Yeah, It’s Still Water


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Back in April, I wrote This Is Water.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace (2005)

It’s a note about financialization … the zombiefication of our economy and the oligarchification of our society.

Financialization is profit margin growth without labor productivity growth.

Financialization is the zero-sum game aspect of capitalism, where profit margin growth is both pulled forward from future real growth and pulled away from current economic risk-taking.

Financialization is the smiley-face perversion of Smith’s invisible hand and Schumpeter’s creative destruction. It is a profoundly repressive political equilibrium that masks itself in the common knowledge of “Yay, capitalism!”.

What does Wall Street get out of financialization? A valuation story to sell.

What does management get out of financialization? Stock-based compensation.

What does the Fed get out of financialization? A (very) grateful Wall Street.

What does the White House get out of financialization? Re-election.

What do YOU get out of financialization?

You get to hold up a card that says “Yay, capitalism!”.


So anyway, there I was yesterday, minding my own business, and I saw a tweet about Texas Instruments (TXN) and how they were getting slammed after a difficult earnings call. Sometimes I can’t help myself, so I wrote this:

It’s a popular tweet. An excellent ratio, if you’re into that sort of inside-baseball social media stuff, but a couple of replies thought I was full of it. And there were the de rigueur “stock buybacks mean NOTHING” blog posts and tweets the following day.

So I decided to spend a day and dig into TXN a bit. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe there’s more to the story of Texas Instrument’s stellar stock performance over the past 10 years than mortgaging the future OVER and OVER and OVER again for the primary benefit of management shareholders and the secondary benefit of non-management shareholders.

Nah.

Texas Instruments is, in fact, a poster child for financialization.

There’s nothing illegal or incompetent or even unethical about it. It’s the smart play! Hats off to the TXN management team! I’d have done exactly the same thing in their shoes!

But yeah, this is, in fact, why the world is burning.

I’m going to focus on a 5-year stretch of TXN’s financials, 2014 through 2018. This is where the truly meteoric stock price appreciation took place over the past 10 years, even with the Q4 2018 market swoon, and comparing full year financials makes for a more apples-to-apples comparison.

But before I get into the numbers, let me tell you the story.

The Texas Instruments story is free cash flow and earnings growth that management “returns to shareholders”. EPS on a fully diluted weighted basis has more than doubled from 2014 through 2018, net income available to shareholders on a GAAP basis has doubled, and cash from operations has almost doubled.

The Texas Instruments story is NOT a Salesforce.com story. This is NOT a non-GAAP-this or pro forma-that story. There are real earnings and real operations and straightforward financial statements here.

What makes this a story of financialization is the WHY of the very real free cash flows and earnings growth. What makes this a story of financialization is the HOW of the allocation of those cash flows and earnings.

The WHY is pretty simple.

TXN management has cut their cost structure to the everlovin’ bone.

At the end of 2013, TXN cost of goods sold (COGS) was 48% of revenues. By the end of 2018, COGS was 35%. Gross margins went from 52% to 65%!

At the end of 2013, TXN sales, general and administrative costs (SG&A) was 15.2% of revenues. By the end of 2018, SG&A was 10.7%.

At the end of 2013, TXN research and development expenses (R&D) was 12.5% of revenues. By the end of 2018, R&D was 9.9%.

And while it’s not part of the fixed cost structure per se, Texas Instruments was a keen beneficiary of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, seeing their 2017 tax rate of 16% cut to 7% in 2018, reducing their tax bill by $1.2 billion.

Good thing they’re using that tax cut windfall to hire new workers and invest in new facilities!

Hahahahaha! I’m just joshing with you. Of course that’s not what the tax cut windfall went for.

But hang on … let me finish with the WHY of cash flow growth.

See, there was zero revenue growth at TXN from 2014 to 2015 ($13 billion flat in both years), and tiny growth from 2015 to 2016 (less than 3%). But there was healthy revenue growth from 2016 to 2017 (11% or so) and so-so growth from 2017 to 2018 (6% or so). And when you’re cutting costs like TXN was doing over a multiyear period, even mediocre top-line increases can lead to dramatic profit increases.

How dramatic? Cash from operations was $3.9 billion in 2014, but by 2018 was $7.2 billion. Nice!

Over this 5-year period, Texas Instruments generated $25.5 billion in cash from operations and $32.5 billion in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA).

From a cash perspective, of course you’ve got to pay taxes out of all that (again, thank you for the extra $1.2 billion, GOP!), which comes to about $7 billion over the five years, but you can defer some of this to minimize the cash hit. And you’ve got to pay interest on the $5.1 billion in debt you’ve taken out, which comes to … oh yeah, basically nothing … thank you, Fed! And you’ve got to account for depreciation and amortization, which comes to $5.2 billion over the five years … but this is a non-cash expense, so it’s not going to dig into that cash hoard. And you’ve got some cash puts and takes from working capital and inventory and what not, but nothing dramatic. And you’ve got $1.3 billion in stock-based comp, but again that’s a non-cash expense … whew! And – oh, here’s an interesting cash windfall – TXN raised about $2.5 billion by selling stock over these five years. Wait, what? Selling stock, not buying stock? Selling stock to whom? Hold that thought …

Put it all together and I figure the company generated about $25 billion in truly free cash flow over this 5-year span (everyone calculates FCF a bit differently, so don’t @ me on this … I’m in the right ballpark). What are you going to spend this treasure chest on, Texas Instruments? HOW are you going to allocate this capital?

Well, surely you’re going to spend a healthy amount on capex, right? I mean, you took a $5.2 billion depreciation and amortization charge over this time span, and we all know that semiconductor manufacturers need to stay on that bleeding edge of technological innovation, right? Because we all know that technology and the productivity it brings are how we grow earnings, right?

Nope. Texas Instruments spent $3.3 billion on fixed assets from 2014 through 2018, one-third of that total in 2018. Some significant proportion of that was maintenance capex as opposed to growth capex. Significant like in approaching 100% (my guess). LOL. And don’t call me Shirley.

Well, if you didn’t spend your money on property, plant and equipment, then surely you spent a healthy sum in M&A, right?

Nope. $1.6 billion over five years. Tuck-in stuff. Again LOL. Again Shirley.

I guess you were paying down debt, then. Deleveraging up a storm, right?

Nope. Paid down debt by $500 million per year in 2014, 2015 and 2016, but got smart and increased debt by $500 million in 2017 and $1 billion in 2018. Wait, what? MOAR debt, on top of all that cash generation? Huh. Weird.

So it’s dividends, right? This is where all the cash went, yes?

Yes, now we’re getting there. $9.1 billion in dividends over five years. A healthy direct return of capital to shareholders. But it’s just a warm-up to the main event.

Texas Instruments spent $15.4 billion buying back its stock from 2014 through 2018.

Between stock buybacks and dividends, that’s $24.5 billion in cash “returned to shareholders”, essentially 100% of the free cash flow generated by the company over the past FIVE YEARS.

Now here’s the kicker.

What sort of share count reduction would you think that this $15.4 billion in buybacks gets you?

I mean, that IS the logic here, that we’re leveraging earnings growth through the share buybacks. I mean, this IS the judgment call that management is making on behalf of shareholders, that investing $15.4 billion in the company’s own stock is the best possible capital allocation that the company can make.

I would have guessed that surely $15.4 billion would retire anywhere from 20-25% of the outstanding shares over this time frame, with the stock price ranging from $40 to $100.

In truth, Texas Instruments retired only 10% of its outstanding diluted shares with its $15.4 billion investment, going from 1.1 billion shares to 990 million shares.

Remember all that stock and all those warrants sold to management with one hand while the other hand buys it back? Remember all that stock-based compensation?

Again LOL. Again Shirley.

But wait, there’s more.

We can measure the windfall compensation paid to TXN management here.

From 2014 through 2018, Texas Instruments bought back 228.6 million shares for $15.4 billion. That works out to an average purchase price of $67.37.

Over that same time span, Texas Instruments sold 90.8 million shares to management and board members as they exercised options and restricted stock grants, for a total of $2.5 billion. That works out to an average sale price of $27.51.

The difference in average purchase price and average sale price, multiplied by the number of shares so affected, is the direct monetary benefit for management. This is true whether or not management sells their new shares into the buyback or holds them. That amount works out to be $3.6 billion.

In other words, 40% of TXN’s stock buybacks over this five year period were used to sterilize stock issuance to senior management and the board of directors.

In other words, senior management and the board of directors received $3.6 BILLION in direct value from these stock buybacks.

But wait, there’s more …

As of December 31, 2018 there were still 40 million shares outstanding in the form of options and restricted stock grants to management and directors, at an average weighted exercise price of $55.

At today’s stock price, that means there is an additional $2.6 BILLION in stock-based compensation already awarded to TXN’s executives and directors.

Well golly, Ben, these surely must have been amazing managers and directors to warrant that sort of stock-based compensation in addition to their cash compensation!

Again LOL. Again … oh, you get the point.

That’s TXN stock performance in white and SOXX performance in gold over the 5-year period 2014 – 2018.

SOXX is an ETF that tracks the Philly Semiconductor Index. Texas Instruments is the fifth largest position in that ETF and that underlying index, with a 7.1% weight.

Oh yeah, one more thing … the expense ratio of the SOXX ETF is 47 basis points.

For the past five years, Texas Instruments has been nothing more than a tracking stock for a passive semiconductor index.

For this privilege, shareholders have rewarded management and directors with $6.2 BILLION in stock, plus a couple of BILLION in cash compensation.

I’d say LOL, but I’m not laughing anymore. Are you?

It’s never been a better time in the history of the world to be a senior manager of a publicly traded company.

Under the narrative cover of “returning capital to shareholders” and the common knowledge of “aligned interests” and the cash windfall of “job-creating tax cuts” and the equity valuations driven by “extraordinary monetary policy” … management teams like that at Texas Instruments have sucked the FUTURE of their company dry for the NOW of their personal enrichment.

What’s the real story of Texas Instruments?

It’s the real story of pretty much every public company over the past decade.

Public companies are managed today to mortgage the future OVER and OVER and OVER again, for the primary benefit of management shareholders and the secondary benefit of non-management shareholders.

And their main tool for this is the stock buyback.

It’s a crying shame, because here’s the thing … the total return on owning TXN is, in fact, 15% higher than the SOXX ETF over this five year span 2014 – 2018.

Not because of the stock buybacks.

Because of the dividend.

Do you want to run your company for cash generation? Do you want to return that cash to shareholders? GREAT!

Use a special dividend, not buybacks.

There, fixed it for you.

Do stock buybacks lift the stock market “artificially”? I guess. Kinda sorta. On the margins. Then again, markets happen on the margins.

IT’S THE WRONG QUESTION.

The right question is not whether or not stock buybacks prop up the overall market.

The right question is not the macro.

The right question is the micro.

The right question is whether or not stock buybacks are the best use of capital if you take a steward’s perspective rather than a manager’s perspective.

Which no one does today.

Not even the boards of these companies. Especially not the boards of these companies.


You know, everyone is all in a tizzy about Softbank paying Adam Neumann $1.7 billion just to go away.

My unpopular opinion: the Adam Neumann story is repeated in a non-infuriating and non-obvious way every day in every S&P 500 company. And it’s been going on for a DECADE.

Dimon, Iger, Cook, Nadella, Pichai, Fink … they’re not founders like Gates or Bezos. They’re not investors like Buffett or Dalio. They’re management. And now they’re billionaires. And all their captains and lesser brethren are centimillionaires. And all their lieutenants and subalterns are decamillionaires.

And everyone is perfectly fine with this. No one even notices that this is happening or that it’s different or that it’s a sea change in how we organize wealth in our society. It’s not good or bad or deserved or undeserved. It just IS. This is our Zeitgeist.

This Is Water

One day we will recognize the defining Zeitgeist of the Obama/Trump years for what it is: an unparalleled transfer of wealth to the managerial class.

It’s the triumph of the manager over the steward. The triumph of the manager over the entrepreneur. The triumph of the manager over the founder. The triumph of the manager over ALL.

Welcome to the Long Now.


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The Stereogram

The free world has been dunking on LeBron James for more than a week now and it has not gotten old.

Still, something about it has made me uneasy.

Am I uneasy because King James requires some special grace, because I’m worried that we aren’t being full-hearted enough in our criticisms of him? No. Good God, no. Knock yourselves out, y’all. I’m uneasy because once you see clearly the influence the Chinese Communist Party can wield arbitrarily over you and me as citizens of the free world, you see that same power in a million other places. It is like a stereogram, one of those pictures for which our eyes must conquer their natural tendency to coordinate focus and vergence functions to see anything but a series of repetitive dots.

And once you see it, you cannot unsee it.  


When I was 18, I toured China and Hong Kong with the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra. We played at the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival in a kind of ‘partnership’ between our university and a couple in mainland China and Hong Kong. We played Peking Opera that had never been orchestrated for western instruments before shockingly large crowds. We played to a black-tie crowd at a Watermelon Festival outside Beijing. I have a nice letter signed by Henry Kissinger sitting in a box in my attic somewhere.

This was almost 20 years ago, and this is the first time in a very long time that I’ve thought about the ID tags we were asked to wear at both of those events. We were artists, and it was important that we not be allowed to converse or interact outside of our station. Heaven forbid we befoul the air in the vicinity of the local and regional party luminaries in attendance. Our ID tags were religiously checked, even when using the nearby restroom – like visiting Bridgewater’s Westport campus. So we huddled, waiting – in many cases, deeply hungover – in a small green room for several hours as other groups performed. The university, hungry for anything that would increase its presence (read: funding), prestige (read: funding) and reputation (read: funding) on a global stage, happily agreed to any and all such restrictions.  

Very small potatoes. And if you want to argue that a “when in Rome” attitude on someone else’s turf is more palatable than watching the Chinese Communist Party squeeze American institutions to influence the free exchange of ideas on our own shores, I won’t argue with you. It was their party, after all. But that isn’t my point. My point is that I am thinking about the power that has been exerted by the CCP on me for the first time in a while. I have seen and cannot unsee how long this has been going on in a million different places. It isn’t new. It always existed underneath the abstracted hand-waving explanations that convinced me to ignore it, like a colorful, repetitive mesh of dots.

And once you see it, you cannot unsee it.  

I’m not alone. Here is what we are observing at macro scale:

  1. That it has been common knowledge – something we all knew that we all knew – since the Nixon years that by simply exporting capitalism and free enterprise, we would unshackle the forces of freedom in China.
  2. That this common knowledge is breaking.

Today, we all know that we all know that the influence of the Chinese Communist Party over what you and I do has been aided, not thwarted, by the nominal Chinese embrace of capitalism. I think that this – not the NBA, or Hearthstone, or Disney, but common knowledge about the distorting effects of concentrated power on the efficiency of market outcomes – is the real main event.

Still, before we consider what that means, it’s worth taking a quick look at just how the bullish narratives on US growth in Chinese markets turned on a dime.

The NBA

Basketball – and by extension, the NBA – has easily been the most successful US sports export, despite playing a very distant second (or third, depending on how you measure it) to the NFL domestically. There are all sorts of reasons for this success, but they all boil down to one simple idea: when there are only five people on the court from each team, each of whom is visible and capable of significantly influencing the outcome of each contest, The Superstars are the Brand. The league’s stars exist, market and develop identities and brands independent of but still in service to the NBA. They have done so in ways that are remarkably in tune with the social and cultural zeitgeist that drives all sorts of consumer purchasing decisions.

In other words, the NBA is the perfect cultural export.

The coverage of and common knowledge about the growth of NBA-related brands in China has accordingly been almost universally positive for years. It will be no secret, but a glance at the narrative map below will tell you that narrative has always been about two things: how good and important it is to sell shoes. Over the twelve months prior to Morey’s tweet, there were 10 articles scored by Quid as being generally positive in sentiment (highlighted as green nodes in the charts below) for every 1 article scored as negative (red nodes).

US companies maximizing their footprint and growth in China was a Good Thing.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

What does this world look like after Morey’s tweet and the subsequent response from China, the NBA and superstars like LeBron James? For one, the sentiment of articles about the NBA’s branding and marketing efforts in China went from 10-to-1 positive to 2-to-1 negative. But sentiment comes and goes. What is fascinating is how the language in the stories links them to language used in all manner of longer-cycle news stories, like the Hong Kong protests themselves (for obvious reasons), the Trump/China trade war, and importantly, other examples of CCP pressure being applied to US companies and individuals. The language devoted to discussion of economic growth, corporate opportunities and the freedom-enhancing power of Chinese embrace of capitalism?

Gone. Not diminished. Gone.

You’ll also note that the network map is much less tightly packed – that’s how the visualization demonstrates starker differences and distances between major topics and clusters. We used to all sing from the same hymnal about the NBA’s brilliant efforts in China. Now it is a battleground of language and competing missionary behaviors.

In short, the NBA-in-China isn’t just a cool growth story any more. Today we all know that we all know that it is tied up with big, global political, social, cultural, economic and human rights issues that the power concentrated in the CCP has prevented markets from reflecting clearly.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Blizzard

Blizzard Entertainment came under similar fire for withdrawing a prize won by a participant in a competition for Hearthstone, its World of Warcraft-themed deck-building game. The reason? He spoke up for Hong Kong protesters in a livestream, and Blizzard management came under pressure from the CCP to take action. Now, in case you didn’t know, Hearthstone’s publisher isn’t a Chinese SOE. It’s a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, a US-domiciled, US-listed public company.

Despite (still) getting practically no coverage in mainstream publications, eSports is a huge and rapidly growing industry, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Over the same pre-Morey period, the narrative about eSports in China was uniform, cohesive and almost universally positive. It is exactly the narrative map you would expect from a rapidly growing, entertainment-focused industry with a supportive trade media that benefits from its growth and entertainment features (not unlike the financial press).

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

After Blizzard’s kowtowing to Beijing, as with the NBA brand narrative, the narrative around eSports in China became immediately less cohesive, dramatically more negative, and instantly linked by language and terminology to global political, social and economic conflicts.


Look, I’m not here to tell you that everything has changed for the NBA or Blizzard or any other company that has built its narrative around Growth in China. People will forget that they were mad at LeBron James and the NBA. And I’m talking weeks, not months, people. Sentiment will drift back. Sorry, but it’s true. People really like video games and basketball. On CNBC, by Q4 2019 earnings season, we will be back to “China Growth Initiatives” occupying bullet #1 on US corporations’ MD&A slides. People really like growing earnings. Imagine that.

But the awareness – in general – of what China can do? That can’t be unseen. What’s more, it is a nearly perfect fit with what we have described as the overarching common knowledge (as represented in political media) about the 2020 Election, namely, that it is about identity and unseating incumbent concentrations of financial and political power. Unlike those narratives, however, or those promoted by the drain-the-swamp chants from the Trump 2016 campaign, the China concern has universal appeal. This issue, and the inevitable conclusion that we “must do something about it” isn’t going to go away.

I, for one, am conflicted.

On the one hand, I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. It isn’t just unsavory or undesirable that China be in a position to so directly influence (and punish!) the free exercise of rights in the United States. It is untenable.

I also believe in freedom of action, thought and association. I believe in those freedoms as ends to themselves, untroubled by the need to justify them by evaluating their second-order effects. I don’t stop believing in those ideals when they concern the private commercial interactions between individuals and/or corporations. Not because I have some fanciful belief that unregulated, unrestricted trade across borders will always lead to universally optimal outcomes. Of course it won’t. But because I earnestly believe in rising tides, and in the generally superior function of the informal, unplanned, spontaneous features of markets to organize our collective activities.

