well, we can’t eliminate our sensitivity to those stubborn memes, but there are more lessons here for us as citizens and investors. There are things I think we CAN do:

  • We can seek to be wise enough to be more skeptical in general of those not given to admitting error.
  • We can seek to be wise enough to be more merciful in general to those who do.

It isn’t easy. It will make us vulnerable. We will get burned. But it IS one of those rare places where the often-conflicting philosophies of Clear Eyes and Full Hearts align.

The Half-Happy Horror


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The Judgment of Solomon, Gaspar de Crayer (c.1620)

Optimization is a scourge.

I say this as someone who is as addicted to efficiency as anyone I know. I have a chart – not a mental chart, but an actual on-paper chart – of which of the three specific routes I should take to my office by day and time. I almost never schedule same-day meetings because I find it disruptive to planned periods of work on certain projects. I set up a mise en place for making Kraft Mac & Cheese for my kids, for God’s sake. My biggest average allocation to public markets in non-taxable accounts for several years has been to risk parity. Much of the rest has sat in systematic trend-following and behavioral premia strategies. I am an optimizer, y’all.

Yet I have also spent my career as an allocator to investment strategies observing what both explicit and implicit goal-seeking does to investors and their processes.

I’m not really talking about the robustness of objective-function optimized portfolios to changes in key variables or estimation methodologies, although just a shred of epistemic humility in portfolio construction would go a long way with some quants. I’m also not really talking about the mean-variance frontier-plotting and JP Morgan GTTM-driven Monte Carlo slides I see being put in front of clients (and which I have, from time to time, put in front of them myself). Feel seen? Throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit someone guilty.

But what I really mean is this:

Our need to manage common knowledge about multiple competing objectives in an optimization-centric framework makes us into professional cartoonists.

The Lip-Service Cartoon

I’m not saying anything outlandish here. If you’re a professional investor, you’ll be familiar with this – especially the lip-service cartoon. This is the one where we pretend – and ask everyone else to pretend – that our secondary and tertiary objectives or constraints are conveniently totally achievable without impacting our primary pursuit, even when they’re not.

I have written about this recently in context of post-secondary education, where optimization’s effects are obvious. The stories we tell about college are that it ought to serve three objectives, usually all at once:

  • College should broaden horizons, providing a foundation of historical, philosophical, aesthetic and scientific knowledge and the critical thinking needed to process problems raised by or answerable using that knowledge;
  • College should prepare students to enter and be successful in a profession; and
  • College should provide an environment for the socialization, personal growth and independence of young adults.

In practice, by any realistic measure of revealed preferences American universities don’t really optimize for any of these things. As we have argued, we think they mostly target maximizing the signal sent about the underlying intellectual, temperamental and socioeconomic and demographic traits of their degree-holders, because, well, that’s what our culture has permitted and what alumni donors demand.

Is it true that critical study of history, philosophy and language can improve the quality of thinking? Of course it is! If you’ve been reading Epsilon Theory very long, you will know that we believe the same Big Ideas tend to permeate almost every area of human activity, and that identifying those variants and their memetic attachments in the wild can be a meaningful advantage to our thinking. You’ll also know that we are passionate about the human importance of art and creation. The cartoon isn’t in recognizing the importance of these things. It isn’t even in recognizing that they may have some value for multiple objectives. The cartoon is in our pretense that coursework in music theory and the emergence of proto-Celtic language and cultures from other Beaker societies will be just as important to professional pursuits or personal growth of young adults as it is to living an enriched life. By corollary, however many hours you spend studying Kant, it won’t make you as good at your job as spending the same amount of time doing that job or preparing more directly for it.

To maintain the cartoon, we must pretend that it will.

Our pressure to create these cartoons can be traced to our sensitivity to common knowledge about those secondary and tertiary objectives that we are ‘balancing’. It is untenable – unacceptable – to be seen as not seeking out those objectives, and it is desirable under almost every governing narrative of the Zeitgeist to be seen as pursuing them. The inevitable result is that they get only as much of our energy and attention as is necessary to maintain the cartoon.

If you want to see this in financial markets, look no further than the methods your value managers provide for avoiding value traps (which will, I assure you, be disregarded as not being relevant in this particular case when it suits them), most ESG overlays, and almost every risk report provided by a non-integrated risk team to the portfolio management team. Pro-tip: the more a PM you are interviewing goes on about how much having daily access to these risk statistics has really changed their thinking, the more full of shit they are.