I also believe that allowing companies formed by Americans to do business wherever they want will generally lead to better aggregate outcomes than some Very Smart Person with every incentive to parlay their $175,000 public servant salary into a multi-million dollar net worth who believes they have the prescience to dictate which domestic industries ought to be subsidized and retained and which oughtn’t to be. I will always be concerned that the cure for concentrations of power will be worse than the disease.

And y’all, I have good reason to be concerned. Remember, if you would, that any time someone celebrates leaning on the state and policy to solve the distortions caused in markets by concentrated power that the people making those decisions think things like this:

Still, no matter how conflicted or uneasy we may be, these discussions are coming. You and I won’t be able to avoid them. Anti-trust. Restrictions on trade and activities with foreign powers like China. Abolishing billionaires. Maybe even trimming the power of the state (LOL, sorry, just seeing if you were paying attention). This isn’t a temporary topic. Like it or not, this IS the zeitgeist.

So what’s the answer?

Clear Eyes. We see and reject the meme of Yay, Capitalism! , which tolerates no dissent from the idea that mostly-free enterprise is the panacea that will seep in to overturn dictators and tyrants. We do so knowing that the meme form bears little resemblance to the simple belief that unstructured, democratic social organization which funnels rewards to risk-takers is a magnificent, proven mechanism to make men and women wealthier and more free.

Let me say this more clearly for my fellow small-l market liberals: we must be willing to see and identify concentrations of power and their effects without fear that doing so necessarily implies our consent to a state policy-based solution that might be worse.

Full Hearts. We recognize that neither we nor anyone else can be objective about which concentrations of power we deem distorting. Our determinations will reflect our posture and beliefs about a great many things. We will be tempted to see our own conclusions as self-evident and justice-affirming. We will be tempted to see others’ conclusions as attempts to engineer society in their own image. That’s the effect of the widening gyre. But even when everything in our head is telling us that the person we’re arguing with is using the power exerted by China or Facebook or the Banks or Big Government as an excuse to re-engineer society to suit their personal preferences, we listen and treat those arguments in good faith until they have proven otherwise.

Long after we’ve forgotten about the forced rewriting of Disney movie scripts, or the maps of China that ESPN uses on their Sportscenter background, or access bans by gaming and social media companies, this debate will be with us. For those of us who really, truly, earnestly believe in the power of capitalism, we can either lean on the meme of Yay, Capitalism! to thwart all comers, or we can engage in good faith.

We’re in the latter camp.

The Long Now, Pt. 3 – Is This Normal? Asking for a Friend


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The Long Now is personal.

Tick-Tock

The Long Now is political.

Make – Protect – Teach

The Long Now is systemic, both in a micro sense of the body politic riddled through and through with this cancer, and in a macro sense of the tectonic plates of social organization shifting wildly without foundation or tether.

Today’s note is about the micro.

Today’s note is about getting back to the Real.


That’s me on the left, giving Luca a pat on the head. That’s Neb Tnuh on the right, giving you a pat on the head.

If you’re not familiar with Neb, here’s how I introduced him last year:

“Neb has a hard time talking with real people these days. Neb just doesn’t … connect … the way he used to. He doesn’t have much to say. He mumbles a lot. He imagines long and involved conversations with people in his head, but that’s where they stay. In his head.

Sartre famously said that hell is other people. For Neb, hell is other people who want to talk about markets or politics. Neb is just so WEARY of being lectured for the umpteenth time on why Trump is so awful or why Trump is so great, why Bitcoin is going to $100,000 or why Bitcoin is going to zero, why the “fundamentals are sound” or why the fundamentals are sound EXCEPT for this one thing which will bring the whole house of cards tumbling down ANY DAY NOW, why the Fed is the source of all evil in the world or why the NRA is the source of all evil in the world or why the Democrats / Republicans are the source of all evil in the world.

So obviously Neb is a real barrel of laughs at parties, which he shuns today even though he remembers that he used to like parties. The circle of real people that he actively feels comfortable being around has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk until he can count them on his fingers, and even here Neb increasingly has a hard time connecting with these non-rhinoceros friends. He increasingly talks past and through the people who are the most important to him, like his wife and daughters. And that makes Neb saddest of all.

He’s lost friends over the widening gyre, lost over the event horizon of black hole Trumpdom or lost in the blare of doubleplusgood DemSoctalk. He’s lost family, too.

On the flip side of that coin, it’s easier and easier for Neb to talk with complete strangers on social media platforms. It’s all so easy for Neb to lose himself in this ocean of social abstraction and Turing tests, because he’s fluent in the symbolic languages of mathematics, history and pop culture. And so he swims in that ocean, compulsively even, until he’s forgotten whether or not there was ever a shore.

That’s the defining characteristic of life in the Long Now … you swim in an ocean of stimulus and fear so long that you forget whether or not there was ever a shore. You forget yourself. You forget your identity as an autonomous human-in-full, connected with other humans that you work and play with in a non-instrumental sense. You forget your Pack.

You become a cartoon.

You become a believer in the “Yay, capitalism!” and “Yay, military!” and “Yay, college!” narratives used by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy to their advantage and your detriment.

And on and on we swim in the ocean of social abstraction.

This is Water.

It’s intentional. It’s done TO us.

It’s a system of belief and forgetfulness designed to objectify us … to turn us into predictable and thus manipulable objects. Not objects like a shoe or a rake, but “objects” as the term is used in computer code, as digitized receptacles for if/then functions to act upon.

Our contradictions become attributes. Our vectors become bitmaps. We are smoothed through a psychological Gaussian blur. We are digitized and depixellated. Our autonomous human IDENTITY becomes a programmable human ENTITY.

When I say that we are transformed into cartoons, I mean that quite literally.

Sound familiar, Neb? It should.

You see, Neb loves to play cards and games. He loves to gamble. And when he was in college in the mid-80s, he was in a fraternity that had a very infrequent poker game, maybe once a month or so. It was a wonderful game … low stakes, friendly camaraderie, really a lot of fun. But over a period of about 18 months over his junior and senior years, Neb corrupted that monthly low-stakes game of Community into a weekly high-stakes game of Alienation and Cartoon … into a system of belief and forgetfulness.

First, Neb introduced wild cards into the game.

Neb would always laugh to himself when someone bristled at poker games with wild cards, when he heard someone say “that’s not REAL poker”, as if there’s anything real about any of this. Neb knew that he would be able to run circles around that guy in calculating the revised odds of winning poker once he introduced greater volatility into the game. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in more players hanging around in a hand longer than they should, given those revised odds. Neb also knew that greater volatility would result in players getting lucky more often, getting memorable hands more often … having more fun in the the game. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without wild cards.

Then Neb introduced credit into the game.

The original poker game was cash-only. Sometimes we wouldn’t even play with chips, just with dimes and quarters and dollar bills. There was no “bank”; you played with the cash you brought to the game, and that was it. But then Neb offered to hold the money and dispense the chips, so that in case there was some disparity when people cashed their chips in (which occasionally happened in a banker-less game), Neb would make up the shortfall out of his own pocket. From there it was an easy step for Neb to take IOUs written down on a little slip of paper rather than cash. Pretty soon Neb had a wallet full of IOUs. Pretty soon a game where losing $20 in cash felt awful became a game where losing $80 in little slips of paper felt like nothing. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without credit.

Then Neb raised the stakes.

This one was easy. Once you were no longer limited to the cash you brought to the table and once you no longer had to settle up your debts at the end of the game, it just made sense to raise the stakes. In truth it made no sense, of course, but Neb drove this with a narrative … that players were afraid if they didn’t jump in at the new betting levels. Amazing how college-age males don’t want to show that they’re scared or that the game is too big for them. Amazing how non-college-age males do the same. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without high stakes.

Then Neb introduced derivatives.

Derivative games are different than just adding wild cards to standard games. Derivative games are different rule sets, with additional zero-sum outcomes that allow for more ways for the better player to win with the same distribution of cards. Keep in mind that Neb played poker before Texas Hold-em and Omaha took over the world. This was dealer’s choice, and a derivative game with the right stimulus/response pattern could spread around the table like a virus. Side-pot games are a derivative rule set, as are hi-lo games, as are match-the-pot games. Neb introduced a game with SIX betting rounds, plus hi-lo, plus match the pot if you lost.  Tons of action, everyone felt like they were in the game all the way to the end, and then there was that wonderful frisson … that thrill of anticipation and ENORMOUS pot-matching potential loss … if you stayed in for that final, central card. Pretty soon everyone forgot what it was like to play games without derivatives.

And then Neb stole their tells.

This was the big one.

All of the regulars had different tells, but they all had one. Here was the one that made the most money for Neb. This was Kurt’s tell.

The final action of a hi-lo game, where both the best hand and the worst hand split the pot, is to declare whether you are going high (best hand) or low (worst hand) or both ways (must win both the high contest and the low contest with different 5-card combinations from your set of cards). To declare for high you put one chip in your clenched fist, to declare for low you put zero chips in your fist, and to declare for both you put two chips in your fist. You do all this underneath the table, you wait until everyone shows their fists publicly, and then everyone reveals the number of chips in their hands at the count of three.

When Kurt was declaring high (or both ways, I guess), his clenched fist looked like this:

And when Kurt was declaring for low, his fist looked like this:

That little crook of the thumb (and the ability to quickly calculate the right play as soon as Kurt’s hand came up above the table) was by itself worth a couple of thousand dollars to Neb, playing low stakes poker over a period of months. I won’t get into the math, except to say that knowing Kurt’s tell – and so always having the option of going the other way in a hi-lo game – gave Neb a +$2.00 to +$3.00 expected value for every hand dealt once the game was geared up to maximum loss levels. And they dealt a lot of hands. This was the secret to the system that Neb set up … he had a consistent positive expected return on every hand that was dealt, while the other players had a consistent negative expected return. And you may think that would make for a short-lived game where everyone quickly tired of playing with Neb, BUT:

  • The gameplay was thrilling, both on each hand and over the course of the night. When you won, you won big and you believed that you had played brilliantly. Neb would tell you so. When you lost, you believed it was because you were “unlucky”. You believed that it wasn’t your “fault”. Neb would tell you that, too.
  • On any given hand, Neb was subject to apparent volatility, which he played to the hilt. Neb loved to lose the occasional hand on a bad beat!
  • While there was very little true volatility for Neb, there was a ton of volatility for the other players. Meaning that everyone would have the occasional big win, and that was all that was needed to keep them coming back and believing in the game. And forgetting that the game had ever been anything different.
  • While Neb had a consistent positive expected return on every hand dealt, the player from whom Neb stole his tell typically had a positive expected return on that hand. A small positive return, to be sure, but enough to condition players over time to persist in their tells and believe that they were particularly good players in Neb’s game. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough … everyone who sat at Neb’s table long enough came to believe that they were a great poker player. LOL.

And so did Neb. Also LOL.

It wasn’t playing poker really well that made Neb a lot of money in that college game. It was building a fear and stimulus machine that made Neb a lot of money. It was building a system of play that predictably zapped and rewarded the other players, so that they believed that a negative expected value system was a positive expected value system, and they forgot that an alternative system of play was even possible. It was turning his fraternity “brothers” into stimulus/response objects, turning them into abstracted versions of themselves. It was turning them into cartoons.

And in doing so, Neb became a cartoon himself. Not an objectified and manipulated cartoon (yet), but a cartoon nonetheless. Neb is neither clear-eyed nor full-hearted.

See, Neb didn’t really PLAN to objectify his fraternity buds. It just came naturally to him. That is, in fact, the scariest thing about Neb … he really does swim effortlessly in this ocean of social abstraction and manipulation. It’s something I have to talk to him about pretty much every day, especially when he steals the password to my Twitter account.

Looking back on it now, I am grateful beyond measure that online poker and poker-as-a-business did not exist for Neb in the mid-80s. Because if they had, Neb’s life would have gone down a VERY different path. A bad path. And of course, so would have mine.

Because Neb was not wise enough to understand the WHY of his poker winnings. Because Neb, like Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, would have thought he was talented enough to “compete” at a higher level. As if talent is enough to succeed in a fear and stimulus system geared against you. As if talent is enough to succeed in a rigged game. Because that’s what a fear and stimulus system IS … a rigged game.

Ah, youth.

For every too-clever-by-half coyote like Neb Tnuh who confuses talent for being on the right side of a fear and stimulus system, there is a scaled version of that same system that exists to objectify and stimulus/response Neb like he objectified and stimulus/responsed his frat brothers, and there is a scaled version of THAT system on top of that, and a scaled version of THAT system on top of that.

There are at least four nested systems of believing and forgetting in our modern social lives. Sooner or later, we all become objectified cartoons. We all get bitmapped. We all start to believe that our negative expected value game is a positive expected value game, and we all forget that an alternative game is even possible. Some part of us, anyway. The Neb part of us.

Few people today remember The Peter Principle, pretty much the first wildly successful pop psychology business management book, published in 1969. It’s a great book, with a simple one-line lesson: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.

So here’s the Epsilon Theory variation, call it The Neb Principle:

In mass society, every citizen tends to rise to his level of cartoonification.

At every level of this nested and fractal system of believing and forgetting, the micro-structure time-line is the same. This is the exhaustive set of steps to establish a system of believing and forgetting, at any level of organization. It succeeds without fail, always and in all ways.

1. Introduce wildcards

2. Introduce credit

3. Raise the stakes

4. Introduce derivatives

5. Steal the tells

In every field of economic endeavor … in every manifestation of political competition … in every nook and cranny of our modern social lives … a system of believing and forgetting is being established following exactly these steps. It wasn’t necessarily planned that way. But with enough coyotes and enough time, it emerges. It IS. And it is a VERY stable system.

I believe that we are at a tipping point today. I believe that we are on the cusp of these systems becoming irreversible. Or at least irreversible without a cataclysmic Fall. I believe that the process of the Long Now is now being ensconced at a global scale … at the scale of an oligarchic economic system of believing and forgetting and a statist political system of believing and forgetting.

How? Through mastery of the fifth stage of the Long Now micro-structure.

By stealing our tells.

That’s what Facebook does. That’s what Google does. That’s what the Democratic Party and the Republican Party do. That’s what Wall Street does. That’s what every S&P 500 company does. That’s what every central bank does. That’s what every powerful economic and political organization in the world does today.

They steal our tells. At scale. At global scale.

You know the word for what they do with our stolen tells, don’t you? It’s Nudge.

And you know the true superpower of a Nudge, right? We believe we’re making a real choice. We believe we’re playing a positive expected value game by making that choice. We forget that making a choice on their terms and using their language is itself a choice.

I’ve written a lot about Nudging States and Nudging Oligarchs, and I won’t repeat all that here. If you want to know where I’m coming from, start with this note from two years ago: Clever Hans.

I will repeat this, though.

What do we DO about our Hollow Markets and our Broken Politics?

Actively engage with yourself to recognize how many of your behavioral choices in the world of investing and politics aren’t a free choice at all, but are instead derived from a clever “choice architecture” imposed by others. You probably won’t change your behavior. That’s kinda the point of these pleasantly skinned Hobson’s Choices — they’re offers you can’t refuse. But the day you recognize the choice architectures that enmesh us is the day you start making true choices. It’s the day you start thinking and reading differently. It’s the day that everything starts to change for yourself, your family, and your clients.

Actively engage with yourself to create a critical thinking curriculum that adds to your reservoir of free-thinking autonomy. Read more history. Read more biography. Read more science fiction. Every day. Watch a lot less CNBC and CNN and Fox and all the rest. I know we can’t wean ourselves from Facebook and Twitter. It’s our bottle and we’re addicted. I am, too. But take the time to listen to someone whose political or market views you emotionally dislike and force yourself to see the world through those views, not as an adversary but as another thinking, feeling human being. Every day. Educate yourself, don’t train yourself.

Actively engage with others to spread the word. To educate, not to train. We treat others as free-thinking autonomous human beings, not as manipulable objects. Never as objects, even if it means losing the client or losing the election. This is how we fix things. Bird by bird. Voice by voice. From below, not from above. As wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

So I stand by all that. I think it’s all more important than ever. It’s a really good start on a personal regimen to resist the micro-structure of the Long Now, to keep your personal Neb in check.

But it’s not enough. There’s not enough time.

We have to confound the stolen tells. At scale. At global scale.

So I’ve got two new ideas … two forms of public resistance to share with you … two forms of hiding your tell that I think can scale … two forms of bypassing the fear and stimulus systems that make cartoons of us at every turn. One for politics and one for economics.

In politics, I want to start a movement to encourage write-in candidates. I want to give everyone the tools and the information they need to bypass the political party system. We organize to do this, using the Epsilon Theory megaphone as our springboard. Maybe we write in joke candidates. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we write in ourselves. It won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?

In economics, I want Epsilon Theory pack members to know who the other Epsilon Theory pack members are, so that they can do business with and share information with like-minded people directly. I want to give Epsilon Theory pack members the tools and the information they need to bypass the information system of the tech giants and Wall Street. Obviously this is a voluntary thing. Don’t worry, pack-members-who-work-at-the-Fed, I’m not going to out you (and there are a lot of you). But we have a LOT of people actively engaged with Epsilon Theory. Tens of thousands of people, all over the world, in every financial institution of any significance you can name. Our active cooperation in a mutual game without fear, without stimulus, without cartoons … a mutual game of full-hearted engagement … it won’t be noticeable at first. And then it will. And then it becomes a self-sustaining narrative. And then … who knows?

Imagine that.


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ET Election Index (Candidates) – October 15, 2019


This is the fifth installment of Epsilon Theory’s Election Index. Our aim with the feature is to lay as bare as possible the popular narratives governing the US elections in 2020. That includes narratives concerning policy proposals and candidates found in the news, opinion and feature content produced by national, local and smaller outlets.

Our goal is to make you a better, more informed consumer of political news by showing you indicators that the news you are reading may be affected by (1) adherence to narratives and other abstractions, (2) the association/conflation of topics and (3) the presence of opinions. Our goal is to help you – as much as it is possible to do – to cut through the intentional or unintentional ways in which media outlets guide you how to think about various issues, an activity we call Fiat News.

Our goal is to help you make up your own damn mind.

Our first edition covered April 2019, and included detailed explanations of each of the metrics we highlight below. If this is your first exposure to our narrative maps, analysis or metrics, we recommend that you start with that primer.


Notes to October 15 Analysis

  • We have further pared our list of candidates to those consistently polling at >1% based on the October 10/11 Quinnipiac and Economist polls.
  • This drops O’Rourke, Klobuchar, Booker and Gabbard from our metrics below.
  • The analysis covers political media published during the period from September 1, 2019 through October 15, 2019.

Election Narrative Structure as of October 15, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Commentary on Election Narrative Structure

  • Our view on the Narrative of the 2020 Election has not changed since July: The common knowledge is that the 2020 election is a referendum on race, gender and class identity.
    • This doesn’t mean we agree or disagree with this characterization.
    • This means that this is what everyone thinks everyone thinks the election is about, at least as promulgated by US political media.
  • Every highly connected cluster in the narrative structure from the months of July, August, September and October to-date was charged with and defined by this language.
  • Outside of this consistent structure, we have also seen four major shifts in the election narrative:
    • The most on-narrative candidate – the one whose personal narrative structure has best matched that of the election at large – has consistently been Bernie Sanders. We think this has changed as a direct result of missionary activity and actions taken by the new incumbent of that title. We now think the most on-narrative candidate is Elizabeth Warren.
    • Impeachment, which was a peripheral issue, is now a central one to the election. We anticipate potential wedges between those in offices that can influence and speak publicly about their role in the proceedings (e.g. Warren, Sanders, Harris) and those whose commentary will come from the outside (e.g. Buttigieg, Biden).
    • As we have written for nearly all of 2019, the forces arrayed against a successful Biden candidacy seem to us insurmountable; however, we analyze narratives, not polls. There are insights into Biden’s core electorate that we cannot offer. What we can offer is counsel to recognize in your own news consumption how concerted the decidedly negative coverage of Biden appears to be. Already the most negative by far, in September and October Biden coverage became almost unrecognizably negative in comparison to that of other candidates.
    • In the wake of summer recession fears (see our ET Pro monitors for more on this), the Economy as an electoral issue has finally raised its head above water. This is worth close monitoring to see which early narratives take shape.