In fairness, it isn’t that they’re lying – it’s that the cartoon permits them to act as if the balancing of multiple objectives is serendipitously bereft of any tradeoffs. Their process is just that good.

The Measurement Cartoon

Sometimes our cartoon isn’t that we wave our hands at potential tradeoffs between our objectives, pretending that some magical alignment of our ideas permits the kind of synergy never found in nature. Instead, the cartoon is the pretense that we have the capacity to measure what those trade-offs are, even when we don’t.

The most inevitable cartoons of this variety, I think, are those built around liquidity. Our industry gets the occasional reminder that liquidity matters, such as with the recent Woodford business in the UK, or the Third Ave blow-up a few years back. After those events, there’s usually a 12-18 month cycle in which people Really Care about it. They add a few more questions to their DD questionnaires, and once the answers from fund managers congeal around some standardized answer, the questions largely stop, other than in the most perfunctory way. That is, until the SEC passed 22e-4, a rule establishing the requirement for a liquidity risk management program for open-end investment companies. It requires the mapping and publishing of position liquidity in four different categories.

In this case, we have a rule requiring the creation of a cartoon, and lest anyone is laboring under any delusions here, that’s exactly what investors will get. I’ve provided below a helpful example of the rule, its standards, the cartoon responses investors will receive and the real response investors would get if the industry were concerned about telling them the truth:

The point, of course, is not that liquidity isn’t important. When it matters, it matters a lot. And when it matters a lot, things are happening that are often not quantifiable in ways that will make sense under any objective quantification scheme in a normal environment. Asset class flows, manager-specific flows, market direction and available position-level liquidity are all pro-cyclical. As has almost always been the case, these cartoons will tell a happy story about liquidity to investors…until it’s too late. In other words, the value ascribed to a liquidity bucket is an ephemeral, practically useless figure that gives false comfort and context to manager and investor alike.

There are other examples of how we optimize for multiple objectives by turning a complicated secondary objective that deserves our respect into a cartoon we hand over to ALPS, BNY or our internal risk management team. Highly leveraged funds whose managers have ever uttered the words ‘Cornish-Fisher expansion’ to a client, you are correctly detecting side-eye. In all such cases, there’s nothing disqualifying or wrong about using guideposts or systematic measures, but when we optimize for some key objective (return or volatility-adjusted return) and explain away others (maintaining adequate liquidity) by constructing a cartoon to ‘measure’ them away, we’re gonna have a bad time.

The Mitigant Cartoon

In still other circumstances, we know that we can’t measure a secondary thing we care about, so the hand-waving takes a different form. We don’t have measurements. We have mitigants.

To be fair, mitigants are real things. AND they are often the basis of cartoonish abstractions that allow us to dismiss important things we ought to honestly, fully consider. We know that excessive leverage and concentration in this strategy creates potentially outsized risks to the portfolio, but worry not: in portfolio transparency we have a powerful mitigant. We know that there’s an unusual capital structure which could permit the intentional impairment of our class of interest, but the principal is a public personality with long-term clients in the same class. These are strong mitigants, you see.

The problem with mitigant cartoons – and what distinguishes them from actual mitigants, is that they are among the most basic tools of confirmation bias. They provide ready answers to our concerns which, like our other cartoons, miraculously seem to support the unbridled pursuit of whatever our primary objective was in the first place.

When we build too much of our thinking around optimization instead of good-faith, knowingly messy, honest evaluation of conflicting facts and circumstances, we will inevitably find that all of our problems become just-so stories. They will perfectly explain, measure or mitigate away the things we have to be seen to care about but don’t. They will perfectly support our single-minded pursuit of the things we do care about.

The Half-Happy Horror

Look, the idea here isn’t that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. An incredible share of life is obviously about finding balance between conflicting things, priorities and ideas – whenever it’s possible to do that, that is. The idea also isn’t that we shouldn’t adopt systematic methodologies -quite the opposite, as I frankly think these tendencies to optimize are stronger for those who don’t constrain their processes to rules (yes, it is clearly quite possible to systematize predispositions in such rules, too).