Candidate Cohesion Summary

Commentary on Candidate Cohesion

  • The candidate with the most significant jump in narrative cohesiveness over the late summer should come as no surprise: it’s Elizabeth Warren.
  • As is always the case with observing instead of predicting, it isn’t clear the extent to which media narratives have influenced or simply reflected the more cohesive story about who Warren is as a candidate. Either way, everyone knows that everyone knows what Warren means now in ways that were far less clear some months ago.
  • Despite his fall in the polls, Sanders continues to have the clearest, most stable, most coherent narrative. Yet despite its continued favor among most media outlets (see Sentiment below), it seems to be the case that it’s a coherent narrative with limited electoral appeal.
  • Yang has consistently produced the least cohesive coverage in media. When outlets cover him, they do so in context of non-overlapping niche issues, other candidates or human interest stories surrounding his monthly UBI-preview giveaways. The result continues to be no consistent common knowledge about what Yang means as a candidate.
  • Surprisingly – and concerningly for his candidacy – this has increasingly been the case with Mayor Buttigieg as well. As an unknown early in the primary process, his limited coverage tended to be more cohesive because outlets told simple, consistent stories at different points. In spring debates, he was “erudite and intelligent.” Later coverage focused on his unique identity among candidates as an openly gay man. As debates have shifted into policies, that clear identity has faded – there is no Buttigieg policy narrative.
  • As for Harris, the continued strong cohesion of her narrative structure shouldn’t be seen as positive. As we will note in the sentiment section below, she is increasingly getting the Biden treatment in media: “We know who you are, and we don’t like it.”

Candidate Sentiment Summary

Commentary on Candidate Sentiment

  • In advance of her rise in polls, we noted in June and July that Sen. Warren was attracting much more positive sentiment across political media coverage, rivaling even that received by Sen. Sanders.
  • This has continued over August and September, in which sentiment attached to Warren and Sanders coverage far exceeded that of any other major candidate.
  • Those looking for a downtick in candidate narratives for lingering Native American / DNA test concerns or questioned claims of dismissal from an earlier career will come up empty.
  • The reverse is true for Biden, whose already abysmally negative narrative took a nose dive. How bad? By our measure, coverage of Biden during this period was, on average, roughly 230% more negative than that of the average democratic candidate. By comparison, coverage of Sen. Sanders was about 90% more positive than that of the average democratic candidate.
  • There is practically no issue relating to Biden’s candidacy which does not seem a ripe territory for profoundly negative language and coverage.
  • The Sen. Harris narrative is slightly better, but our analysis (read: our opinion) is that she is rarely attached to policy questions (much more commonly to pure identity coverage), and that negative ‘hypocrisy’ language, especially with respect to rights, policing and justice, is prominent throughout her narrative structure.

Candidate Attention Summary

Commentary on Candidate Attention

  • In our July update, we wrote the following:
    • For better or worse, if Warren were to refocus efforts on participating more actively in the identity-related narratives that we believe represent the common knowledge about what the 2020 Election “is about”, we think she would emerge further as a leading candidate.
  • We think that Senator Warren has done exactly this. We think the firming of a more coherent identity as “an electable and frankly less weird version of Sanders”, more positive sentiment and coverage more consistent with what the 2020 election “is about” at a macro level have been the results.
  • We also wrote our opinion that Warren appeared to have trouble differentiating her narrative from Sanders, which meant that the more cohesive Sanders narrative tended to be more in-line with election narratives. Warren’s efforts have literally flipped this dynamic on its head. Now it is Sanders being asked what he offers as a candidate that Warren does not.
  • Biden remains at high attention, but for almost universally bad reasons – in effect, there are two focal points in the election narrative structure.
    • On the one hand, there is a high attention center of gravity focused on Biden and the common knowledge missionaries who want to promote a more-of-the-same, not-really-a-progressive, part-of-the-neoliberal-system narrative with very negative sentiment and language.
    • On the other, there is a high attention center of gravity focused on identity and social/economic inequality issues. These were previously largely associated with the Sanders candidacy. We think that has since transitioned to Senator Warren.
  • Importantly, we think that consumers of political news – especially if they agree with either of those characterizations – should be mindful and cautious of news appearing to hew closely to either of those narratives.

On The Great Jihad And Other Possible Futures

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“He had seen two main branchings along the way ahead—in one he confronted an evil old Baron and said: “Hello, Grandfather.” The thought of that path and what lay along it sickened him.

The other path held long patches of gray obscurity except for peaks of violence. He had seen a warrior religion there, a fire spreading across the universe with the Atreides green and black banner waving at the head of fanatic legions drunk on spice liquor […]

He found that he could no longer hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this—the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.”

Frank Herbert, Dune

Dune is easily one of the greatest works of science fiction ever written. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the greatest works of popular fiction ever written.

That’s not to imply Dune is an easy read. Or even a pleasant one. The first couple hundred pages are incredibly taxing. But it’s all downhill from there. In fact, I’m convinced this is precisely what us Dune fans love about the book. Itsdepth rewards you for your effort. But you have to earn it. Dune is truly a book for “idea people.”

This is precisely why Dune movie adaptations inevitably disappoint. Sure, Dune has a sci-fi plot. It’s got fairly well-drawn characters. It’s got action. But the real draw are the Big Ideas—ideas about how politics, science and religion shape humanity’s evolutionary path. Ideas about how politics, science and religion are used to manipulate humanity’s evolutionary path.

At its core, Dune is all about narrative.

(Funnily enough, it seems like Jodorowsky “got it”, at least in his own loony way. But his Dune adaptation was never made)

One of the recurring images in the book is what we in finance know as a probability tree. In the world of Dune, if you are at least a little bit psychic, and you amplify that psychic ability with a generous helping of hallucinogenic “spice,” you can catch a glimpse of the branching probability tree that is the as-yet-unrealized future.

Here in the investment and financial advice businesses, we, too, seem to have reached an evolutionary crossroads. I don’t claim to know exactly what the industry will look like in ten or twenty years. But like Dune‘s protagonist, Paul Atreides, I think I can peer through the haze of a spice trance to glimpse some of the branching possibilities.

Each of these possible futures has different implications for financial markets and the financial advice business.

The Great Jihad

In many ways The Great Jihad is the most straightforward path. It’s just not a particularly pleasant one. Here, we as a species fail to transition from competitive games to cooperatives games. Inevitably, this leads to big wars and violent revolutions. In this future state of the world, our portfolios and advisory practices are the very least of our concerns. We’ll be much more concerned with the simple things in life. Things like not getting shot, or sent to re-education camps, or starving to death.

If you truly believe we are headed for the Great Jihad, you want to own gold, guns, crypto and seeds.

The Zombification of Everything

We’re pretty familiar with the playbook for this future, because it’s more or less what we’ve been living since the 2008 financial crisis. Here, growth and interest rates remain low for many, many years. Decades. What’s more, the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy somehow succeed in stabilizing the social and political tensions that this state of affairs tends to create.

This is a policy controlled world of zombie companies, zombie investors and zombie civic institutions.

From an investing standpoint, cheap, beta-oriented strategies will continue to dominate the product landscape. There will, of course, be niche opportunities for traders and stock pickers to make money, but never to such a degree that the policy controlled nature of economic and market outcomes can be called into question.

As far as financial advice is concerned, this future will amplify current trends toward focusing on financial planning and even financial therapy. The role of investment selection in an advisory practice will be increasingly marginalized, and advisor compensation will increasingly be divorced from client investment portfolios. There is no need to worry about investment outcomes in a policy controlled world. Why would anyone pay a premium for investment advice in such a world?

What’s more, two “truths” will be self-evident in a zombified world:

  1. Always be buying.
  2. Always be long duration

This is a future without bear markets and without interest rate risk. Financial asset valuations will have “permanently” re-rated higher on the back of common knowledge that the cost of capital will always and forever remain pinned near zero, and that economic cycles have been tamed.

In this world, Ben Graham style value investors are extinct. To the extent people who consider themselves value investors still have money to manage, they will claim to adhere to “evolved” value philosophies that emphasize “quality” or GARP.

However, the Zombification of Everything does not strike me as a stable equilibrium, precisely due to the social and political tensions that must be managed to maintain it. This future isn’t so much a destination as a layover on the way to something else.

The Great Reset

Great Reset is a kind of middle way. It’s not quite the dystopian hellscape of the Great Jihad. But it ain’t exactly a bed of roses, either.

I see two possible paths here. The first (and more unnerving) is that of debt jubilee and MMT. Here it is common knowledge that neither debt nor deficits matter. This is a future of structurally higher inflation. It’s only a question of degree. To me, this is the highest probability future of the three examined here.

Of course, the worst possible outcome is hyperinflation and revolution (shades of The Great Jihad there). But I believe there is a “milder” way forward, too, with “merely” high single digit or low double digit inflation. After all, this kind of inflation is the most politically expedient solution to the debt burdens and unfunded liabilities borne by today’s developed market policymakers.

What does this mean for our portfolios?

Much of what we think we “know” about investing will no longer work. Stocks and bonds will be positively correlated. Conventional wisdom about asset allocation will disappoint. Long duration bets will get crushed. Equity multiples will re-rate lower as the cost of capital rises.

The differences between stocks will matter again. Why? Pricing power is why. Businesses with pricing power will survive and even thrive. Businesses without pricing power will struggle. Many will die.

Naturally, this could open the door to a renaissance in stock picking. Even a renaissance in more traditional forms of value investing.

And what of financial advisors?

We will have to get to grips with the fact that many of our investing heuristics will not be particularly effective in this regime. They may even be counterproductive.

The diversification offered by a 60/40 portfolio will disappoint. Portfolio construction and stock selection will matter again. Financial therapists whose understanding of investing is limited to the heuristic that a low cost, 60/40 portfolio is always and everywhere best portfolio will find themselves at a disadvantage versus competitors who adapt more quickly to this new economic regime.

Both the Great Reset and The Great Jihad represent explicit rejections of the Zombification of Everything. Likewise, they represent explicit rejections of the Cult of the Omnipotent Central Banker. We will probably still have central bankers after the Great Reset. But common knowledge will mark them as sorcerer’s apprentices. Everyone will know that everyone knows that policy controlled markets are a febrile delusion.

I suppose there is also a kind of Golden Path here, where the Cult of the Omnipotent Central Banker is cast down without debt jubilee or MMT. How might such a thing happen? Policymakers themselves might eventually reject the idea of policy controlled outcomes and the tired tropes that come along with it (Fed Days, forward guidance, etc.). But the Golden Path is a narrow one, and it strikes me as a low probability outcome.

I conclude with a final Dune quote worth meditating on, whenever we consider the branching possibilities in life, business or the financial markets:

“And he thought then about the Guild–the force that had specialized for so long that it had become a parasite, unable to exist independently of the life on which it fed. They had never dared grasp the sword… and now they could not grasp it. They might have taken Arrakis when they realized the error of specializing on the melange awareness-spectrum narcotic for their navigators. They could have done this, lived their glorious day and died. Instead, they’d existed from moment to moment, hoping the seas in which they swam might produce a new host when the old one died.

The Guild navigators, gifted with limited prescience, had made the fatal decision: they’d chosen always the clear, safe course that leads ever downward into stagnation.”


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): On the Great Jihad And Other Possible Futures

Death in Slow Motion

PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Death in Slow Motion


There is nothing quite like a slow-motion death scene.

And there is no slow-motion death scene quite like the classic from the 1973 Turkish film and popular 2012 meme Kareteci Kiz. The picture you clicked on to get to this piece gives you a small taste of its glory, but you really must watch the video to get the full experience.



Speaking of painfully drawn out deaths, let’s talk about the asset management industry (hey-o!). To that end, I read an interesting thought experiment (read: writing prompt) from our friend Meb Faber yesterday.

Now, Ben has already put his views on the so-called “bubble” in passive management out there, which as per usual were contained in a post that launched a thousand hot takes. His actual observation was pretty uncontroversial. I’ll put it this way: if your clients, boards or bosses are asking you “why didn’t we just buy the S&P 500?” in response not only to stock-picking strategies that didn’t work, but to any investments in foreign stocks, bonds, and other diversifying or objective-oriented investments, then you already understand the narrow point he was making about the always-be-buying impact of the indexing imperative.

As much as we may want it to be (or would like to pretend for argumentation purposes that it is), common knowledge about indexing is NOT confined to an expressed preference for the avoidance of active risk-taking on individual securities (or more accurately, for not paying fees for such activities). It absolutely IS common knowledge that indexing in practice also means a preference for long exposure to US stocks over any other way, place or method of taking investment risk. Honestly, anyone who denies this either hasn’t talked to a client or board in years, is being hopelessly pedantic, or is deliberately or accidentally misleading you to some unknowable end.

Still, Meb’s question isn’t an active vs. passive question, really. It isn’t even a question about active management. Meb’s is a question about our industry, full stop. And it’s a good one. Why do people still pay above-passive fees, when common knowledge about indexing has become so powerful? Is this practice doomed to die? And if so, is it shortable (by which I think we all understand we mean philosophically or conceptually, not whether you need to go find borrow on TROW)?

Like I said, it’s a good question. And I don’t know the answer. Sorry.

What I DO know is that there are a few strong inertial forces keeping the asset management industry alive as it flops around the room with a dozen ragged, bloody exit wounds. If you want to know where this industry is going, I think you’ve got to ask yourself what you think will happen to each:

  1. Human Preference in Advice: Some humans prefer in-person human advice and are price-insensitive to getting it if it comes with relationship. This isn’t a novel opinion, and I’ve already written my piece on this. Confined largely to HNW financial advice – wealth management – both the preference among many consumers for human advice and the fact that the actual value provided by a financial advisor is behavioral and emotional in nature are more powerful bulwarks against erosion than most observers allow. Short the market for advice, and I think you’ll get burned.
  2. Revenue Sharing: This is the uglier side of the otherwise benign influence of wealth management and financial planning. Put simply, actively managed mutual funds and their attendant industry infrastructure are still flopping around primarily because actively managed mutual funds are one of the few things keeping some wirehouse financial advisory platforms afloat. Without 12b-1s, platform participation fees and revenue sharing, many wires couldn’t afford either the business or the staff, and wouldn’t be able to keep FAs from escaping to the warm embrace of advice-driven RIAs. Where does this go? I think it bleeds out gradually, and when these compensation structures are no longer material to any ongoing business, they are killed off suddenly as a false-concession in some regulatory negotiation with the banks.
  3. Fiduciary Fear-Mongering: If you have served on a 401(k) committee, and that committee has hired a consultant, this will not be surprising. If you haven’t, it will probably be a surprise. But ERISA consultants routinely, formally advise plan sponsors that not offering actively managed mutual fund options as complements to passive offerings could subject them to risk of suits or DOL action. No, I am not kidding. This kind of garbage is sticky, and the consultants/lawyers/regulators in this space will keep it that way far longer than any of us would guess.
  4. Risk Transference: An issue for both retail and institutional investors alike, huge categories of the professional money management industry exist simply because advisers or staff of asset owners have a career risk incentive to lay off accountability for missing goals. Separately, and probably more importantly, they must also grapple with a reality in which the theoretical alpha-generative potential of lucky active money management picks is the only thing that fills the gap between projected and actuarial returns. In other words, if asset owners are given the Hobson’s Choice of recommending benefit cuts / spending cuts or telling legislatures / donors / family members that they need to increase contributions on the one hand, or buying actively managed strategies because doing so permits them to include an alpha assumption in their long-term strategic return projections that theoretically could fill the gap, guess which one they pick? Hope springs eternal, y’all.

(And yes, I suppose there are still a few schmucks like us out there who think that occasionally paying someone to identify mispriced assets still makes sense.)

So yeah, I don’t know, but if I were a betting man, I’m betting on this industry being around in something resembling its current form for much longer than most people would extrapolate from current trends. That means people and institutions continuing to pay above-passive fee rates for active management at the portfolio and asset class level. If you’re a full-hearted FA trying to do good, I think you’ll have your shot as long as you want it. If you’re a full-hearted active investor who thinks there are still reasons to own things based on an assessment of their value, so will you.

But all of us would also benefit from eyes clear enough to see that the reasons for the persistence of some parts of our industry as they exist today are not ones to feel particularly good about.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Death in Slow Motion

Rust and Blight


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Rust and Blight


Suddenly, over the slope, as if tethered to a cord of air drawing quickly upward, came a Northern Harrier, motionless but for its rising. So still was the bird – wings, tail, head – it might have been a museum specimen. Then, as if atop the wind, it slid down the ridge, tilted a few times, veered, tacked up the hill, its wings hardly shifting. I thought, if I could be that hawk for one hour I’d never again be just a man.

PrairyErth: A Deep Map, by William Least Heat-Moon

This is cedar rust.

It is the effect of the fungus gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae on an apple tree leaf in my orchard. This fungus has infected a particularly lovely Yarlington Mill tree that would otherwise make a rich English-style single-varietal cider.

I can slow cedar rust down.

I can spray the tree with copper or sulfur, and it’ll kill some spores. I can spray the tree with something ‘organic’, and it’ll make the spores smell like whatever ‘organic’ goop I sprayed them with. Neither strategy will stop them. They’re in the air, on the bark and on the ground. Any leaf on this tree that has been infected with cedar rust this season will eventually curl, yellow and die. Any new leaf on the same branch will still almost certainly become infected. Even on new growth on a different branch, the prognosis isn’t very good. I’ll lose every leaf on this tree this season before its time.

The tree will live. But as long as the eponymous hosts for the fungus exist in the vicinity, it will be my orchard’s constant companion.

I have a few choices.

I can find, uproot and burn every cedar, juniper, cypress, sugi, sequoia and redwood tree within a half-mile radius. Having seen what juniper did to turn the Central Texas plains into a desert over the last 100 years or so, I am inclined toward this idea. Regretfully, my neighbors disagree, even though the destruction of all cedar and juniper trees is both a righteous and holy crusade – and the only permanent solution to my little problem with cedar rust.

Alternatively, I can religiously apply sulfur to each and every apple tree before and following bud-break, and then follow up with copper in the late season.

But tearing up the tree and replanting a new one? Wouldn’t do a thing. Cedar rust isn’t a problem with the tree. It’s a problem with the tree’s environment.


This is fire blight.

Fire blight is, well, a blight. It isn’t caused by a fungus, but by a little bacterium called Erwinia amylovora. Thankfully, this picture isn’t from my orchard.

Fire blight is different from cedar rust. It can be controlled and prevented at some stages with many of the same chemical applications, but once you’ve got a canker in your wood, that wood must be removed and burned. If it emerges during the Goldilocks temperature and humidity environment of a North American summer, you’ll have to cut it a foot or more inside the canker to be sure.

And if the canker is in the main leader?

Pull the trees up, root and stem. Burn them in the hottest fire you can find and use the ashes to curse your enemies. Nuke ’em from orbit. And with whatever you plant the next time, be sure to pay your weregild to Cornell University, which curiously owns the patents on nearly every fire blight-resistant rootstock and makes a few bucks on just about every apple tree you’re likely to find at a modern orchard.

When it comes to blight, the problem is with the tree and with its roots.

How does the orchard hobbyist discern between rust and blight?

It is never easy. Sometimes a canker or growth gives you a strong hint, but the effects can otherwise be pretty similar. Browning, curling, drying of leaves. Yellow spots. These same symptoms may describe a dozen different maladies, some of which warrant patience and pruning shears, and some of which demand nothing short of fire and blood.