The idea is simply that optimization of decisions involving multiple objectives and constraints – whether fully systematic, rules-based or discretionary – is the kind of thing that should always cause the responsible investor and citizen to step back. Especially when the alternative is often a solution that will make everyone half-happy, which in a zero-sum game is no solution at all.

What can that person do?

  • We can (try to) be honest with ourselves. If we have a constraint, a risk, or a secondary objective in our strategy we’re trying to balance with another, are we giving them lip service? Are we draping them in unwarranted quantification so that we can consider them ‘solved’? Are we clothing them in ‘mitigants’ so that we can check the box and move on?
  • We can focus on ANDs. The language we use to talk about multiple objectives often betrays our attention and the considerations we would just as soon wave our hands at. In my experience, it is critically important to start from a place that considers all facts as ANDs, rather than presuming their relationship to one another.
  • We can try to simplify our decisions. Where possible, simplifying decisions and our responses to them so that we truly can focus on a narrower set of objectives – not through abstraction, but in truth – can help a great deal. With portfolios, maintaining a lens to conceptualizing pools of capital as serving discrete objectives can be an effective management tool.

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A Modern Vocational Curriculum

When I wrote Starry Eyes and Starry Skies a few weeks back, I made the argument that adequate vocational training for just about every financial services job I could think of would take several months (at most). A few readers asked me why I didn’t think that a longer, more in-depth liberal arts education had value. They clearly didn’t read the piece.

Still, it’s worthy of an answer: I do think it has value. But its value is caught up in the conflicted mess of the three products being sold by American universities: mind-expanding liberal education, vocational training and credibility signaling. We do no service to those whose jobs will ultimately never require them to use even the most modest insights or critical thinking gained from detailed study of Dostoevsky by forcing them to do so for four or more years. We likewise do no service to those who would learn for learning’s sake and yet subject them to four years of watered down classes that have to justify their value in some vocational or competitive signaling sense against other departments or institutions.

When you try to solve for multiple problems, you are almost always solving for only one.

A few other readers who actually read the piece asked me what I thought that truncated vocational training would look like. More recently, the CEO of Presto, a hospitality technology company, posted a similar, if more general question. Specifically, he asked:

If you could redesign college education for smart people who don’t know what they want to be, what would it look like?

His answer was quite good. I just have a different take. So here’s my answer: an intensive set of three separate quarterly sessions over a period of nine months, structured not to identity what is most important but to target the fundamental modern skills that are not necessarily more easily acquired in a work-place setting, and which provide the easiest ramp for additional hard- and soft-skill development in other areas once in that professional environment. It is an important distinction, because in almost every case, the most important determinants of success will have little to do with curriculum and knowledge, and far more to do with temperament, values and natural abilities in a range of different areas.

The topics excluded in the curriculum are left out for very different reasons. You don’t include econometrics because it’s useless unless you plan to become a graduate-level economist. You don’t include a productivity software class because two weeks of Excel without a mouse in your first job will do a better job of it. You don’t include an ethics course because if you are prone to unethical behavior, it sure as hell ain’t gonna be a class that changes that.

I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments how much you hate it.


Quarter 1

Quarter 1, Module 1: Professional Writing

Good writing is the rarest skill among young professionals I have hired. It is also the trait shared among those who progressed quickly in accomplishment and responsibility.

  • Short-form writing:
    • Extracting and synthesizing key information
    • Bulletized / short-form writing
    • Note-taking
    • Email / slack-style
  • Long-form writing:
    • Technical
    • Analytical

Quarter 1, Module 2: Calculus

I’ll get the most argument on this one. But y’all, there really are a lot of jobs that benefit from understanding the calculation and implications of rates of change. You need more math than high school gives you.

  • Limits, integrals and derivatives
  • Differential equations
  • Optimization and graph construction

Quarter 1, Module 3: Fundamental Managerial and Financial Accounting

Every graduate who might work in some kind of business or non-profit (which is, as it happens, just about all of them) should be able to read and largely understand its financial statements, and should have some sense of how to build a similar financial statement for a household or small enterprise.

  • Ledgers, accounts, line items, debits and credits
  • Accruals and cash
  • Assets, liabilities, equity, income and expenses
  • Standardized structure (IS/BS/CF)

Quarter 1, Module 4: Interviewing, Public Speaking and Debate

Most university graduates are terrible extemporaneous, prepared, ad hoc and informal verbal communicators.