How does the investor and citizen discern between rust and blight?

It is never easy.


I remember the exact moment I decided to make orcharding part of my life’s work.

When my wife and I were first planning to be the only poor saps moving to Connecticut from Texas, we found a few houses we liked. We liked this one a little more than most. We thought the yard and woodlands were nice – a great place to free range our kids. But when we took a look inside the old red barn, we found two things: a gnarled old apple tree stump, four 19th century cider barrels and this old apple mill.

That was it. That was when we fell in love.

That was also when we decided we would plant apple trees.

It isn’t that I have some long-standing thing for apples. I mean, Jesus, I know I’m odd, but I’m not “apples are my passion” odd. My favorite fruit is the blackberry. I think most American cider is insipid. But I don’t understand how you can see and touch the value that generations saw in a piece of earth and come away unmoved. Unchanged.

If I could be that hawk for one hour I’d never again be just a man.

There is a contradiction here; surely you see it. It is the wellspring of American exceptionalism – an idea manufactured into a meme by the right and an ironic joke by the left. We are an exception, but not because we are uniquely free or uniquely smart or uniquely strong. We are an exception because for most of our history we have been a frontier. We are ever torn between a cultural and personal predisposition for adventure and a yearning for deeper connection. I moved my family half-way across the country, away from every root we’d ever sunk into that deep red clay, only to find a 150-year old barrel with a painted-on family name I felt obliged to honor. And for Americans, that story is decidedly unexceptional. It is the kind of story a hundred million families could tell.

What is the thread which ties those stories together? The escape to and civilization of a frontier.

If you, like my 7th or 8th (or whatever) great-grandfather, arrived in the early-to-mid 18th Century from an Irish port, you probably landed in Philadelphia or Wilmington. You were probably poor and probably indentured for some period to pay for the voyage. Once you were able, you found the lands around Philadelphia full and far too expensive. And so you took to the road west toward what is now Harrisburg or Lancaster, where Swiss Anabaptists fleeing an unfriendly religious environment and Palatines fleeing nearly constant French incursions into the Rheinland had already settled. And so, by wagon or horse, you followed the curve of the Shenandoah Valley into the James River Valley and all down the spine of the Appalachians.

No matter when you came, you kept going until you found the frontier.

It was always moving. Before 1750, the frontier was the backwoods of Virginia. In the 1760s or 1770s it was probably in North Carolina (my dear wife thinks I should make an Outlander reference here, but I have informed her that would be very off-brand). In the 1780s and 1790s, that frontier shifted to what is now Northeast Tennessee, where the Tennessee River and the lands lying before the Cumberland Gap opened entirely new worlds to most European settlers. Alabama, Mississippi. Kentucky. Indiana. Missouri. In the coming decades, the breach of the Appalachians meant that the frontier’s race westward would accelerate.

The most popular and enduring myth about these early pioneers – especially among my fellow Tocqueville-loving conservatives – is that they were an especially pious people, bringing civilization, godliness and order to the untamed country. What a laugh. As Lyman Stone correctly points out, they were drunks and heathens all, by which I hope you understand that I mean no criticism. These were my kind of people. The settling of the frontier was a demonstrable rejection of established cultural norms, established social structures and entrenched power. Of course it was. Y’all, that was sort of the point of the whole affair.

Image
Source: Lyman Stone

And yet.

Despite the fundamental small-l liberalism of frontier expansion, in each of these new communities, duty to fellow-laborers quickly became sacred and indispensable. Naturally, this took different forms in different places and with different people. But the pattern is recognizable in nearly every frontier town. Citizens realize that they needed someone who could marry them. Someone to share the burden of teaching children. Someone to shoe a horse. Someone to judge a dispute between two neighbors. Someone who could be trusted to lock up citizens who’d been hitting the cider too hard. They also needed to know that the people around them could be roused to selfless, communal action if their community was under threat.

Civilization emerges. Conservatism follows when people conclude that they’d like to keep the things they’ve found.

Of course, not every American had the luxury of simply working off an indenture to make whatever they could of the world. Nearly 4 million Americans whose mothers and fathers lived for centuries under the vile institution of chattel slavery were forced to wait until its abolition. And yet theirs is perhaps the most powerful frontier story of all – navigating at once a new, unfriendly and unfamiliar country, and in conquering it discovering and creating one of the most culturally cohesive – and yes, in its own way, conservative – communities in the world.

And that’s a good thing. No, that’s an exceptional thing – and essentially human.

Every great achievement, every great leap, every great advance we have made as a species is the result of small-l forces of liberalism and heterodoxy braving new ideas and new shores. AND it is the result of small-c conservatism and the successful institutionalization of orthodoxy around those new ideas alongside those that came before that worked.

The Long Now, well, it usurps and perverts them both. In the Long Now, we are helicopter parents and helicopter policymakers. In the Long Now, we create memes of liberalism! out of whole cloth in place of real frontiers, and memes of values! and conservatism! to defend not Lindy-proven ideas, but sources of existing power and influence. Want to know why we have a world that looks fair but feels foul? A world where present valuations of the future look great, but true expectations of the future feel lousy?

Tell me, where today is small-l liberalism and heterodoxy permitted from within? Do you think that you will find it in financial markets, where the very act of positing that maybe – just maybe – the job of a professional investor might involve judging the value of an asset being purchased in comparison to another has become a kind of heresy? Do you think you will find small-l liberalism among American progressives, where wholesale embrace of deplatforming and cancel culture will damn you and your ideas for all time because you were an ignorant dumbass when you were 16? Do you think you’ll find small-l liberalism among American conservatives, where opposition to Dear Leader will lead to your banishment and excommunication, regardless of the consistency of your political views?

Tell me, where today is good-faith orthodoxy not under assault from without? Is there a view about the public sphere it is possible to hold which has not made the transition in some group’s common knowledge from disagreement to dangerous? As utterly unacceptable, worthy of our derision, our strongest rhetoric and treatment as an existential threat to everything we love? Within these tribes of little meaning we have allowed to consume us, we handle every disease like rust, something to be pruned and treated, but gently. Kindly. Outside these tribes of little meaning we treat every disease like blight, burning and ripping indiscriminately.

There is but one end-game: a sparse field of dying trees, lovingly tended and violently defended.


Thankfully, in our own lives, careers and communities, we get to choose what we labor to heal and prune, and what we throw on the bonfire so that we may plant anew.

I’m with Ben. Even though we disagree on health care and health insurance. On abortion. On tax policy and the justifiable role and interest of the state in managing wealth inequality. On a great many things. We are not ‘political allies’ in any recognizable American sense. But national politics and national parties are a blight, and they will be a blight so long as they perpetuate their control through manipulation of existential narratives. I’ve ripped them from my orchard. Will I vote? Probably. Do I care who wins? Probably. I like Gorsuch. I’d like more Gorsuches. But my energy, my time, my wealth – such as they are – cannot belong to this painstakingly designed foreverwar of Flight 93 Elections.

News media is a blight, too. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t earnest, good people working to inform us. There are thousands – tens of thousands! A free press is, properly arranged, among the single most important institutions to the defense of liberty! However, the decision of the major outlets and their owners to fuse and gray the lines between news, analysis, feature and opinion journalism has made them vessels for fiat news and agents of the widening gyre. So yes, I think we should demand that legitimate news organizations, both left and right, exit the opinion and analysis business. Full stop. They won’t. Fostering the widening gyre via social media was the discovery that finally made this terrible business model modestly profitable for some outlets. And so it falls to us to determine the role they will play in how we inform ourselves, in our orchard. My vote, again, is for the bonfire.

What about other institutions, like our universities, our churches, temples, mosques and synagogues? Our system of laws, our intangible institutions and collective social values like home ownership, families, volunteerism, charity, patriotism and social mobility? There’s some pruning that needs to be done. Some branches in need of culling. But as marvelous as the really thoughtful Derek Thompson’s piece in The Atlantic was, I’m among those not yet willing to consign any of these things to flames of woe in hopes of some new stabilizing cultural institution taking their place.

Yet in all these things, what matters most is what we lose if we embrace the Long Now and the widening gyre.

What we lose is the ability and appetite to take risk.

Adrianus (Hadrian) was passing on his way to Tiberias when he saw a very old man digging holes preparatory to planting trees. Addressing the old man, he said: ‘I can understand you having worked in your younger days to provide food for yourself, but you seem to labour in vain at this work. You can surely not expect to eat of the fruits which the trees, that you intend planting, will bring forth?’

‘I’ said the old man, ‘must nevertheless do my duty as long as I am able to do it.’

‘How old are you?’ asked Adrianus.

‘I am a hundred years old,’ replied the planter, ‘and the God who granted me these long years may even vouchsafe me to eat of the fruit of these trees. But in any case I do not grudge the labour on them, and as it pleases the Lord so He may do with me.’

Leviticus Rabbah (5th to 7th Century)

Common knowledge will tell you that the real question is which national party and candidate you will support with your whole heart to stave off the coming existential threat, whatever that might be. I tell you that the real question is this: Who are you willing to take risk for, and who are you willing to protect – emotionally, morally and financially – when they take risk?

Maybe it’s just your immediate family.

Maybe it’s three or four neighbors. Or a couple very close friends.

Maybe it’s fellow laborers in local union.

Maybe it’s a small group from your place of worship.

Maybe it’s a small group of business partners, people with whom you’ve shared both wins and losses, successes and failures.

Maybe it’s a community separated by distance and united by technology, a collection of like-minded people willing to call themselves something.

Whatever that thing is for you, that’s your pack. Or at least it can be. We can Make. Every ounce of effort we would otherwise devote to defending blight can be devoted to taking new risks on new ideas, new investments and new creations. We can Protect. Every ounce of energy and time we muster to defend memes of our beliefs against all comers can be devoted to supporting our fellow-laborers when they fail. We can Teach. Every ounce of exhaustion that is poured into trying to signal our adherence to the Right Ideas can instead be poured into growing together intellectually, physically, emotionally, technologically, socially and culturally with our pack.

We may not succeed. But we will not grudge the labor.


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): Rust and Blight


The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


Peter Paul Rubens, Saturn Devouring His Son (1636)

Every three or four generations, humanity consumes itself with the fang and claw of fascism and collectivism. Every three or four generations, we eat our own.

This is that time. This is the Long Now.

In politics it takes the form of a widening gyre, where the center cannot hold against the onslaught of polarizing political entrepreneurs who eliminate the political promise of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant political fear. In economics it takes the form of a market utility, where those same illiberal political entrepreneurs eliminate the economic risk of the future, replacing it with the Long Now of constant economic stimulus.

The first note in this series was about my personal response to the Long Now. Tick-tock.

Today’s note is about my political response to the Long Now. Make – Protect – Teach.

My question is not how we prevent or avoid the Long Now. Sorry, but that ship has sailed.

No, my question is how we keep the flame of small-l liberal thought and small-c conservative thought alive through the Long Now, so that it can light the world again when this, too, shall pass.

My question is … must we ALL become rhinoceroses?

Eugène Ionesco’s masterpiece, Rhinoceros, is about a central European town where the citizens turn, one by one, into rhinoceroses. Once changed, they do what rhinoceroses do, which is rampage through the town, destroying everything in their path. People are a little puzzled at first, what with their fellow citizens just turning into rampaging rhinos out of the blue, but even that slight puzzlement fades quickly enough. Soon it’s just the New Normal. Soon it’s just the way things are … a good thing, even. Only one man resists the siren call of rhinocerosness, and that choice brings nothing but pain and existential doubt, as he is utterly … profoundly … alone.

Yay, rhinoceroses!

Ionesco was born in Romania in 1909, spent most of childhood in France, and returned to Romania when he was 16. He got married and had a kid, pursued a career as a poet and playwright, but ended up fleeing Romania in 1942 for Marseilles. He wrote Rhinoceros in 1959 to describe the rise of the fascists in his homeland, a particularly nasty crew of Eastern Orthodox ultranationalists who went by names like the Iron Guard, the Legion of the Archangel Michael, the Greenshirts, and the National Legionary State.

The Iron Guard didn’t seize power in some bloody putsch, and they didn’t rise to ascendancy overnight. No, it took 13 years for them to come to power, contesting parliamentary elections all the way along. They got 0.4% of the vote in 1927, 1.1% of the vote in 1931, 2.4% of the vote in 1932, got themselves banned in 1933, returned with a new name in 1936, and won 15.8% of the vote in 1937. They were banned again in 1939 following the dissolution of parliament, but struck a deal with strongman-general-turned-politician Ion Antonescu and became the only legal political party in 1940.

And then the pogroms began.

Like the Bucharest pogrom of 1941, where – per the US attaché report to Washington after visiting one of the many massacre sites – “sixty Jewish corpses were discovered [in the meat-packing plant] on the hooks used for carcasses. They were all skinned … and the quantity of blood about was evidence that they had been skinned alive.” Their guts were hung around their necks and they were labeled “kosher meat”. Yes, some were children. A five-year-old girl is mentioned, flayed alive.

You know, I almost didn’t keep that last paragraph. Too harsh, I thought. Takes away from the flow of the larger argument I’m trying to make here, I thought. Some readers will get distracted, I thought, and some will get angry. Some will not recover or read beyond that paragraph, I thought.

I mean … there are no massacres in Ionesco’s play. There’s a lot of property damage. A few people trampled to death by the rampaging rhinoceroses. But there are no ritualistic mass murders. No butchery of five-year-old girls. Ionesco’s play is kinda cool, by which I mean it is not hot. Not emotional. It’s one long allegory. And yet he lived within 50 miles of Bucharest. He saw the 1941 pogroms with his own eyes!

Ionesco wrote about the PROCESS of the widening gyre and the Long Now, not the OUTCOME.

Why? Because he didn’t have to write about the outcome. Hell, his audience had LIVED the outcome.

I don’t have that luxury. All we know of mass murder is what we see on Criminal Minds.

So I’m keeping that paragraph. Because Central Europe. Because Biafra. Because Cambodia. Because Rwanda. Because (I suspect) Xinjiang. This is what it looks like when Things Fall Apart. I need you to be aware of the stakes.

I need you to be aware of what can happen – of what ALWAYS happens – when we become rhinoceroses.

But now I need to pull you back from the emotion and horror of the OUTCOME of the widening gyre that was Romania in the 1930s, just like I need to pull you back from the OUTCOME of the widening gyre that was Nigeria in the 1960s or Cambodia in the 1970s or Rwanda in the 1990s. Because otherwise I can’t bring home the Big Point that Ionesco was making about the PROCESS of the widening gyre and the Long Now. Which is this:

It wasn’t just the bad guys who became rhinoceroses.

Sure, the local brutes and rightwing martinets are some of the first to become rhinoceroses. But soon enough it’s the scientists and the academics and the logicians who turn. They are the worst of the lot. Not because they’re the biggest and baddest rhinos. But because they know better. Because they make a conscious and deliberate choice IN THEIR HEADS to lie to themselves and embrace a real and palpable evil IN THEIR HEARTS.

“All cats die. Socrates is dead. Therefore, Socrates is a cat.”

THIS is the syllogism of the logician turned rhinoceros. It’s nonsense. It’s logically wrong. But THIS is the lie that a rhinoceros scientist can convince himself is truth. THIS is how an intelligent, educated academic who loves his family and his dog can witness a pogrom. And look away. Ehh … gotta break a few eggs.

Romanian politics in the 1930s was a classic widening gyre, spread out over a decade, and policy followed the classic Long Now formula – more and more economic stimulus, more and more political fear-mongering. This was true of the fascists, for sure. IT WAS ALSO TRUE OF THE LIBERALS.

By February 1938, when King Carol II dissolved the parliament, nothing mattered anymore in Romanian politics. There was no “truth”. There was only narrative. There was only spectacle. There was only the naked exercise of power and the celebration of that naked exercise of power. You didn’t just seize control. You seized control, and then you threw yourself a big parade for doing it. This was true of the fascists, for sure. IT WAS ALSO TRUE OF THE LIBERALS.

That’s the kicker of Rhinoceros. It wasn’t just the bad guys who turned. It was everyone.

Just like it’s not just the bad guys who are becoming rhinoceroses in America today. It’s everyone.

How does THAT happen?

Through the embrace by ALL political actors of the idea that NOTHING MATTERS beyond that which accretes power, that power is to be sought for power’s sake and that once attained, power must be USED. Used for draining the swamp. Used for unmasking the corruption of the Trumps or the Clintons or (and here’s where I make a clever connection with 1930s Romania) the Hohenzollerns or the Bratianus. Used for undoing the obscene legislative influence of the Democrats under Nancy Pelosi or the Republicans under Mitch McConnell or (and here I go again) the National Peasant Party under Armand Calinescu or the Everything for the Country Party under Corneliu Codreanu.

It has all happened before. Many times. It is all happening again.  

You will hear that the danger at hand is so great, so existential, that NOTHING MATTERS other than combating that danger, that you must sacrifice your most precious possession – your autonomy of mind – to believe in the necessity of these political actions. You must not only think that it is possible for 2 + 2 = 5 if the political exigency is urgent enough, you must believe that it is necessary for 2 + 2 = 5. Orwell called this “collective solipsism”. I call it political nihilism. Either way, THIS is the politics of the Long Now.  

And once you believe that NOTHING MATTERS … poof! you have chosen to become a rhinoceros.

So you vote for Bob Menendez. You vote for Roy Moore. You excuse your party’s lies and your politician’s thuggery and moral corruption as necessary to prevent some greater evil.

Here’s the kicker.

There’s not a damn thing that you or I can do to stop this.

There’s only one thing that you or I can do. Luckily, it’s the most important thing.

We can refuse to become rhinoceroses ourselves.

Am I saying that we don’t fight against iniquity and evil? Am I saying that we just cede the field to the rhinos who are already running amuck?

So here’s where I’m going to lose a lot of you …

Yes, there will be a time to step boldly into the public political arena and help write a new set of rules, help re-establish political institutions that allow for cooperative gameplay and shared notions of the good life, and help instantiate small-l liberal and small-c conservative principles in a top-down manner.

But that time is not now.

Now is the time when the political institutions that allow for cooperative gameplay and shared notions of the good life are being shattered, and now is the time when they will continue to be shattered. Now is the time of the widening gyre, and you can no more command it to stop from the top-down than King Canute could command the tides. No, it’s precisely the opposite, where everything from the top-down will be devoted to rewriting the history and the narrative of the tides, intentionally moving us farther and farther into the Sea of Nudge.

Once you start looking for sharpies, you will see them everywhere.

That’s true for Trump today, and it will be true for whoever is in the White House in 2020. That’s political nihilism. That’s the way this ALWAYS plays out.

The Long Now is going to get worse before it gets better. A lot worse. Yes, that means more and more economic “stimulus”, more and more financialization and propping up of financial asset prices. You think there is a snowball’s chance in hell of a recession before the November 2020 election? LOL.

It also means more and more political fear-mongering and gyre-widening and nihilism-embracing. You think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that either the Democrat or Republican party will ever again represent anything other than the accretion of power for power’s sake? Also, LOL. The Republican party is already all MAGA all the time. It is already 100% rhinoceros. By the time the primary season is over, the Democrats will be the same. Look at our Election Index analysis … the narrative center of this election is almost entirely race and gender identity memes. It’s like a pure SJW rhinoceros-inducing potion.

Should you vote in 2020? Sure. But as a statement of your personal identity, not out of some misplaced notion of efficacy or consequentialism.

Should you engage in national politics with more than your vote at this stage in the widening gyre? I mean … if you must. But when you give your heart to the rhinos, you become one yourself. Or you get trampled.

My advice? Abandon the party as your vehicle for political participation.

My alternative? The Epsilon Theory Pack.