  • Basic formal logic
  • Research, preparation and performance techniques
  • Interview question formulation, conducting
  • Email, phone, conference call, video call, and meeting-size variable etiquette
  • Practical settings

Quarter 2

Quarter 2, Module 1: Capital Markets

You could call this corp fin, too, but importantly. the right course design here needs to emphasize far more about fund-raising, sources of capital and project/investment return evaluation, and far less about valuation techniques and grinding out WACC calculations. In short, a young professional should know what ROI means, the kinds of decisions that improve it, and the kinds of manipulation that others will practice to make it look improved. They should also know what secondary financial markets are and how they work at a high level.

  • Forms, sources and costs of capital
  • Returns and project evaluation
  • Capital structure optimization, credit and risk
  • Secondary markets

Quarter 2, Module 2: Statistics and Probability

  • Conditional probabilities
  • Measuring relationships, regression, optimization
  • Measuring central tendency and distribution characteristics
  • Interpretations, esp. applicability of generalized measures

Quarter 2, Module 3: Programming in Python

This will change at some point in the future. For now, any graduate of any post-secondary program purporting to have vocational influence should be at least proficient in the structure, syntax and methods of Python programming.

  • Structure and syntax, objects and classes
  • Libraries, API and packages
  • Functional programming
  • Data integration
  • Intro to ML, NLP, Tensorflow, etc.

Quarter 2, Module 4: Modern Sectors, Industries and Trade

Macroeconomics curricula are only slightly less useless for most students than microeconomics versions. The gap left for most students by removing them, however, is a simple, if detailed survey of what kinds of companies are out there, what their business models are, how they integrate, who their vendors and customers are, how they make money and how they fund themselves.


Quarter 3

Quarter 3, Module 1: Project / Experiment Management

The skill at organizing projects and resources is a technical one useful to almost any entry-level professional role. It is also a philosophical one that is critical to growth in managerial or leadership positions.

  • Workflows and dependencies
  • Timing, resource allocation
  • Organizational design
  • Conventions for group communication, meetings, logistical planning
  • Marketing experiment design and execution

Quarter 3, Module 2: Databases and Data Analysis

Most skill with data analysis tools and techniques will be best developed in a working environment on live projects. But fundamental knowledge here is important to building those skills.

  • Data classification, ordering and storage
  • Data retrieval, metadata and queries
  • Common data analysis techniques and packages
  • Applied statistical techniques

Quarter 3, Module 3: Business Law

The first job a graduate has should not be the first time they’ve read a contract, encountered its peculiar terms of art, navigated between defined terms and a contract body, or seen disclaimers, indemnities or closing conditions.

  • Torts and contracts
  • Regulation, regulators and SROs
  • Universal principles, esp. fraud

Quarter 3, Module 4: Hospitality

No fourth module this quarter. Instead, everyone works a food service job.

No, I’m not kidding.

Classes on sales are nonsensical gobbledygook, but the idea is right. It’s just something that can only be captured in a practical setting. If most graduates lack anything as much as they do writing and general communication skills, it is an understanding of how to respond with grace under pressure. It is the realization that one is always, always selling in every direction in any professional setting. It is a mentality that emphasizes hospitality, a much better and more comprehensive concept than client service or customer service models.

All told, with decent instructors, I’d be happy to put up a graduate of this program of equal natural abilities against a graduate of any undergraduate program in the country.


It’s unrealistic, I suppose, to consider that we will be able to break the stranglehold that signaling-based institutions have on structuring an expensive four years that functionally serves only a portion of students at all, and almost nobody well. Still, it is worthwhile for us to go through thought experiments like this, if only to perform self-evaluations, give thought to how we structure our professional education programs within our businesses, and how our own children’s educations are going.

It is also important for us to consider how we can make it feasible for a true, liberally minded, horizons-expanding education to exist without the frequently oppositional aims of signal-maximizing and vocational preparation. You won’t be surprised to hear that I think it starts younger, with less reliance on the system or with more reliance on the Pack.

Yeah, we’ve got a lot more to say about this.