My platform? Make – Protect – Teach.

We had our first “Pack Meet-up” last Saturday at Rusty’s house … about 30 Premium and Professional subscribers from all over the East Coast.

The barbeque was Rusty’s labor of love. Four beef briskets, three pork collars, three slabs of pork ribs. There was no vegan option. Sorry, not sorry. Enough food to feed an army, but somehow it was inhaled. Everyone brought a bottle of something to share with the group. That – and a commitment to an evening of full-hearted conversation – was the only admittance fee. Age range was 23 years-old to 75 years-young. Was there a lot of money around that table? I guess. You’d never know it from the utter lack of conversational alpha-dog-sniffing … unique for any Fairfield County dinner I’ve ever been to.

Know what we talked about? The political.

Know what we didn’t talk about? NOT AT ALL? Politics.

What is the political if not politics? It’s how we lead our lives as social animals. It’s how we understand small-l liberal and small-c conservative virtues as they play out in our lives. It’s what we want to SAY to the world through our efforts to Make, Protect and Teach.

THIS is where we stand our ground. Not on some national political scale where we are either turned into rhinos ourselves or trampled into the mud. But on the personal scale. On the scale of our families and our communities. A scale where we can recognize ourselves once again, not as a means to some grand Statist end, but as members of a clear-eyed and full-hearted Pack.

The way through the Long Now is a social movement, not a political party.

A social movement based on resistance and refusal. A refusal to vote for ridiculous candidates. A refusal to buy ridiculous securities. A refusal to take on ridiculous debts. A refusal to abdicate our identity and autonomy of mind.

And it’s more than refusal. It’s more than just saying “Homey don’t play that”, more than just turning the other cheek. There is also action. But it is action in service to our Pack, not action in self-aggrandizement and the celebration of power itself.

I believe that a decentralized and service-oriented social movement at scale can thrive in the age of social media technology. I believe that a decentralized and service-oriented social movement can both inoculate our hearts from the top-down Nudges that push us into rhinocerosness, as well as fill us with a positive energy that reverses the pervasive alienation that creates the Neb Tnuhs of the world.

It’s a social movement for a revitalized foundation of citizenship. It’s Make – Protect – Teach.

There’s no primacy to these three rightful objects of political power and the citizenship which drives them. Put Teach at the top of the triangle. Spin everything 90 degrees. Marry two of them. Take them independently. Change the colors and the font size. I’m not trying to be symbolic here.

I’m trying to be Real.

I’m trying to provide an alternative to the abstracted world of narrative and cartoon that rules our mindfulness from the top down, in favor of a concreted world of actual human beings making things and protecting each other and teaching each other, where we act as Stewards of our children’s future rather than as Managers of our personal now.

What does it mean to Make?

It means you are an inventor. A manufacturer. An artist. A craftsman. A kid at a Maker Fair. A farmer. An engineer. A home builder. A coder. It’s the creation of some THING through the application of some creative IDEA.

What does it mean to Protect?

It means you are a soldier. A policeman. A fireman. An EMT. A nurse. A doctor. It’s a Neighborhood Watch. It’s a mechanic fixing a car. It’s also a unionization drive. It’s also a fiduciary managing a portfolio.

What does it mean to Teach?

It means you are a teacher, of course. Or a writer. Or a researcher. Or a priest. Or a home-schooling mom. It means you’ve got something to say to your Pack, and you’ve got the guts to say it.

What is NOT some form of Make – Protect – Teach?

Basically, if you are in the business of money (and that includes you, Crypto Bro) or in the business of business, then you are neither a Maker nor a Protector nor a Teacher. The sole exception to this – and it’s why this job is my universal suggestion to people who say they want to work in finance but in an authentic, socially-supportive way – is the fiduciary financial advisor. A fiduciary is a Steward. A fiduciary is a Protector. It is unlike any other role in financial services, and it’s the only role I’d want to have.

Management, both in the private and public sphere, is out. Banking is out, both investment and commercial. Corporate lawyering. Consulting. Trading. Sales and Marketing. Out. Out. Out. Out.

If you are using your time and brains to make more money for a profit-seeking organization, or if you are using your time and brains to manage the time and money of a non-making, non-protecting, non-teaching government organization … then you’re outside the Make – Protect – Teach framework. There are no hard and fast rules here, and I mean to be more inclusive than not. But I think you understand the distinction.

Let’s just say that zero of the Forbes 100 Innovative Leaders list (LOL!) would make my list of Make – Protect – Teach. Neither would our professional political “leaders”, including 99% of current Senators and Representatives. As for current and recent residents of the White House … don’t make me laugh.

And yes, I realize that the vast majority of people reading this note would not be practitioners of Make – Protect – Teach, at least not in their day job.

But it doesn’t have to be your day job. It just has to be your Identity.

This is a social movement for people who are IN the world-as-it-is but not OF the world-as-it-is. I’m not saying that your success IN the world, financial or otherwise, is either laudable or damning. I’m just recognizing that it is. I’m saying that your success IN the world, financial or otherwise, does not DEFINE you. Unless you let it.

Everyone can Make – Protect – Teach.

Even Jeff Bezos. I guess.

Today our system of social rewards and political power is based entirely on MONEY, not just in our laws and in our practices – which is bad enough – but even more so IN OUR HEARTS.

Yes, there’s a town full of rhinoceroses there, too.

It was not always so. It is not ordained that it must always be.

What’s at stake with the Make – Protect – Teach movement? Well, in some distant day, when we do in fact remake the rules and institutions of society, you’ll need to be a Maker, Protector or Teacher to be a full citizen. You’ll need to be a Maker, Protector or Teacher to vote. It will never be the route to making the most money, but that’s a feature, not a bug. I think the answer to teachers’ pay scales isn’t to pay them like a corporate lawyer or an investment banker, but to reward their superior social participation through superior political representation.

The American revolution was founded on the slogan “No taxation without representation”. That direct link between taxation and representation was severed long ago, and NOT to the advantage of the people who deserve it the most – the middle class and the working poor. I mean, if you think the middle class and the working poor are represented AT ALL in Washington … once again, LOL. It’s time for a new American revolution, and my slogan is “No representation without making, protecting or teaching.” Okay, maybe that doesn’t sing. How’s this: “No representation without real participation.” Yeah, I like that.

It used to be commonplace to think of military service as a prerequisite for citizenship, and by commonplace I mean universal in the societies where the small-l liberal virtues of democracy and the small-c conservative virtues of citizenship were actually invented. Today we get an occasional watered-down version of this floated in a half-hearted way by Grumpy Grandpas who want those darn kids to spend two years in some national service program. Well, it’s not two years, it’s a lifetime. And it’s not those darn kids, it’s all of us. And it’s not public service to the national government, for god’s sake, but private service of Making and Protecting and Teaching to whatever level of community sustains us … and we them. That’s how a pack works.

It will start small. It will start with your family. And over time it will grow to include your community, especially your physical community. Over time it will spread fractal-like everywhere.

As Below, So Above.

One day.

In the meantime, we evaluate our current crop of gyre-widening political candidates and policies on the basis of how little damage they do to a society based on Make – Protect – Teach. I’m not expecting any of them to get this. And I’m keeping my emotional distance from all of them. But I’ll talk with anyone.

Also in the meantime, this is how we change the structure of OUR social conversation, from “politics” to the political. Here’s my offer:

Put together a group of 20+ people who want to have a full-hearted conversation about Make – Protect – Teach, who want to think and act differently in their political lives. Let me know when you’re getting together with some advance notice, and I’ll be there.

I can help publicize and organize. We are 100,000 strong, all over the world. If you can find a sponsor to pay direct expenses of the meet-up, great. If you can’t, we’ll make it work anyway.

Dinner by dinner. Handshake by handshake. Conversation by conversation. That’s how we do it.

To paraphrase Margaret Mead, never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed Makers, Protectors and Teachers can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has!


PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): The Long Now, Pt. 2 – Make, Protect, Teach


Notes from the Diamond #8: Room For Doubt

David A. Salem
Email: david.salem@epsilontheory.com
Twitter: @dsaleminvestor

Log of notes in series available here
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Trivia Question #8 of 108. By how many pounds does the American League (AL) MVP for 2014 and 2016 outweigh the same award’s winner in 2017? Hint: both players remain active — at the top of their games, in fact — with the larger man weighing 42% more than his more diminutive counterpart.  Answer below.

Narrowing Gyre.  Let’s be honest.  While the topics on which these Notes focus — baseball and investing — are endlessly interesting to some of us, they’re inconsequential relative to some topics on which Ben and Rusty comment frequently and incisively, including the “widening gyre” in American politics and culture.  Depressingly, that gyre has grown wider since the prior note in this series was published, with multiple mass shootings, the jailhouse death of a monstrous criminal, and heated controversies spawned by such events having unfolded in the meantime.  Happily, there’s at least one aspect of life in these increasingly Dis-United States in which an angst-inducing gyre has been narrowing of late: the baseball’s world unending debate over an all-purpose test of on-field excellence.  This note examines the whys and wherefores of that narrowing — and explores an old but by no means outdated standard for gauging investment excellence that independent-minded stewards of long-term portfolios might find useful in an era of generally inflated asset prices and correspondingly low yields.

The author’s daughter (right foreground) overseeing Mike Trout’s BP at Fenway Pahk 8/9/19. Trout is in red and gray, mid-cage, bat in hand. Daughter and father enjoyed the game; Trout surely did not, his Angels losing 16-4 with Trout going 1 for 3 in four plate appearances (double, walk, strikeout, groundout).

Myriad Duties.  As was true of the factors animating baseball analysts’ angrily divergent views of optimal performance metrics earlier this decade, the more recent convergence of such views is rooted in large measure in the impressively mounting achievements of a player also featured in my last note: 28 year-old Angels outfielder and “WAR machine” Mike Trout.  Despite his uncharacteristically pedestrian performance for my baseball-loving 10 year-old at Fenway earlier this month, Trout is on track to become this year’s AL if not MLB champ in at least two widely followed statistical categories: home runs and runs batted in (RBIs). 

Why does this matter, and how has Trout’s evolving performance de-escalated the war among baseball cognoscenti respecting WAR?  Both questions are answered with characteristic elan by baseball pundit par excellence Ben Lindbergh in a recent Ringer post available here.  As noted therein, Trout’s uniformly solid discharging of the myriad duties shouldered by a position player has kept him at or close to the top of most baseball experts’ subjective rankings of the sport’s most valuable players since his MLB debut in 2011.  Including 2019-to-date, Trout has also ranked #1 five times, #2 twice, and #6 in annual rankings of the American League’s roughly 400 players sorted by the least-worst objective metric for assessing on-field excellence: Wins Above Replacement or WAR, more on which follows. 

Importantly, one of Trout’s five #1 WAR seasons came in 2012, when he notched the 31st highest single season WAR in baseball history (of more than 40,000 observations) while finishing #2 to the Tigers’ Miguel “Miggy” Cabrera in the essentially subjective process by which the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) picks a Most Valuable Player for each of MLB’s two leagues (American and National) each year. 

How could an impartial judge of on-field output possibly have deemed Cabrera’s more valuable than Trout’s in 2012 when Trout produced 41% more WAR that season (10.5 vs. 7.1)?  Beats me — but, much as I wish things were otherwise, I don’t make a living following baseball, as do the beat writers comprising BBWAA’s MVP juries.  In 2012, 22 of 28 such writers comprising that year’s jury voted for Cabrera, causing the six dissenters (all of whom voted for Trout) plus a large and vocal phalanx of “statheads” to complain that the 22 ascribed undue weight to Cabrera’s #1 rank in the trio of “traditional” batting stats comprising baseball’s hallowed Triple Crown (see box).[1]


Impressive as the stats for Cabrera just cited were — absolute and relative to Trout’s — when combined with other objective measures of offensive output to produce a broader metric of same known as Offensive War (OW), Cabrera contributed 13% less value-added to his Tigers on offense (measured by estimated team wins) than Trout did to his Angels in 2012: 7.7 OW for Miggy vs. 8.7 OW for Mike.

Value Added.  If you’re following along as carefully as my daughter did when reading this note (approvingly) in draft form, you’ve already caught a curious twist in our tale of baseball’s decreasingly fierce war over WAR: Miggy’s overall WAR in 2012 (combining Offensive War or OW with its defensive analogue) was 8% lower than his OW alone — 7.1 vs. 7.7.  In contrast, in finance-speak terms, Trout “added value” on defense as well as offense, performing certain deeds as an outfielder (i.e., improbable catches and the like) while avoiding others (i.e., errors) and in the process boosting his overall WAR to the aforementioned 10.5 from his offense-only WAR (OW) of 8.7. 


These WAR differentials may seem trivial to some readers, and inconsequential to most given weightier money and other matters confronting them, but bear with me, please: I’m using WAR to frame a consequential and conspicuously current concern respecting capital deployment — one entailing far bigger stakes for some readers than the estimated $8 million that a single WAR is worth in MLB these days.  Don’t find that $8 million estimate credible? Check out the nifty blog post from which it plus the nearby graph was lifted.  FWIW, the ten retired players to whom Trout’s evolving output is compared in the graph include eight Hall of Famers; the graph was prepared in March 2019, and thus excludes the roughly 8 WAR Trout has racked up during the MLB season now underway.

Something Big.  Crucially for our purposes here, Trout’s play this year makes him the odds-on favorite to achieve the AL’s #1 rank in the only “traditional” baseball stat (as defined in footnote 1) in which he’s not already achieved a league-leading single season rank at least once: home runs.  In short, the large and loud cadre of baseball analysts who deemed Trout’s stellar all-around play in 2012 sufficient grounds for an AL MVP crown despite Trout’s sub-#1 rank in all traditional batting stats except Runs Scored (129 vs. Cabrera’s 109) were on to something.

Something big, it turned out, with 2012 and Trout’s near-but-not-top rank in a host of statistical categories that year presaging truly extraordinary performance in the 6+ seasons Trout has played since his official rookie year.  (Trout played in some big league games in 2011 but not enough to disqualify him for the AL Rookie of the Year award he ultimately notched in 2012.)  At this writing, Trout’s career WAR (per BP) of 72.3 puts him 87th on the all-time list of big leaguers ranked by that stat — a mounting tally exceeding that of roughly 70% of the 267 players enshrined in Cooperstown.

The Fog of WAR.  What exactly is WAR?  Truth be told, my youngest daughter’s baseball precocity notwithstanding, neither she nor her dad nor indeed the “God of WAR” himself could furnish more than a Trump-like simpleton’s answer to the foregoing query without consulting cheat sheets like those furnished herein.  In fact, when asked near the start of what’s become the largest accumulation of WAR by a 20-something in MLB history what he knew about WAR, the young deity just referenced (Trout) replied, “That’s a good question.  Not a lot.”

A Brief Primer on Wins Above Replacement (WAR)

•  WAR is a stat that seeks to capture in a single number a player’s total contributions to his team.  For reasons discussed in the main text, WAR is an imperfect metric that’s best viewed as an approximation of player value rather than a precise measure of it.

•    Despite or perhaps due to WAR’s growing importance to allocators of human and financial capital in baseball, multiple methods for computing WAR have been devised, spawning endless discussion over the pros and cons of each.  Among publicly available WAR tallies, the three most widely followed are arguably those of Baseball Prospectus (WARP), Baseball Reference (bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). 

•    Over any given season, WARs for the 1,000 or so men snagging more than trivial playing time in MLB typically shape up very roughly as follows:

•    Over any given MLB career, a player’s WAR will reflect longevity as well as effectiveness, as suggested by these career bWAR tallies for selected superstars:

•  For position players, WAR typically comprises a weighted average of stats for batting, baserunning and fielding, with adjustments for a player’s position and playing venues (stadia) plus multiple other factors of lesser import.  For the benefit of readers combatting insomnia, here’s how Fangraphs computes a position player’s WAR:

Position Player WAR = (Batting Runs + Base Running Runs + Fielding Runs + Positional Adjustment + League Adjustments + Replacement Runs) / Runs Per Win

•  For pitchers, WAR typically reflects runs allowed, with material adjustments to actual runs allowed to pinpoint a pitcher’s effectiveness independent of his teammates’ performance on defense.  As a further aid to readers seeking to nod off — or to ponder formulas even more complex than those needed to compute internal rates of returns (IRR) in a finance context — here’s how Fangraphs computes a pitcher’s WAR:

Pitcher WAR = [[(League Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) – Player’s FIP) / Pitcher Specific Runs Per Win] + Replacement Level Wins) * Innings Pitched/9)] * Leverage Multiplier for Relievers] + League Correction

•  Over any given interval, a player can mess up enough to produce negative WAR, as has Albert Pujols of late (#31 in all-time career WAR despite -1.1 cumulative WAR over the last three seasons).  Pete Rose backslid similarly toward the end of his 24-year career, producing -2.5 cumulative WAR in his last five seasons.

End of Brief Primer on WAR

Here’s another good question — one that’s central to this note’s exploration of optimal metrics for gauging excellence in baseball or investing: must such metrics be as simple and straightforward as the Triple Crown stats that enabled Cabrera to trump Trout in AL MVP balloting in 2012?  To be sure, the ease with which anyone who’s crossed the threshold of baseball consciousness can not merely grasp but compute a player’s Triple Crown stats suggests that my kids’ kids will cite such metrics in assessing batters’ prowess — assuming such progeny emerge and their DNA causes them to ape their granddad’s avocational interests.

But the simplicity of MLB’s hallowed Triple Crown stats, like the simplicity of total return as one’s chief metric for gauging investment success, is not an unqualified virtue. In fact, such simplicity in gauging professionals’ performance can be hazardous to a ballclub’s health, or an investor’s wealth, for reasons described memorably by two of my favorite thinkers in my favorite fields of human endeavor.

Not Obvious.  “It is dangerous to spring to obvious conclusions about baseball,” sportswriter Roger Kahn has observed, “or, for that matter, ball players.  Baseball is not an obvious game.”  Nor is investing, defined for purposes of these notes as the deployment of capital over long time horizons with the aim of preserving and ideally enhancing its inflation-adjusted value net of planned withdrawals.  As investment pro Jim Garland has argued in musings that merit much closer attention than they’ve received by institutional investors as a group, “[I]nvestment risk isn’t a function of betas or Sharpe ratios or Value at Risk.  Instead, the primary risk facing [long-term investors] is …  the risk of a decline in the earnings and dividends from the corporations in which they’re invested.” 

Borrowing a term from farming, Garland refers to the hazard just described as “fecundity risk” — the risk that a portfolio will produce insufficient cash for its owner “to buy something important”.

A Brief Primer on Fecundity

Fecundity [writes Garland] is a “portfolio’s long-term ability to generate spendable cash for its owner”.

• Since most portfolios’ owners are legally empowered to withdraw principal as well income, the near-universal practice is to set withdrawals at levels commensurate with long-term expected real returns, with the latter typically guesstimated as follows:

Long-Term Expected Real Return = Income Per Se (Dividends, Interest and Rent) + Anticipated Capital Gains – Investment-Related Expenses – Applicable Taxes on Net Nominal Total Returns – Projected Inflation.

• Most investors excluding Softbank devotees recognize the perils of extrapolating capital gains (especially unrealized ones) into the indefinite future. But too few investors heed a corollary principle: that market values and the total returns they underpin often constitute “false positives” respecting a portfolio’s evolving soundness.

• Quoting Garland, “Jane Austen … and her character Mr. Darcy knew that long-term wealth should be measured by sustainable cash flows rather than by ephemeral market values. But what Jane Austen knew has been lost in the thundering dissonance of modern finance.”

• Computing with even approximate accuracy a portfolio’s sustainable cash flows is difficult at best, requiring as do most mission-critical tasks in money management — or baseball — a combo of art, science and craftsmanship. 

End of Brief Primer on Fecundity

I gave Garland’s seminal work on investment metrics a shout-out by featuring him in a TIFF workshop conducted shortly after the 2004 publication of a note Jim guest-authored for Peter Bernstein’s strategy service.  By happy coincidence, 2004 was also the year my beloved Red Sox used seminal analytics devised by baseball sage Bill James to win their first World Series in 86 years — a feat they’d repeat thrice more (so far) this century, including 2013, the year Jim delivered one of the best talks on investing I’ve yet encountered.

That talk — Memo to the Darcy Family: To Thine Own Self Be True — does a better job than I ever could propounding fecundity as the soundest metricfor gauging the evolving performance of so-called permanent portfolios: pots of money created and managed to enable their ultimate owners, taxable or tax-exempt, to buy important things — including but not limited to necessities — on an essentially indefinite basis.

Self-Awareness.  Given fecundity’s intuitive appeal as a metric for gauging permanent portfolios’ evolving health, one wonders when if ever during the century now unfolding a critical mass of such portfolios’ ultimate owners will become true to their own selves in the manner Garland commends.  How might such enhanced self-awareness cause principal-agent relations to change in the money management biz, and what events might catalyze such change?


Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (played by Colin Firth) and Miss Elizabeth Bennet (played by Jennifer Ehle).  This scene from a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice ranked #1 in a 1995 UK-wide poll of the most memorable scenes in British TV drama.  Famously, Austen’s omniscient narrator describes Darcy’s prodigious wealth in income rather than net worth or market value terms, citing a “report which was in general circulation within five minutes [of Darcy’s entrance into the initial gathering of the novel’s protagonists] of his having ten thousand [pounds] a year”.

Answering the second question first (if not also stating the obvious), sustainable cash flow yields as distinct from recent returns and the market values underpinning them will reassume Darcy-like importance in wealth management when but perhaps ONLY when investors in WeWorks paying scant heed to such yields start losing far more than they win. 

As a true believer in Ben’s gospel that no one can foretell accurately when global capital markets will morph from the political utilities they’ve become back into “Two-Body Markets” (to quote Rusty) susceptible of effective analysis by thoughtful allocators, I won’t hazard a guess respecting when the losses just prophesied will materialize.   What I can foretell with confidence is that the forward-looking and hence unavoidably pliable character of Garland’s preferred method of gauging long-term portfolios’ evolving health will remain offputting to many fiduciaries, even after the tide turns and market values that such folks currently deem sound become fishy at best. 

I’m confident making this prediction because I’ve encountered such obstinacy multiple times in my career, most memorably when trustee groups for whom TIFF was managing money nixed portfolio moves animated by my team’s carefully considered judgment that technology stocks as a group couldn’t possibly generate sustainable cash flows commensurate with their fin de siècle valuations. 

Of course, I’ve also witnessed such obstinacy in an avocational as distinct from vocational setting, as noted in the above account of supposed experts making the silly but unsurprising choice to pick Miggy Cabrera over Mike Trout as AL MVP for 2012 despite Trout’s superior overall play as measured by WAR.  To be sure, Cabrera’s votaries rejected WAR-based arguments in Trout’s favor not because WAR is unduly speculative or forward-looking in a way that Cabrera’s Triple Crown-winning stats self-evidently were not; rather, Cabrera got the nod because three backward-looking stats he compiled more robustly than anyone else in his league including Trout (BA, HRs and RBIs) were more hallowed by MVP balloteers than the broader and better but equally retrospective valuation metric that Trout conquered in 2012 (plus five of the seven full or partial seasons since then!): WAR. 

Ardor for Ambiguity.  Its enhanced clout in player appraisals since Trout entered The Show notwithstanding, WAR continues to challenge even the brainiest baseball aficionados.  As anyone who’s consumed his analyses for ESPN or Fangraphs can attest, Sam Miller is among the brainiest (and wittiest) of such folks.  In an essay I enjoyed lots upon its initial publication in 2013 and re-read when assembling this note on the pursuit of excellence when gauging excellence in baseball or investing, Miller writes:

WAR is a crisscrossed mess of routes leading toward something that, basically, I have to take on faith.  And faith is irrational and anti-intellectual, right?  Faith is for rain dances and sun gods, for spirituality but not science.  Actually, no.  Faith is how we organize a complicated modern world … The complicated nature of WAR … isn’t an argument against it.  That’s just what human advancement looks like in the 21st century … I trust the recipes of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus [BP] because these sites incorporate decades of research, the scope of which I could never match on my own.  These recipes will get even better because they get smarter with more data.  [BP] will soon incorporate into its WAR catchers’ ability to frame pitches.  The numbers next to each player’s name on that site will change.  Does that mean the numbers we have now are wrong?  Of course they’re wrong.  Everybody is wrong about everything all the time, and WAR leaves room for this doubt.  Doubt has driven us toward better answers for millenia, from Socrates’ “I only know that I know nothing” to the guys who made billions betting against a seemingly invicible housing market.  Don’t accept any number that doesn’t leave you room for doubt.” [Emphasis added]

“WAR Is the Answer” by Sam Miller (2013)

Dunno ‘bout you, but if I chaired an investment committee (IC) and were tasked with finding a new member for it, Miller might plausibly get my nod.  He’d get it because the tolerance and indeed ardor for ambiguity he displays is a vitally important  condition for investment success. 

Cognitive Errors.  More to the point, having a kindred soul like Miller at hand could boost the odds of getting the IC as a whole to practice what Garland preaches so persuasively in his Memo to the Darcy Family — teachings evocative of those Jane Austen illumines so artfully in her majestic novel about the Darcys’ evolving fortunes, Pride and Prejudice.  That novel’s central teaching  — that one should weigh all relevant info before acting or choosing consciously not to act — has obvious relevance to investing, even if its practical utility to conscientious investment pros is diminished episodically by tidal waves of cheap money that temporarily lift all boats, including those with skippers named Musk spiffy topsides but irreparably leaky hulls. 

The Austenian precept just flagged is germane to baseball too, of course, though typically tougher for ballplayers than investors to follow due to the high speeds at which baseballs and baseballers often move.  That said, clear eyes and a concomitant commitment to weighing all relevant facts before acting are undeniably vital for people who make their livings in baseball, including especially those who get paid not to play the game but to evaluate those who do. 

As we’ve seen, some of these folks messed up big time in 2012, weighing Miggy Cabrera’s dominance of three hallowed but batting-specific metrics against Mike Trout’s overall body of work and somehow judging Cabrera’s play in 2012 to have been more valuable than Trout’s.  It’d be unfair to Cabrera, and overstating my chief argument here, to label Miggy’s Triple Crown-winning stats in 2012 the baseball equivalent of Garland’s “ephemeral market values” — “noise” meriting scant attention as opposed to “signals” meriting the converse.  But, c’mon: given Trout’s extraordinary overall play since and including 2012, both absolute and relative to Cabrera’s, how can any competent judge of such matters deem Cabrera’s MVP award for Trout’s first full season as a big leaguer in 2012 to have been anything other than a cognitive error by those who conferred or applauded it?

Open Questions.  Which big money allocators (if any) are committing comparable cognitive errors at present?  As argued repeatedly in these notes, fielding such a blatantly censorious question presupposes a clear articulation of the metrics used to gauge investment success and the time horizon over which such metrics are optimally applied.  By my lights, the longer one extends the horizon over which investment success is judged, the more relevant Garland’s preferred metric of fecundity becomes — less as a precise gauge of the evolving utility of a portfolio than as a test of what the persons managing a portfolio truly know and think about each of its parts.

I know what you’re thinking as you ponder the words just written:

• Wouldn’t the ongoing fulfillment of these Garlandian expectations require the hired guns involved to know MUCH more about each holding they’ve selected than they typically do at present — to know each holding well enough to fashion the credible bottom-up assessment of its fecundity needed to compile top-down or fund-level estimates of what funds’ owners can withdraw and spend on a sustainable basis? 

• Wouldn’t principal- or owner-imposed requirements that money managers furnish such assessments trigger big changes in managers’ methods (i.e., asset selection, sizing, timing and reporting)?         

• Wouldn’t the widespread adoption of Garlandian metrics for assessing long-term funds’ evolving performance catalyze changes in institutional funds management as material as those MLB has undergone through the widespread adoption of advanced statistics like WAR and the complex array of task-specific stats that the WAR formula requires?

• Wouldn’t changes like those just conjectured enhance some investment pros’ value-added and in turn incomes, reduce others’ incomes, and likely force some if not many raccoons players out of the game of managing OPM for a living?       

You know how I’d answer the bulleted questions above — with enthusiastic yesses to all of them, mindful that the sabermetric revolution in baseball from which big money asset owners might usefully borrow certain tricks has spawned harmful as well as healthy changes in how MLB gets played, who gets to play it, and how much they get paid to do so. 

Certainly the enhanced stature and incomes of multi-talented stars like Trout or Jose Altuve — a player whose stellar advanced stats negate timeworn arguments that big leaguers must be big to be great — are welcome by-products of the cardinal importance ascribed to sabermetrics in modern baseball.  Certainly, too, the silver linings just flagged adorn menacingly large clouds: changes in MLB games’ length and character that have made them less fun for many fans and prevented countless others from becoming baseball fans in the first place. 

Two of MLB’s biggest stars: 6’2”, 235 pound Mike Trout (AL MVP in 2014 and 2016) and 5’6”, 165 pound Jose Altuve (AL MVP in 2017

On Deck.  I owe it to my youngest daughter if not also others with budding addictions to baseball to weigh in on MLB’s sagging “production values” (TV-speak for fan appeal) and will do so in a future NftD, though not the next one. That Note (#9) will focus on the inevitable and laudable extension of rigorous analytics to a hitherto unquantified and perhaps unquantifiable aspect of big league baseball (and big money investing): the impact of players’ character and temperaments on their and their teammates’ performance.  Consistent with the age-old principle that “you get what you measure”, MLB front offices are paying both closer attention to and more money for players’ invisible as distinct from visible gifts, with the former dowry defined broadly to include mindsets conducive to continuous improvement (“player development” in MLB-speak) plus interpersonal skills conducive to healthy team karmas and the winning records often spawned by same. 

Tellingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the best player in MLB now and perhaps ever proved recently that he possesses interpersonal skills worthy of pro sports’ largest pay package ($432 million over 12 years), displaying acute empathy and grace in response to the sudden death of his Angels teammate Tyler Skaggs. 

Would exhaustive analysis of Mike Trout’s potential as a pro baseballer just before he became one as an 18-year old have foretold with actionable certainty the bounties he’d produce as a pro — analysis as thorough as the fecundity-focused probes that Garland commends to folks putting long-term capital to work?  Given the unavoidable uncertainties surrounding the future paths of young baseballers — or companies of any age or size — I doubt it.  But just because there’s room for doubt with any such analysis doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be undertaken.  It should — especially by allocators seeking to gain an edge under market conditions inimical to the profitable use of methods that served disciplined investors well in the past but have produced as many whiffs as homers since capital markets became political utilities Mike Trout signed his first pro contract in 2009. 

End

Mike Trout consoling Tyler Skaggs’s mother Debbie before the team’s first home game following Tyler’s death.  A longtime softball coach, Mrs. Skaggs delivered what the AP labeled a “heartbreakingly perfect strike” on the game’s ceremonial first pitch. Trout drove in six runs in the Angels’ 13-0 win, including a towering 454-foot two run homer off the first pitch he saw from Seattle starter Mike Leake.
Summer “school” for the author’s youngest daughter (2019). 
Nail colors are no accident.

Up next: the importance of character and temperament in “weak link” endeavors like pro baseball and institutional investing


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[1] I’ve put traditional in quotes because there’s no universally accepted rule for distinguishing baseball’s so-called advanced stats from all others, excepting perhaps a calendar-based rule rooted in the 1985 publication of stathead Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract, i.e., stats devised before 1985 can’t be “advanced” so they’re “traditional” by defaultThat transparently suspect point having been made, we’ll note that with the possible exceptions of On Base Percentage (OBP, which became an official MLB stat in 1984) and OPS (OBP plus Slugging Average), most statheads would agree that “traditional” batting stats comprise the two just mentioned (OBP and OPS) plus Batting Average, Hits, Homes Runs, Runs Batted In, Runs Scored and Slugging.  As my 10-year old daughter would be pleased to tell you if asked, Slugging = Total Bases/At Bats.  

License to Kill Gophers

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License to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations. Man, free to kill gophers at will. To kill, you must know your enemy, and in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit – ever. They’re like the Viet Cong – Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that’s all she wrote.

-Bill Murray as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack

The Gopher.

Recessions. Policy makers loathe them. The human costs are real and obvious, but they also lose elections. The desire of central banks to forestall recession at all costs reminds us a bit of the war that groundskeeper Carl Spackler had with the gopher in the 1980 movie Caddyshack. [1]For those of us old enough to remember that classic movie, Spackler won a final pyrrhic victory against the gopher by planting explosives throughout the golf course – eventually destroying the very course he’d sworn to protect.

Today, it seems to us that the allegory for the golf course applies to central bank policy as it relates to financial markets. Initially, Spackler tried to use less dramatic methods to find and kill the gopher, but none of them worked. Those methods are akin to traditional rates policy. It is our view that the concept of a natural or neutral rate is anachronistic in a world where QE is global and in which capital can flow relatively freely based on national comparative advantages. Moreover, monetary policy is reflexive in that lower rates (whether through temporary or permanent open market operations) beget lower rates. The neutral rate is dynamically impacted not just by the real economy but also by policy itself.

Indeed, prolonged application of policy will result in an eventual neutral rate of zero in the United States, just as it has in much of the rest of the developed world. Extraordinary measures in monetary policy, like buying equities (à la the BoJ) are akin to the dynamite that Murray’s Spackler eventually deployed. After all, he had “a license to kill gophers by the government of the United Nations.” Indeed, it a united front of central banks that possess the license, as negatively yielding debt globally has topped $15.6 trillion (up from below $6 trillion in the third quarter of 2018). It’s only a matter of time before the course is left unplayable.

The Groundskeeper.

The Fed’s 25 bps ‘insurance cut’ will do little to prevent the eventual necessity of QE – that is, if the Fed’s goal is to prevent a recession at all costs, it will require dynamite.[2]In my view, a 25 bps ‘insurance cut’ now and another 25 bps in September will do little to prevent the U.S. from succumbing to the global economic malaise (all developed market PMIs we track are now in contraction or neutral with the U.S. stagnant at a reading of 50.4). [3] We’re not alone in our assessment that, short of renewed QE, the Fed has little policy room.  MNI reported just prior to the most recent cut that former Fed director of the division of research, David Wilcox, said: “We’re currently at or near a cyclical peak, and yet the policy rate is still only 2.25% to 2.5%. That’s uncomfortably limited. I hope they will take steps to create more policy space for themselves.” In that same interview, Wilcox estimated the Fed was roughly 250 basis points short of policy space to fight the next recession. He noted that the central bank cut its policy rate by at least 500 bps in each of the past three downturns. Cantor’s global market Outlook expressed this very view in January of 2019. Again, it will be difficult for the Fed to forestall a recession without the use of dynamite.

We’ve already written in Epsilon Theory that ‘late cycle’ cuts are usually followed by recessions in the United States. We debunked analogies to 1995 and 1998 in our previous note Cake. It’s no coincidence that Chairman Powell introduced the concept of mid-cycle cut in his latest statement to avoid the perception that the Fed felt an economic downturn was imminent. Market participants cared little about his characterization. They simply wanted more. Just because Chairman Powell called it a mid-cycle cut doesn’t mean it is one. We now face a policy lull in August through September when many things can happen with the U.S. data. Services ISM recently missed expectations and appears to be following its historical course – tracking manufacturing ISM lower but with a lag. The rates markets have most recently been screaming loudly that the slowdown is about to occur here in the U.S., and they have been doing so globally (in Europe and Japan) for much longer.

We expect the PMI data over the next several days to continue to weaken, and we don’t think Chairman Powell will deliver what the markets want to hear at Jackson Hole. Last week, the spread from 3-month to 10-year treasuries inverted to over -40 bps and the 2-10 spread inverted, as I’ve been suggesting it would since January. As they always do, equity markets in the U.S. will eventually ‘get the joke.’ For those waiting for the real economic data to hit them over the head, it will already be too late. The sole bright spot is the U.S. consumer… but it always plays out this way. The consumer spends until s/he hits the credit wall. Lending standards are already beginning to tighten and labor markets are as good as they will get. That means they will only get worse. While lower rates are cushioning the blow from worsening fundamentals, they have never alone forestalled recession. [4] We believe the recent selloff is the beginning of a deeper correction as there is little to prevent the slide that has already begun


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[1] We’d also characterized central banks inability to spur inflation in the same way. We often written that the inability to catalyze inflation is a function of two principal factors: 1) globalization and 2) supply side effects. Globalization allows for the importation of deflation as capital and labor migrate to lower cost geographies, as the theory of comparative advantage suggests.  Monetary policy, which sets the cost of capital, sets the stage for a world in perpetual productive asset overcapacity – mostly in the developing world.

[2] Of course, the other groundskeeper ahead of the presidential election might be fiscal policy makers. However, with a divided House there is little that the president can do from a policy perspective (like a payroll tax deduction) that would forestall the slowdown. Even a ‘resolution’ of the trade war won’t do the trick as the root causes of the global slowdown are structural issues in places like Europe, Japan and China.

[3] Don’t be fooled; the U.S. economy is reliant on the global economy through a more complex global supply chain than ever before. About 39% of S&P revenues come from outside the United States and the global financial markets are inextricably intertwined.

[4] My one caveat to this assessment would be an immediate renewal of QE in the United States that drove long rates to close to zero. A renewal of QE in Europe is important, but until it includes high yield bonds and equity, it won’t have an efficacy. In the meantime, U.S. high yield has been a massive beneficiary of low global rates.

The World ‘Twixt Ought To and Is


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I don’t like the word ‘abstractions’ very much because most people don’t think in abstractions. That is too difficult for them. They think in stories. And the best stories are not abstract; they are concrete.

– Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

I remember that there was always a street preacher on the college green at Penn. Like all prophets in his own town, he was never well-received.

Now, this was back in the days before veganism and keto were really things, and I think Crossfit had only just been invented. So the only means available to students to scream into the void “I am myself!” and “I am very intellectual!” and “Somebody please notice me!” all at once without expending any real effort were smoking and militant atheism.

My God, did this man take some abuse. And by God did he earn it.

Not because he was the giant-offensive-placards kind of street preacher (he wasn’t). Not because he was the hell-and-damnation kind, either (he wasn’t). Because he had a knack for getting himself into debates with college students. Not only that – because he allowed the students to badger him into taking ridiculous and strident positions on irrelevant topics that irrevocably damaged whatever true purpose he sought to achieve.

I was there on the periphery of a small crowd of eager, dickish young minds one day when our preacher passionately described how dinosaur bones were put into the earth by God to confound the wisdom of man and test his faith. Some mustachioed tankie was really feeling his oats (again, avocado toast being some years away at this point) and engaged him on the specific mechanics of God’s intervention. How, exactly, do you think that God worked this miracle, minister? Does he intervene in real time with the instruments which measure the quantity of carbon-14? If so, are you specifically making the argument that God adjusts how both beta radiation measurement tools and spectrometers counting carbon-14 atoms function? Or is the composition of the bone itself changed?