In the Trenches: Cake


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What’s next for U.S. equity markets, and what historical analogs might provide some insight? There are plenty of bullish pundits citing renewed monetary policy easing as a catalyst for higher equities – some even suggesting a melt-up could yet occur. While a surprise (at least to us) cut this week could propel equities higher for one last gasp, I’d not chase. Since my 2019 Outlook, I’ve been suggesting a ‘tale of two halves’ narrative for risk assets.[1] In it, my team and I described a first half characterized by a correlated risk-on resulting from improved central bank communication, more reasonable valuation, and more favorable optics around China trade. This has largely occurred. In particular, our mid-year target for the S&P 500 was and remains 2,800, while our year-end target remains well below street consensus at 2,500.

The recent rally in U.S. equities is largely a result of market participants believing they can have their rate-cut cake and eat it, too.

Market participants’ Pavlovian response to a cut of any kind – regardless of context – has been well reinforced over the past ten years. As my team and I have pointed out, and as Figure 1 illustrates, a cut now would bode ill (as a signal rather than a cause) for the U.S. economy over at least the next year. Will the Fed cut in June? While in play, we don’t think the Fed will cut, as it would amount to preemptive action.[2] There are three relevant precedents upon which market participants have relied to justify such preemptive Fed action.

Some argue that market conditions are analogous to 1995, when the Fed cut preemptively. I disagree. In our BIG Picture piece entitled Fed Reaction Function (dated April 20, 2019), my team and I presented our view that current conditions did not resemble 1995, and we continue to hold that view. As Figure 2 shows, when the Fed decided to cut in 1995, economic conditions were significantly worse than they are today. ISM manufacturing was deep in contraction, and at 5.6%, the unemployment rate was significantly higher than it is today. That said, the view has consistently been that the Fed will cut if equity markets risk-off by more than 15% or if there is a hard turn in the economic data, neither of which have occurred quite yet. Such conditions will likely manifest later in the year, especially if rates markets are as predictive as we think they are. It’s a matter of when – not if.

Eurodollar futures markets (ED1 – ED3 = 40bps) are implying an 80% chance of two cuts between June and December. This suggests the Fed is too tight relative to economic conditions (Figure 3). The correlation between 10-year rates and ISM manufacturing show that ISM will move into contraction in the near future (Figure 4). Nonetheless, we don’t believe that the Fed will move before that happens – nor should it. The equity markets and rates markets are severely disconnected, and that disconnect is the result of expectations for market intervention from the Fed, upon which markets have become far too reliant. My expectation is that equity market volatility will precede the Fed’s next move. Certainly, with the S&P 500 at ~2,900 amidst a global slowdown and flat U.S. earnings, the risk-reward appears poor to owning U.S. equities.

Looking at another potential historical precedent, I also do not believe that the current situation is analogous to the early 1970s when President Nixon appointed Arthur Burns as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. While we will leave the reader to his or her own conclusions about the similarities between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, it would appear that Chairman Powell is far less naïve than the academic, Burns. On February 1, 1970, Burns, known as a Republican loyalist, took office. Preceding the 1972 election, Nixon is alleged to have instructed Burns to cut rates.  Burns lowered funds starting in mid-1971 from 5.75% to 3.5% into March of 1972; GDP growth picked up to 5.6 % in 1972 from 3.3% the year prior. Inflation rates rose to 5.3% from 3.6%. This may have helped exacerbate the impact of the oil shock, which occurred as a result of an OAPEC oil embargo, which was retaliation for U.S. aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. While clearly there was a complex brew of potential causes, this policy period was followed by a considerable amount of asset volatility.

Lastly, the kind of central bank coordination that occurred in February 2016 at G20 is unlikely. Recall the backdrop from 2015 into 2016. A burgeoning China slowdown and fears of an aggressive devaluation of the yuan catalyzed two selloffs – one in late summer of 2015 and the other in early 2016. Complicating the U.S. backdrop was a U.S. earnings recession and a rise in default rates amongst energy companies that risked sparking a broader U.S. default cycle.  The G20 meeting that year was in February in Shanghai. At the time, my team and I failed to appreciate just how aggressive and coordinated the global central bank policy response would be. After a largely correct markets call for 2015, we failed to pivot bullishly enough on this stimulus. Could we be making the same mistake here? We don’t think so.

For one thing, global central bank balance sheets are no longer expanding in aggregate. Figure 5 shows that 2015 equity market volatility (green lower panel) was quickly suppressed by an expansion of global central bank balance sheets (on a stable Fed balance sheet). Now conditions are quite different with the ECB no longer buying new bonds and the Fed selling its holdings. While rates volatility caused by higher rates has abated this year, rates are considerably higher here in the U.S. than in the rest-of-the-world and most developed market central banks remain on hold after only recently being in normalization mode.[3] Lastly, there is no longer a post-crisis chorus of Kumbayah coming from world leaders. Instead, the world’s largest economies are embroiled in what appears to be a prolonged trade war. This makes coordination more difficult especially because many central banks are not independent of the governments engaged in the trade dispute. Lastly, we do not think the Fed wants to hand President Trump a rate cut into the G20 meeting simply because he asked for it. There must be an objective basis for Fed action.

Conclusion

Will we see a change in Fed’s modus operandi in June that results in a cut? We believe a cut in June would require a philosophical change in approach, as we would take it to be a preemptive move influenced by the executive branch. This is why June is such an important meeting. Were it to cut, policy would begin the slide down a slippery slope – a slide back to ZIRP and back to QE (quantitative easing). While we hold the unfortunate belief that all central banks will be at zero interest rates and aggressive QE (including the Fed) in the not-so-distant future, we also think the Fed wants to resist moving in that direction too quickly. Why? For one, the Fed understands the inadvertent redistributive effects of its policy decisions.

Wages compensate labor. Interest compensates owners of capital – credit investors, in particular. As a result, rate cuts, which set the cost of capital, implicitly make a wealth redistribution decision from credit investors to labor (in the form of lower unemployment). Moreover, not only do central bank decisions lead to wealth redistribution from creditors to labor, but low rates typically also discriminate against credit investors in favor of equity capital providers (as the ‘Fed model’ implicitly acknowledges). Moreover, a central bank decision to maintain low rates effectively discriminates against retirees in need of income; thus, there is an additional, unintended demographic consequence. Overall, current workers and equity investors tend to be favored over retirees and credit investors.

The unintended redistributive impact of Fed (and all central bank rate policy) comes largely without explicit legislative authority outside the Federal Reserve Act. Thus, in our view, the Fed still recognizes that the bar for central bank action in a capitalist economy should be relatively high. Historically, the Fed has generally viewed it as such through its data dependent approach and through its mandate to “maintain long run growth of the monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy’s long run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.”[4] We would also note that “moderate long-term rates” seems to exclude both extremely high rates as well as extremely low rates. With the current condition of policy (as shown by Figure 6), the Fed would appear not to have cause to act just yet. Indeed, it’s our view that the Fed will eventually be compelled to move back to ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) over the course of the next couple of years as yet lower rates are required to maintain even the most meager of growth rates. Because we believe the Fed wishes to maintain precedent as well as its independence, it will remain reactive to the data – at least for June – but the data continues to evolve as we foresaw it in the beginning of the year.


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[1] The 2019 Outlook was published on January 4th, 2019.

[2] To be clear: I do think U.S. economic conditions will warrant a Fed cut in late summer and another in fall. My team and I have been arguing strenuously since mid-year 2019 that global economic conditions were beginning to deteriorate and the U.S. economy would follow late this year.

[3] While true, the lean is clearly much more dovish than just a month ago, and emerging market central banks have already started to move with Russia, for example, cutting for the first time in 2-years.

[4]  Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy, adopted effective January 24, 2012; as amended effective January 29, 2019.


After All, We Are Not Communists


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If Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, then he must share them, or let us others use them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly he can present a bill for such services; after all… we are not Communists.

– Don Barzini, “The Godfather” (1972)

I catch a lot of grief for all of the Godfather references I make, but for men of a certain age it remains the most powerful cinematic if not cultural touchstone we’ve got. It’s also just really good narrative art.

This dinner of the Five Families is the heart of the Godfather story arc. It’s where Vito realizes the scope and power of the plot against him (“It was Barzini all along!”), and where he sets in motion a strategy of revenge and redemption that plays out over a decade through his son, Michael.

Vito Corleone played a mean metagame, the big picture game-of-games that can define a life. Vito was a clever coyote who, unlike most clever coyotes, didn’t allow himself to be blinded by the passion of whatever immediate game was thrust upon him, but was able to excel in the long game. In this case, the really long game.

What drove Vito in his metagame play?

What was his motivation?

“I worked my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all of those big shots.”

Same.