Within any religious community, there are legalistic subcultures which find positively nonsensical hills like this to die on. Around those hills, all sorts of uncomfortably specific explanations to tie everything together are built as hedges, take root and flourish. Want a nonsensical pseudo-scientific analysis of ancient Greek vernacular to argue that the wine Jesus miraculously created was just non-alcoholic grape juice (lamest miracle ever, by the way) to justify prohibition-as-doctrine? Somebody will be your huckleberry. Want a church-run webpage which takes serious intellectual issue with a famous musical’s farcical contention that God would punish a five-year old for stealing a maple-glazed donut since God would clearly only punish the child if he were eight? Huckleberry.

For most people of faith, these behaviors are powerfully cringeworthy. For all the secular protestations of their acolytes, the communities built around financial markets and economics are no less religious. They are no less prone to building edifices of oddly confident and hyper-specific speculation around their pre-existing models for predicting behaviors. And for most professional investors, they ought to be no less cringeworthy.


Please be seated. Let us begin our sermon today with some soggy, religious garbage from Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman.

There’s been a lot of speculation about why the stock market reacts so strongly to trade policy news — way out of proportion to the direct economic impacts of Trump tariffs. Today’s surge after Trump’s decision to delay some tariffs deepens the mystery. The best going explanation of the tariffs/market link was that markets took tariff announcements as indications of broader decision process; to be blunt, how crazy Trump is. Hard-line announcements suggested more radicalism to come, softer announcements more rationality. But this was obviously a defensive move to avoid price hikes before Christmas, not a change in Trump’s world view or improvement in his decision-making. So why respond so strongly?

– Nobel Laureate Paul “Nobel Laureate” Krugman – who has a Nobel Prize btw – via Twitter (8.13.2019)

Now, this is extremely stupid.

I don’t mean to be mean to Dr. K, who is not stupid. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most very smart people tend to have deeply stupid opinions and ideas about a great many things. Sadly, many of those same opinions and ideas often become articles of faith over which that person drapes his reputation, intellect and mental models which successfully supported earlier ideas and opinions.

It is pretty easy to unpack the three articles of faith at play here. Krugman has in his head a model for which each of the following is true:

  • Daily marginal price-setting behaviors are predictable as the output of mostly-rational optimizers;
  • Trump is objectively crazy; and
  • Trump’s craziness is so profound (and market participants are so ill-disposed to care about anything else) that changes in Paul’s perception of that craziness can explain functionally all of the daily variance in asset prices.

Let no one tell you that living in 2019 is not a joy.

Consider: you, dear reader, can watch in real-time as a Nobel Laureate publicly grapples with confusion that a multi-trillion dollar market might deviate for a single day from his single variable, Perception-Of-Trump’s-Craziness-based model. Consider further that you may watch him work out – again, in full view of the public – that the market must clearly have overestimated the extent to which a simple Christmas reprieve on tariffs ought to have reduced the value of their Perception-Of-Trump’s-Craziness variable.

This is God-burying-dinosaur-bones-to-piss-off-Neil-deGrasse-Tyson level crazy. This is Jesus-becoming-the-hero-of-the-party with-grape-juice level nuts. This is God-punishes-eight-year-old-donut-thieves-but-not-five-year-olds level insane.

And yet this kind of bizarre model-clutching lunacy is not just a possibility. It is an inevitability when you live in a world of prediction, in which your aim is to find The Answer to questions for which even a shred of epistemic humility would tell you that your model is shit.

It doesn’t really help that we’ve created academic and professional environments in which we respond to models that don’t produce The Answer by making adjustments to reflect what they missed most recently, calling it Bayesian Updating, finding a time horizon, data set and parameters for which we can get an acceptable p-value, and publishing a new paper.

Or y’know, launching a new fund.


The prelates of the preposterous aren’t the only characters in our world, however. We also have to contend with the agnostic – the person whose response to the difficulty of knowing everything is to believe that we cannot possibly know anything. Epsilon Theory was founded to ceaselessly harass and make fun of the religious pole (which we hope you understand we mean in an entirely secular sense) but to offer hope to those drawn to the desperation of the agnostic pole.

We respect the difficulty of active management. In our own portfolios, we happily use index instruments in many markets. But we don’t believe that it is possible to be a passive investor any more than it is possible to be a passive citizen or a passive friend or a passive partner or passive father. We will make decisions, and those decisions will explicitly or implicitly express views about the world and the way that it works and is working.

We reject the learned helplessness of the Long Now.

By rejecting that learned helplessness and embracing that we are all active investors, however, we will inevitably discover that there is an embedded layer of belief at work in nearly every investment strategy – a phantom model which exists between the ought to of our investment philosophy and the is of its results. That layer is, very simply, what we believe will cause an actual person (or computer programmed by a person) participating in the price-setting process for a security to change what price they are willing to pay or accept for that security.

The fundamental investor has in their head a model of the world in which they may predict how prices will change based on some assessment of the business today and in the future. Even beyond any fallibility in their own assessments and predictions, the phantom model between ought to and is – for them – is a set of assumptions about what other investors care about, what kind of information they will respond to, and over what time horizon.

Many of those strategies systematic and discretionary alike can be shown to work over many markets and many horizons. And yet, every investor with a shred of intellectual honesty will admit their concerns when going live with some new approach:

I am worried that the conditions under which I built the case for my strategy, whether the mental models and discretionary heuristics built over a long, successful career, or the systematic backtests I similarly produced, are a reflection of some state of the world that will not be the future state of the world.

Our skepticism about backtests, simulations and historical results is our acknowledgment of the phantom model in an emotional sense, to be sure. But it must also be an intellectual acceptance of the massive mathematical erosion in true explanatory power when our partially correlated models pass through an additional layer of partial correlation. We can’t always explain it away with “over a long enough time horizon” hand-waving in defense of our management fee annuity stream.

(Apologies if you did not know before now that the people who run money for you refer to you as an annuity stream. They do. Not figuratively. They literally say that in meetings.)

The problem for active investors (i.e. all investors), the problem I grappled with for so much of my career, and the problem I still grapple with at times in my own mind, is how to demonstrate epistemic humility about this loss in explanatory power without descending into agnostic nihilism. I have come to believe that there are three – and only three – ways:

  1. Parsimony – Adopting extraordinarily high standards and requirements for the addition of a model or framework for making predictions. This is the contribution of the AQRs and Bridgewaters of the world.
  2. Ensembles – Incorporating ensembles of models to composite concepts without excessive reliance on any one framework. This is the contribution of Two Sigma, our friends at Newfound and the discretionary work products of a small number of especially process-oriented minds.
  3. Concretion – Reducing the number of layers of abstraction between process and models on the one hand, and the Thing for which they are a representation, on the other.

Why do we study common knowledge – narratives? Because we think that studying, identifying and measuring the existence and effects of narratives can be a force for concretion of our investment theses. Can broader adoption of narrative analysis techniques, in fact, deliver on the promise of concretion? Can we better understand how, when and why different facts and events will matter to the marginal market participant in the price-setting process?

I don’t know. I think so. Our historical examinations of the question have produced promising results, but I fear that I am still an agnostic nihilist at heart.


Now, if you are thinking that narrative-as-force-for-concretion is a contradiction, then very well, it is a contradiction. Narrative is an abstraction from the real world, from cash flows, and from the long-term value creation potential of assets and intellectual property. But Narrative is also a concretion of the observable evidence of what the crowd believes that the crowd believes, what they care about and what they are paying attention to.

We are large, we contain multitudes, et cetera et cetera.

Soros’s quip about observing instead of predicting – that is concretion. It is a kind of process which permits decision-making based on observation, with fewer phantom models ‘twixt ought to and is. Taleb’s famous observation “don’t tell me what you think – show me your portfolio” is concretion, too, albeit a concretion of the phantom model of the language we use to describe why we own something. It is an indictment of manager surveys and the like, which are reflections of first level thinking rather than the thinking that drives actual asset price-determining decisions at the margin.

But while the Taleb heuristic is effective as a thought experiment into the importance of skin in the game, it is less useful (and was never intended) as a specific model for understanding the spread-crossing tendencies and response profiles of various investors to new information. For one, as anyone who has examined the positions of fund managers very often will tell you, someone’s positioning will often tell you a great deal about their constraints, their obligations and their boss’s predispositions, and often very little about why their view of price would change in the presence of new information. For another, because a portfolio is a complex thing, two sensible investors may be equally long or short a position for different reasons that would precipitate massively different responses to new information. Knowing what someone’s portfolio looks like is concretive in terms of language, but not at all in terms of a model for predicting future asset prices.

So why the focus on defining narratives through financial media, which we all know to be riddled with Fiat News, often conflicted and frequently produced in service to its purported subject matter? Because it is the only world in which we learn what everyone wishes everyone else to believe. Because it is the only world in which we know what everyone else knows, because we know that they have seen the top-fold of the WSJ and the Dear Sirs of the Financial Times.

Because it is our best chance to map the world ‘twixt ought to and is.


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ET Election Index: July 31, 2019

This is the fourth installment of Epsilon Theory’s Election Index. Our aim with the feature is to lay as bare as possible the popular narratives governing the US elections in 2020. That includes narratives concerning policy proposals and candidates found in the news, opinion and feature content produced by national, local and smaller outlets.

Our goal is to make you a better, more informed consumer of political news by showing you indicators that the news you are reading may be affected by (1) adherence to narratives and other abstractions, (2) the association/conflation of topics and (3) the presence of opinions. Our goal is to help you – as much as it is possible to do – to cut through the intentional or unintentional ways in which media outlets guide you how to think about various issues, an activity we call Fiat News.

Our goal is to help you make up your own damn mind.

Our first edition covered April 2019, and included detailed explanations of each of the metrics we highlight below. If this is your first exposure to our narrative maps, analysis or metrics, we recommend that you start with that primer.


Election Narrative Structure as of July 31, 2019

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Commentary on Election Narrative Structure

  • We officially think there is a 2020 election narrative.
  • The common knowledge is that the 2020 election is a referendum on race, gender and identity.
    • This doesn’t mean we agree or disagree with this characterization.
    • This means that this is what everyone thinks everyone thinks the election is about, at least as promulgated by US political media.
  • Every highly connected cluster in the narrative structure from the month of July is charged with and defined by this language.
  • Asylum seekers and immigrants, the black vote, the narrative of electability surrounding women and gay candidates, and ‘the white vote from the rust belt’ loom large in the center of and in connections between nearly all 2020 election coverage.
  • Sentiment in coverage has also started to crystallize in a more dramatic way:
    • Sen. Harris and Biden have taken the raw end of this exchange, and in a more coherent, higher attention way than before.
    • In contrast, Sanders and Warren have received glowingly positive language in their media coverage.
  • We also note that Trump himself has begun to insert his presence into the narrative structure, despite being less present on the formal campaign trail.

Candidate Cohesion Summary

Commentary on Candidate Cohesion

  • Post-debate Sen. Harris has a much more coherent narrative structure than in prior months. Unfortunately – as noted shortly – it is one loaded with negative language, especially relating to Harris’s law enforcement background and spars with former VP Biden.
  • Biden’s coverage has been similar to Harris’s: more coherent, but coherent in its skepticism that he is a candidate that can win, skepticism that his record is sufficiently progressive to energize the Democrat base, and skepticism that he will address the race, gender and other identity issues lying at the center of the 2020 election zeitgeist.
  • Sen. Warren is a bit of an enigma. In many ways, her narrative strikes us as a “poor man’s Sanders” – less internally cohesive, less in tune with the zeitgeist, and positive…but not quite as positive as Sanders. But qualitatively, she is increasingly entangled with the same anti-corporate power, anti-inequality base and narratives that are most strongly associated with Sen. Sanders.
  • As per usual, media accounts of Gabbard and Yang are indifferent, varied and largely presented in context of other candidates. After the shock of a surprisingly positive performance in initial debates, Buttigieg content has reverted back to prior incoherent mixtures of general “round-up” content and narrow issue pieces.
  • The media seems to regard O’Rourke with a collective “meh”. They know who he is, and they’ll cover him, but the days of magazine covers and strong common knowledge about what “Beto means” appear to be gone for the time being.

Candidate Sentiment Summary

Commentary on Candidate Sentiment

  • Sens. Warren and Sanders – perhaps unsurprisingly, given July’s emphasis on health care – were head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates in terms of coverage sentiment.
  • This is standard fare for Sanders at this point, but only a June/July development for Warren, who appears to have attracted meaningfully more positive language from political media accounts.
  • Yang and Buttigieg were the only other candidates whose language we would regard as positive.
  • Gabbard, Biden and Booker have cemented their place in the cellar. Media accounts of their candidacies are routinely negative, emphasize electability concerns, highlight conflicts/spats with other candidates, and bring out claims of hypocrisy.
  • For this reason, we would be very cautious in our consumption of Gabbard, Biden, Sanders and Warren news, where we think that emerging narratives have made it more likely that ‘news’ content will be infected with affect and affected framing, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Candidate Attention Summary

Commentary on Candidate Attention

  • As noted before, Harris is very much in line with the July election Zeitgeist, but we regard this as a function of negative coverage. We think that undecided voters should tread carefully when consuming and reading ‘news’ about Sen. Harris, whose jabs at Biden were quickly transformed into claims of hypocrisy, assertions of a weak position to argue on issues of inequality (i.e. “Kamala was a cop!” narratives), and unelectability concerns.
  • Buttigieg has faded from connection to the language used about the election as quickly as he rose, which is not uncommon for strong debate performers who were previously minor candidates.
  • It is Beto whose disconnection to the zeitgeist has been more striking.
  • We note that Warren’s attention scores remain low, despite positive sentiment and cohesion. We think (this is our judgment / opinion, not something present in the data) that this is a function of two things:
    • Many of the positions Warren is associated with, Sanders is more associated with. In coverage, this means that Sanders tends to get the lion’s share of relationship to these key electoral issues.
    • Warren’s status as a policy wonk has meant that she has focused less on the race, gender and identity issues that we argue represent the 2020 election zeitgeist.
  • For better or worse, if Warren were to refocus efforts on participating more actively in the identity-related narratives that we believe represent the common knowledge about what the 2020 Election “is about”, we think she would emerge further as a leading candidate.
  • In the meantime and absent that change, based on our views about the influence of media-driven common knowledge effects, we think that among major candidates, Sanders will outperform most expectations, and that Biden will continue to converge to his more negative narrative.
  • This also means these are the candidates where we would be most cautious that media sources might be influencing how they want us to think about the news pertaining to them.

Does It Make a Sound?

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This is Hong Kong right now. The image is powerful. The audio is more powerful.

The people in this image and this video are singing “Do you hear the people sing,” from Les Mis. It is a common protest song, but not the kind of thing that is allowed in 2019 China. If you know the curtain-dropping line from the play, you’ll know why:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again

– Les Miserables (1980)

Here is a video of police firing rubber bullets at well-prepared protesters.

Here is an article from the South China Morning Post discussing the aggressive use of tear gas to break up the protests.

Hong Kong protests: police under fire as viral video shows elderly residents of Yuen Long care home suffering from effects of tear gas [South China Morning Post]

The article is, of course, pure fiat news, an opinion piece that presents itself as a news update. The headline is selective and emotionally charged. The images are selected to evoke a particular response. Even when we agree with the narrative it is promoting – especially when we agree – fiat news should always give us pause.

But they aren’t the only ones creating narratives here. The protesters are, too. Singing “it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again” is beautiful narrative creation. Standing peacefully, armed against tear gas and bullets with spray guns, umbrellas and plywood shields? Brilliantly disarming tear gas canisters with cones and water guns? This is Holy, Rough and Immediate theater, all at once.

And it is amazing.

If you’re reading this, you probably know more about what’s going on in Hong Kong than just an airport shutdown. Like us, you’re probably Very Online, a ravenous consumer of global news. But for most of the country it is a different story.

Here, for example, is the front page of CNN.com as of 7:00 AM CT this morning. Dig a little bit and you’ll find something about the Hong Kong protests. Only don’t look for a story about self-determination, disenfranchisement or extradition. You’ve got to look for a story about how this might affect you, fellow American. Found it yet?

MSNBC’s front page has nothing. Zilch. Lots to say about Russia, though.

If you’re willing to scroll down past fiat news send-ups of Comey and Cuomo, Fox will give you a similar angle to CNN. At least they acknowledge the protests. Unfortunately, in doing so their headline writer unwittingly reveals a bit too much about US missionaries’ awareness of the protests: in short, they have not been paying attention to them for the months, not days, that they have been going on.

The Wall Street Journal puts it figuratively above-the-fold – they’ve got a good Hong Kong bureau – but again, the headliner news story is how this will affect your travel plans and the next two weeks of volatility in your portfolio. It IS a financial paper, so some grace is warranted here. Many of their reporters are doing good work. If you’re looking for someone to follow, @birdyword is a good choice.

The New York Times gives the “airport thing” top billing, too, but the nature of their coverage (presented cheerfully next to “What Would Sartre Think about Trump-Era Republicans”) would easily pass CCP censors. Every piece and every blurb being promoted is about the disruption being caused by the protests, and about the damage being done by them.

ET followers and subscribers – especially on social media – have been openly predicting over the last few days how quickly the Epstein case or the Hong Kong protest situation will fade from the zeitgeist, from the narratives about what’s going on in our world.

They won’t fade.

No, not because they’re powerful or timeless. They won’t fade because they don’t exist.

There is no narrative, no common knowledge in the US about these protests. American media have largely stopped covering them, and they aren’t written about as a “connected issue” for other topics. They have rarely, if ever, been connected to language used to discuss trade disputes with China. They aren’t related to the three or four articles grudgingly discussing the Uighur muslim reeducation villages they’ve set up (shh!). But this isn’t just US media. It’s politicians, too, who seem loath to tie anything of everyday significance to what’s happening over there.

The only reason at all the protests are getting coverage is in context of reports about Asian stocks and reports about flights in and out of Hong Kong. That’s it. From Quid, below we present a network graph of the last two days worth of all global news. In bold at the extremity of the northeast quadrant are the entirely peripheral, unconnected, paltry collection of articles about these protests.

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

I’m sure we will get a lot of “isn’t a clear-eyed view of the protests that they are unlikely to be successful” or “this will all be counterproductive” takes, which are very on-narrative responses. They also might not be wrong.

But wherever self-determination and resistance to the encroaching power of the state and oligarchical institutions find expression, there should our full hearts be also.

And our full voices.


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I’m a Superstitious Man


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I’m a superstitious man, and if some unlucky accident should befall him — if he should get shot in the head by a police officer, or if he should hang himself in his jail cell, or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning — then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room.

Vito Corleone, “The Godfather” (1972)

Same.

Vito Corleone was speaking of his son, Michael, and these were some of the people he intended to blame for an “unlucky accident”.

I’m speaking of a monster, Jeffrey Epstein, and these are some of the people I intend to blame for this “unlucky accident”.

So … I want to be careful with what I am saying and what I am not saying.

I am NOT saying that Epstein was murdered, and I am certainly not saying that he was murdered on the orders of anyone in this picture.

Well, certainly not by Melania or whatever Playboy model Bill was boffing at the time.

JK! JK! I really and truly am not accusing Trump or Clinton of having anything to do with Epstein’s untimely demise, not even in a “who will rid me of this troublesome priest” sort of way.

What I am saying is that sociopathic oligarchs – of which club I consider Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew to be charter members – are the necessary and sufficient conditions of the specific evil that was Jeffrey Epstein as well as the more general evil of sexual predation of children.

What I am saying is that Epstein’s direct testimony – AND ONLY EPSTEIN’S DIRECT TESTIMONY – had the potential to create a Common Knowledge moment like the one that destroyed Harvey Weinstein through the direct testimony of Rose McGowan.

What I am saying is that Epstein’s direct testimony – AND ONLY EPSTEIN’S DIRECT TESTIMONY – had the potential to create a Common Knowledge moment that could bring down – not just specific sociopathic oligarchs like Mob Boss Donald or Mob Boss Bill or Mob Boss Andrew if they were the specific targets of that testimony – but the entire Mob system of sociopathic oligarchy.