I was at a dinner of about 20 Epsilon Theory pack members down in Houston last month. I’ve been doing a couple of these meet-up dinners of late, and I intend to do a lot more over the next 12 months. I got a question at this dinner that I had never been asked before, a question that – like Vito’s dinner with the other Dons – forced me to crystallize my metagame.

Hey, Ben, I think what you’re saying about society and politics and finding your pack is really important, and you say it really well. Why are you wasting your time talking so much about markets and investing? Why aren’t you writing full-time about what’s truly important?

It’s a question that I’ve thought about a ton, but never talked about publicly. So here goes.

My goal in all things, but especially my metagame, is to act non-myopically and in a way that treats others as autonomous ends in themselves. It should be your goal in all things, too. You know the drill … Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.

Acting with a full heart means two things: acting for Identity and acting for Cooperation.

Or as Socrates would have said, Know Thyself, and as Jesus would have said, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

See, there’s really nothing new under the sun. Everything we write in Epsilon Theory has been written before – and better – by teachers who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. All you’re getting here is old wine in a new bottle. It’s just really, really great wine. And a half-decent bottle with Godfather quotes or farm animal stories on the label. You could do worse.

What’s my Identity?

I am a solver of puzzles and a player of games. This is who I have always been, from my first childhood memories. This is my motivation. This is my intrinsic spark and reward. This is my Aristotelian entelechy, to use a ten-dollar phrase. This is my I AM, to use the Epsilon Theory lingo.

The market is the biggest puzzle there ever was. That’s why I can’t stay away.

So in keeping with my Identity and our metagame at Epsilon Theory, today I want to share with you a puzzle that I think Rusty and I are solving. Not solved, because a) that’s impossible in a three-body problem like the market, and b) it’s still early days in the Narrative Machine research program. But we’ve completed enough testing and research to have convinced ourselves at least that we are onto something cool and important.

This is the market puzzle that we introduced in March with this note:

It’s our effort to apply our narrative research to an actual, honest-to-god practical investment question – can you measure the structure of financial media narratives in a way that gives a useful signal for underweighting or overweighting big market structures like S&P 500 sector ETFs?

At the conclusion of that note, after laying out our research thesis and the way we were operationalizing our tests, I wrote this:

So I’m not going to talk about results until I can do it without telling a story, until I can show you results that speak for themselves. It’s like the difference between qualitatively interpreted narrative maps and algebraic calculations on the underlying data matrix … the difference between what we THINK and what we can MEASURE.

I know, I know … kind of a tease. But today I think we have results that DO speak for themselves, so that’s what I’m going to let them do.

First a recap on our test procedures, although I’m going to keep this really brief because you can read more in “The Epsilon Strategy”.

In addition to measuring the Sentiment of each article within a batch of financial news articles (something everyone does and we think is better thought of as a conditioner of narrative than as a structural component of narrative), we also measure the “weight” of one narrative structure relative to all the other narratives within a universe of media – what we call Attention – and the “center of gravity” of a narrative structure relative to itself over time – what we call Cohesion.

These are massive data matrices that we are evaluating, so the narrative map visualizations that we often publish in Epsilon Theory notes should be thought of as tremendous simplifications (2-D flattenings of many-D matrices) of the measurements we’re taking here. Still, I’ll incorporate some visualizations where I can.

For example, on the left is a 2-D visualization of the Attention score of the Utilities sector in December 2014. Every faint dot (also called a node) in the graph is a financial media article talking about the S&P 500 in some way, shape or form. There are thousands of these nodes, of course, clustered by all the different topics that drove stock market narrative that month. The dark nodes, few and far between, scattered among several different clusters, are the articles that are about the Utilities sector.

On the right is a 2-D visualization of the same data query and the same data sources for January 2015. What’s pretty clear even in this inherently truncated visualization is that the narrative Attention paid to the Utilities sector – the amount of media drum-beating about the Utilities sector – is much higher in January than in December.

We think this is a short signal for February 2015, by the way.

To be clear, we have ZERO insight into the fundamentals of the Utilities sector going into February 2015. We are NOT actually reading any of these media articles, and we really DON’T CARE what everyone’s opinion about the Utilities sector might be. All we know is that the financial media is shouting at investors to focus their attention on the Utilities sector in January 2015 … or at least shouting in a relative sense to how they were talking about Utilities in the prior month … and we believe that all this shouting has an effect on investor behavior. We believe that investors probably plowed into the Utilities sector in January 2015, so we want to be short (or underweight) this overbought sector in February 2015.

We came up with eight testable hypotheses like this, based on states of the narrative-world as measured by Attention, Cohesion, and Sentiment, and we ran a five year backtest on each hypothesized strategy for its signals in overweighting or underweighting S&P 500 sectors on a monthly basis. Importantly, we came up with the hypotheses before we did any backtesting or simulations, and we did zero tweaking or retesting after we did any backtesting or simulations. These sector rotation strategies are deductively derived, based on our professional intuition of investor behavior and our professional knowledge of how the Common Knowledge Game works.

Also importantly, these are slow-twitch strategies, where we take our measurements at the end of each tested month to generate a signal for the following month. All of the financial media articles are publicly available. There’s no massaging of the data or change in the search queries over time. There’s no discretionary input. We are testing on the Select Sector SPDR ETFs, each of which have no appreciable liquidity constraints, and we take into account ETF fees in our performance simulations. We do not take into account trading costs, although we would expect these to be minimal.

Of the eight hypothesized narrative-driven sector rotation strategies, we found that six of them “worked”, meaning that in our backtest simulations they generated excess returns over the S&P 500 and had an information ratio > 0.6 (again, I’m going to let our findings speak for themselves, so if you need a primer on “information ratio” and some of the other terminology here, that’s on you). We then took a simple, non-optimized equal weighting of each of the six working strategies to create an unconstrained “Beta-1” portfolio strategy, meaning that we let the individual strategies do whatever they signaled as far as underweighting or overweighting the individual sectors relative to their baseline S&P 500 sector weights, and then we added whatever vanilla S&P 500 index long or short exposure was required to make a fixed portfolio net exposure of 100% long. So if you’re keeping track of these things, the unconstrained Beta-1 portfolio of strategies averaged about 12 separate sector signals per month, an average gross exposure of around 200%, and is the rough equivalent of a 150/50 strategy. 

Now before I show you the results of the portfolio simulation, I want to say the following really clearly. I’m not saying this as boilerplate, and I’m not saying this in tiny text or in ALL CAPS, both of which are signals for you to stop paying attention. These are simulated, backtested returns. You could not have invested in these strategies. You cannot today invest in these strategies. Even if you did, there is no guarantee your results would reflect those of the backtests I’m going to show you. We have treated all of this as a research puzzle we are trying to solve, and so should you.

We understand that many investors are not allowed to be short anything, even an S&P sector ETF, so we also modeled a constrained long-only portfolio of strategies, where we cap all underweights at zero exposure, creating a 100% gross exposure, 100% net exposure portfolio strategy, with no shorting of any sector ETF. As you would expect, the performance statistics are muted compared to the unconstrained version, but still quite powerful.

Crucially, these excess returns are uncorrelated to all major factor categories – Momentum, Value, Low Vol, and Quality.

So there you have it.

We think we are identifying a novel and predictive signal of investor behavior from our systematic measurement of narrative structure in publicly available financial media.

Now, savvy readers will note that I started this note by talking about metagames and Identity, but cut that discussion short to get into the meat of this investment research puzzle that I think we are solving. Savvy reader will ask themselves if there’s another shoe to drop here. Savvy readers would be right.

What’s my metagame?

Let’s start with this blanket statement: I will do anything for my pack. I’ll be the patsy. I’ll make unreasonable sacrifices. I’ll give away the store if that’s what’s required. But here’s the thing – my pack would never require this of me. At every level of my pack, from nuclear family to the ET epistemic community, we do unto each other as we would have each other do unto us.

To put it in Kipling’s poetic terms about the pack, we drink deeply, but never too deep.

To put it in Dungeons & Dragons terms, we are lawful good but not lawful stupid.

So hell yes, we’re going to charge money for access to and information about our investment research. Second Foundation Partners is a completely independent company. It’s me and Rusty doing a high-wire act with no net. Our research and puzzle-solving is not only an expression of our Identity … it’s also how we preserve our independence so we CAN write about more than markets and investing.   

If you’d like to draw water from this research well, you’ll need an ET Professional subscription. It’s the only place we will be sharing our insights and plans for developing the Narrative Machine for investment applications.

Because after all, we are not Communists.  


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