Jeffrey Epstein was the Missionary to bring down the monsters behind the monster, to bring down the SYSTEM of monsters.

Jeffrey Epstein’s books and records are not.

The individual voices of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims are not.

And that’s what makes me angriest of all.

That while the individual victims of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes will maybe (maybe!) get some smattering of “justice” and recompense from the show trial of a monster’s estate, there will be no Justice served against the monsters behind the monster, that the Mob system of sociopathic oligarchy that CREATED this Jeffrey Epstein and the next Jeffrey Epstein and the next and the next will continue unabated. Untouched. Golden.

“Yay, justice!”

What I am saying is that there are enormous vested interests spread across multiple avenues of violence and power that will not allow that Mob system of sociopathic oligarchy to collapse on a single point of failure like Epstein’s direct testimony.

And so it didn’t.

And so Jeffrey Epstein is dead, victim of an “unlucky accident”.

Was it murder? Was it suicide?

I’m a superstitious man. I don’t care.

Is a murder committed more heinous than a suicide allowed? In its act, sure. In this context? NO.

An “unlucky accident” like this is the ONE THING that a non-corrupt State must prevent. It’s the non-corrupt State’s ONE JOB to keep Epstein alive for trial, and everyone knows that everyone knows this is their ONE JOB.

It is impossible to violate this common knowledge without premeditation and malice, without conspiracy and criminality aforethought. It is impossible to have an “unlucky accident” like this in a non-corrupt State.

I’m a superstitious man. I’m blaming the people in the room.

What room?

The room of violence and power and wealth.

The room of the corrupt State.

The room that is swarmed by the Nudging Oligarchy. The room that is supported and propped up by the apparatchiks and hangers-on and wannabes and “journalists” of District One.

I DON’T CARE how deeply Mob Boss Donald or Mob Boss Bill or Mob Boss Andrew was part of this specific criminal conspiracy, either in its operation or its cover-up.

They are mob bosses all the same, and I blame them all the same, and they are guilty all the same, regardless of their specific interest in this specific crime and regardless of whether this was murder or suicide.

Many readers will think I’m naive when I tell you that I was genuinely shocked that Jeffrey Epstein suffered this “unlucky accident.” As the kids would say, I was shook.

I haven’t felt this way since October 2008 when the US Treasury put the full faith and credit of the United States behind the unsecured debt of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan and Bank of America.

Then as now, the pleasant skin of “Yay, democracy!” has been sloughed off to reveal the naked sinews of power and wealth and violence beneath. There’s no crisis like there was in 2008. The world isn’t ending like it was in 2008. But I’m telling you that it feels the same to me.

They’re. Not. Even. Pretending. Anymore.

The Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy cannot be defeated on a single point of failure like Jeffrey Epstein’s testimony at trial. Or like the bankruptcy of AIG.

The sociopathic oligarchs will win every direct confrontation. That’s what sociopathic oligarchs DO.

But a million effin’ points of failure? A rejection of the ATTENTION that sociopathic oligarchs require, in both markets and politics? A refusal to vote for ridiculous candidates and buy ridiculous securities? A refusal AT SCALE? A modern movement of disengagement from a market casino and an election sideshow in favor of what is REAL?

Yeah.

Yeah, that can work.

What does a movement of refusal and disengagement look like? Start here

And then go here …

The Second Foundation hides in plain sight.


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The Country HOA and other Control Stories

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Ahchoo: You don’t have to do this. Look, this ain’t exactly the Mississippi. I’m on one side, see? I’m on the other side. I’m on the east bank. I’m on the west bank. It is NOT that critical.

Robin of Locksley: Not the point! It’s the principle of the thing.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I visited my parents in Texas last week.

They live on the periphery of Houston exurbs and East Texas country, although – and this is not unusual for Texas – their home is in a development. What’s more, it is a development with an HOA. The kicker is that it is a gated HOA. My parents couldn’t care less about whether the community is gated or not. This just happened to be where they found the home where they knew they wanted to retire.  

But still, there’s a gate.

The nearest business – other than a gas station at the highway exit to get there – is a web-based thing some guy runs out of his house selling pretty rocks and healing crystals. The next closest are a lumber yard and two feed stores. Town doesn’t really have any crime to speak of. Doesn’t really have many people to speak of, for that matter.

And of course they change the code every couple of months. Just to be safe. So when I pulled up in the rental Hyundai with my wife and boys at, oh, around 9 PM, well, I had the wrong code. I sat there texting my dad for the new one, but my dad’s about as good at checking his phone as yours. No joy. Luckily, after a few minutes, some good ol’ boy in a white pickup pulled up. So I looped around the little island in the median where the gate control machine was positioned and got behind him.

He pulled through and did something I never thought I’d see. He stopped. Right past the opened gate. I mean that literally. He inched his truck forward so that there was a hair’s breadth between his tailgate and the now-closing community gate. He wasn’t going to let me in. Not only that. He waited, not for the gate to close completely, but for some new development in this high stakes drama of a family with two kids in car seats clearly visible to him as we looped around, parked in a purple SUV trying to get into a residential neighborhood in a crimeless community. Did he call the police? Did he summon the rent-a-cop working the HOA circuit checking on the length of everyone’s front lawns to make his way post-haste to enforce the community’s important security precautions?

I didn’t end up finding out, because I got the code from my parents and was able to open the gate. As soon as it opened, our knight on his shining white steed proceeded to his house. I hope his family was all present to hear this first rendition of his stirring tale of heroism.

Now, maybe you’re saying to yourself, “Rusty, this doesn’t sound that strange. Maybe there have been break-ins, and he’s just being conscientious of his neighbors.” I would be open to both of those arguments (I probably wouldn’t, actually – gated communities are uniformly ridiculous) if I didn’t have more information:

  1. There is no continuous wall extending from the gate around any portion of the development. The gate is completely ornamental and isolated.
  2. There are two other roads – one through a junk yard and another through a neighboring RV community, which connect to the community and are open at nearly all times to all comers willing to subject themselves to 1-2 minutes of inconvenience.
  3. The gates are wide open and unmonitored every day between 8 AM and 5 PM.

I understand the intent of the gate. It’s an inward-facing narrative, a story to tell people living there that their community is a refuge, a place they can come home to without fear. There is (yes, still) some prestige attached to living in a gated community, and some people derive some pleasure from that. I’m not saying I agree with any of this, or that all of the people living there care about these things, but it isn’t hard to grok the intent.

What was so shocking to me was that someone actually believed in the gate.

The driver of that pickup truck would have blithely entered his community behind a smash-and-grab robber entering when most smash-and-grab robbers do (i.e. during daylight hours when people aren’t there to make it inconvenient) without a second thought. He would never dream of monitoring ingress past this high security feature to the south (pictured below). Probably hasn’t spared a single thought for the two neighboring and connecting properties.

But boy, when someone was trying to get in under a certain of circumstances over which he had some direct control, his hackles were up. He knew his duty.

It shouldn’t have been shocking to me. This good ol’ boy isn’t strange. He’s all of us, as investors and citizens alike.  

Even when we know something is a story written for us, that we are being told how to think or feel about something to serve someone else’s purposes, there is a visceral, emotional part of us that wants to believe it. Needs to believe it. We yearn to see it as an echo of some truth rather than a construction, and when some paltry data emerges to confirm it, it becomes almost irresistible. And when it is something where part of the narrative is control?

There’s a reason why investors loved high-net long/short equity for so many years. Even after they had experienced bad results. Even after they figured out that the incentive fee-on-beta thing was too high a hurdle for even the most gifted stock picker. We wanted to believe the story, and the idea that doing so gave us the ability to be both long or short, to vary our net exposures to respond to market opportunities. Nevermind that we’d never found anyone who was good at those things. It was a story we wanted to believe. More importantly, it was a Control Story.

It was the same thing back when every big asset allocator rotated from the usual awful MSCI macroregional classifications to ACWI and “Global Equities” about ten years ago, and then started rotating back to the old schemes after a couple more years of dominant US equity returns. Gotta be able to more easily overweight the asset classes that did really well in recent years, after all. The story was that managers would have all these levers to pull – Sectors! Countries! Currencies! Cash! Stocks! Even when we know in our heart of hearts that everyone is terrible at making each of these decisions (yes, the exception you’re thinking of in your head is terrible at it, too), it is still a story we want to believe. It is a Control Story.

I leave you to muse about how this could be applied to the stories behind growth PE and buyout funds in 2019.

You and I – and the cowboy in the white pickup – we’re vulnerable to Control Stories because we believe that we and our advisors will make decisions that matter. We will make better use of flexibility, options and control than others. And no matter how much we know in our heads and show in our actions that this is just an ornamental gate built to tell us a story, we will actively seek out ‘evidence’ to prove what we want to believe. If you seek out evidence in that way, you will always, always find it.

So how do we spot gates to a Country HOA in our portfolios, our frameworks and our daily conversations? Here’s a few that spring to mind:

  1. “Multiple Ways to Win” is always and everywhere a Control Story.
  2. Decisions that are designed to allow you to take more risk elsewhere are always Control Stories.
  3. Arguments for transparency and what we will do with it are Control Stories.

You’ve probably got a dozen more. Pop them into the comments below!

No, not every Control Story is wrong. Still, Clear Eyes means dialing up our skepticism when we hear them.

Especially when it’s a story we are telling ourselves.


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What You Call Love

Don Draper: What you call love was invented by guys like me. To sell Nylons.


In certain circles, it’s fashionable to assert that “words are violence.” That is to say, certain language is used to perpetuate and reinforce existing (typically oppressive) social power structures, and this is a form of coercion on par with physical violence. For brevity, I’m going to lump everyone who espouses these beliefs together under the broad umbrella of postmodernism.

In other circles, it’s fashionable to ridicule postmodern ideas and the oft-ridiculous policies they inspire.

However, to the extent postmodern thought keys in on narrative, and particularly the role of symbolic abstraction in shaping individual and group identities, I’d argue there’s plenty of analytical utility to it.

Where people run into trouble is when they attempt to turn a methodology for analyzing signs and symbols into a belief system. Because this type of deconstruction is an inherently nihilistic activity. Ultimately, there’s no there there [Incidentally, this also applies to science. Science is a methodology, not a belief system. And belief systems are what separate the Jonas Salks of the world from the Josef Mengeles]. Or, as Venkatesh Rao put it (much more eloquently):

“Losing [all sense of objective meaning] is a total-perspective-vortex moment for the Sociopath: he comes face-to-face with the oldest and most fearsome god of all: the absent God. In that moment, the Sociopath viscerally experiences the vast inner emptiness that results from the sudden dissolution of all social realities. There’s just a pile of masks with no face beneath. Just quarks and stuff.

But that’s a subject for another note. A full hearts note. This is a clear eyes note.

And in case you’re wondering, no, words are not equivalent to physical violence. That is nonsense.

What is not nonsense is the notion that if you can deftly manipulate the symbols people use to assign and create meaning in their lives, you can manipulate their thoughts and behavior. We have a name for this outside academia and the culture wars.

It’s called advertising.

Let’s unpack that Mad Men quote that led off this note. Don Draper is describing what academic types would call the “signified” and the “signifier.” The signified is the abstract concept, love. The signifier is the ad selling Nylons. The ad signals what love means—how love manifests itself in the world. How you should express it. How it should make you feel.

This relationship is the basis for language (human or otherwise). Heck, it’s the basis for conscious thought. It’s therefore the building block for both fiat news and fiat thought—the raw material our missionaries use to build their wolf traps.

Every missionary has his own version of the Don Draper quote.

Politician: What you call values were invented by guys like me. To win power.

Fancy Asset Manager: What you call ESG was invented by guys like me. To gather assets.

The Sell-Side: What you call a rotation trade was invented by guys like me. To earn commissions.

An important thing to remember here is that awareness of how missionaries manipulate signs and signifiers is NOT the same as saying there are no such things as facts. It is NOT the same as saying there is no point to believing in anything. It is NOT an invitation to nihilism.

It IS, however, the foundation for a clear-eyed view of your world.


The Long Now, Pt. 1 – Tick-Tock


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Last year I wrote a series of notes called Things Fall Apart, focused on the transformation of our most important social institutions – small-l liberal institutions like free markets and free elections – from cooperation-allowing games to competition-requiring games. That sounds bloodless and small, but it’s not. It’s literally how society self-destructs in a widening gyre of mistrust and defection.

Today I’m starting a new series of notes called The Long Now, focused on the further transformation of our social institutions into political utilities … into smiley-face Panopticons of self-censorship where our marrow of autonomy and free will is sucked dry by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

Our money, too. Yes, this will be “actionable”, just maybe not in the way you’re used to.

The Long Now is everything we pull into the present from our future selves and our children.

The Long Now is the constant stimulus that Management applies to our economy and the constant fear that Management applies to our politics.

The Long Now is the Fiat World of reality by declaration, where we are TOLD that inflation does not exist, where we are TOLD that wealth inequality and meager productivity and negative savings rates just “happen”, where we are TOLD we must vote for ridiculous candidates to be a good Republican or a good Democrat, where we are TOLD that we must buy ridiculous securities to be a good investor, where we are TOLD we must borrow ridiculous sums to be a good parent or a good spouse or a good child.

It’s all happened before.

Here’s a SJW journalist who saw it clearly in the 1930s and 1940s.

History has stopped.

Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

George Orwell, “1984” (1949)

What Orwell called the Party, I call the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy. I call it Management. Why? Because the future is not – as Orwell had it – a boot stomping on the face of humanity forever. Please. So messy. So … inefficient.

No, the future is a smiley-face authoritarianism, an authoritarianism that is not imposed on us, but an authoritarianism that we embrace.

 It’s not “Yay, Big Brother!”.

It’s “Yay, Capitalism!”, “Yay, Military!”, “Yay, Diversity!”, “Yay, College!” and “Yay, Stock Market!”.

You’re not, ummm, against any of those things, are you? Because that would be … unfortunate. I mean, you helping the terrorists and all.

Things Fall Apart started with the political and ended with the personal. Let’s flip that on its head with The Long Now. Let’s flip it ALL on its head. Because I know a few things about Time.


Tick-tock.

Tyler Durden, meet Neb Tnuh.


When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?

Chuck Palahniuk, “Invisible Monsters” (1999)

I remember exactly when MY future switched from being a promise to being a threat.

It was when my father died suddenly of heart failure in the summer of 1996. He was 62 and I was 32.

There’s something about the dynamic of your father dying suddenly that changes your relationship with the future and with time. Or at least it did for me. Now I was on a trapeze without a net. Now it was All. On. Me. With a baby on the way. Now, to use Palahniuk’s words, the future seemed like a threat, not a promise, where MY death was next in line. For the first time in my life, I felt the pressure of time and mortality, not as some philosophical musing, but for what it IS – an omnipresent pang, a constant bzzt-bzzt-bzzt of that feeling where you wake up with a start and you’re sure that the alarm clock is about to ring but it’s only 3am so you go back to sleep but you wake up again with a start and it’s 3:45 am.

Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.

Twenty One Pilots, “Heavydirtysoul” (2015)

So right.

See, the threat of the future isn’t a bad thing.

The threat of the future INSPIRES me. The threat of the future DRIVES me.

I’m not moping around waiting to die. I’m not lazing around eating bonbons. The present is for DOING. The present is FLEETING. I’ve got something to SAY before I go. I’ve got a future to SECURE for my children, because in them I can still see future’s promise and not just future’s threat.

This is your life and it’s ending one moment at a time.

Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you’re supposed to read? Do you think everything you’re supposed to think? Buy what you’re told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned.

Chuck Palahniuk, “Fight Club” (1996)

The threat of the future revealed itself to me in 1996 with the death of my father and the birth of my child. One day the threat of the future will reveal itself to you, if it hasn’t already. When it does, you will be CONSUMED by thoughts of the future. You will FEEL the pressure of time more keenly than the younger you could ever imagine.

Tick-tock.

Time is the fire in which we burn.

Delmore Schwartz, “Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day” (1938)

You’ve never heard of Delmore Schwartz. In 1938 he set the New York literary scene on fire at the ripe old age of 25 with the publication of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, a brilliant collection of short stories and poems about his parents’ marriage and divorce, and Delmore’s estrangement from them. From their “death”, so to speak. His work is imbued with the failure of the American dream for his generation, with the way in which the Team Elite of prior generations sucked the economic marrow out of the Gilded Age and dominated politics with false narratives. Sound familiar?

Delmore Schwartz wrestled with the threat of the future alone and unloved, and he succumbed to alcoholism and madness. He died in 1966 at the Chelsea Hotel – penniless, childless, friendless – dead for two days before a cleaning lady found his body. He was 52. Time is the fire in which we burn. Or rot.

The threat of the future washed over Delmore Schwartz in 1938 as surely as it washed over me in 1996. As surely as one day it will wash over you. But he never found his Pack.

If you would wrestle with future’s threat … if you would stare back at the abyss, as Nietzsche would have it, or if you would yell at the clouds, as The Simpsons would have it … find your Pack.

But see, that’s only one of the things I know about Time.

Tick-tock.

As Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story.

It was the summer of 1996, early June, and I was teaching a course at Simmons College in Boston to make some extra dough. Jennifer was clerking for a lawfirm down in Dallas, pregnant with our first child. My dad called. He and my mom were in London, where they had rented a small flat for a month. Did I want to come over and stay for a few days? As it happened, I had five days free, perfect for a long weekend trip. I walked down to a cheapo travel agency on Boylston (yes, a physical travel agency), and found a ticket for $600 or thereabouts. Seemed like a lot. I could have afforded it, by which I mean there was room on my credit card to buy it, not that I could really afford it. $600 was a lot of money to me. That said, I hadn’t seen my parents since Christmas, and my dad sounded so … happy. This was a special trip for them, a chance to LIVE in a city that my father LOVED, and this was my chance to share it with them. But $600. I dunno. I called my father and told him that I just couldn’t swing it. He understood. He was a very practical guy. The call lasted all of 20 seconds. You know, international long distance being so expensive and all.

I never saw my father again. He died a few weeks after he and my mother got home.

Tick-tock.

Yeah, I know a few things about Time.

I know that the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

I know that I would give anything to go back to that week in June 1996 and buy that stupid ticket that I couldn’t “afford” but really I could afford and spend five more days with my father and not do anything special but just BE with him and share a beer at that pub that he mentioned on the phone but that I just can’t remember the name of no matter how hard I try and it’s weird but that’s what bugs me most of all.

Tick-tock.

What do I know about Time?

I know that there is no Long Now.

The Now is short. That is exactly what makes it precious beyond price.

The Now is for LIVING.

I know that there is no Safe Future.

The Future is risky. That is exactly what makes it precious beyond price.

The Future is for INVESTING.

Yet instead of living in the Now and investing for the Future, we are nudged into “investing” for the Now and “living” in the Future.

HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?

Economic stimulus

The threat of the economic future is removed by fiat and narrative, replaced by the Long Now of constant economic stimulus.

Political fear

The promise of the political future is removed by fiat and narrative, replaced by the Long Now of constant political fear.

We are told that the economic stimulus and the political fear of the Long Now are costless, when in fact they cost us … everything.

The Nudging State and Nudging Oligarchy will tell you “TINA!”. They will tell you that There Is No Alternative.

I tell you this is a Lie.

I tell you this is Sheep Logic, the intentional training of human intelligences to pursue myopic, other-regarding behaviors even unto death, through the vehicle of the Long Now.

What is the alternative to the Long Now?

Personal courage

Leaders who act as stewards of the future, not managers of the Now.

Professional courage

Investors who take more risk with what’s Real, and less with what’s not.

Social courage

Citizens who take back their vote, and who refuse to play the Fool.

Tick-tock.


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