We’ve had a heckuva busy year at Epsilon Theory, so to ring out 2017 I thought it might be helpful to distribute a master list of our publications over the past 12 months. We’re long essay writers trying to make our way in a TLDR world, so even the most avid follower may well need a map!
It’s also a good opportunity to give thanks where thanks are due.
First, a heartfelt thank you to my partners at Salient for contributing a ton of resources to make Epsilon Theory happen, never once asking me to sell product, and allowing me the leeway to speak my mind with a strong voice that would make a less courageous firm blanch. Epsilon Theory isn’t charity, and it’s the smart move for a firm playing the long game, but no less rare for all that.
Second, an equally heartfelt thank you to the hundreds of thousands of readers who have contributed their most precious resource – their time and attention – to the Epsilon Theory effort. We live in a world that is simultaneously shattered and connected, where we are relentlessly encouraged to mistrust our fellow citizens IRL but to engage with complete strangers on social media. It’s an atomized and polarized existence, which works really well for the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, less well for everyone else. The lasting impact of Epsilon Theory won’t be in what we publish, but in how we’re able to bring together truth-seekers of all stripes and persuasions, because it’s your engagement with the ideas presented here that will change the world. I know that sounds corny, but it’s happening.
Now on to the 2017 publishing map.
Our big initiative for this year was to publish two coherent sets of long-form notes, one by yours truly and one by my partner Rusty Guinn.
My series of essays is called Notes From the Field. As many long-time readers know, I’m originally from Alabama but now live out in the wilds of Fairfield County, Connecticut, on a “farm” of 44 acres. I put that word in quotations because although we have horses and sheep and goats and chickens and bees, my grandfather – who owned a pre-electrification, pre-refrigeration, pre-pasteurization dairy farm in the 1930s – would surely enjoy a good belly laugh at my calling this a farm. Still, I’ve learned a few things over the years from the farm and its animals, and they’ve helped me to become a better investor.
Notes From the Field: The eponymous note has two essays: “Fingernail Clean”, introducing the concept of the Industrially Necessary Egg – something we take for granted as proper and “natural” when it’s anything but, and “Structure is a Cruel Master”, introducing the genius of both humans and bees – our ability to build complex societies with simple algorithms.
Horsepower: The horse and horse collar revolutionized European agriculture in the 10th and 11th centuries, a revolution that lives on in words like “horsepower” and changed the course of human civilization. Today we are struggling with a productivity devolution, not revolution, and there is nothing more important for our investments and our politics and our future than understanding its causes and remedies.
The Arborist: We are overrun with Oriental Bittersweet, privet, and kudzu — or as I like to call them, monetary policy, the regulatory state, and fiat news — invasive species that crowd out the small-l liberal virtues of free markets and free elections. What to do about it? Well, that’s citizenship, and I’ve got some ideas.
Always Go To the Funeral: Going to the funeral is part of the personal obligation that we have to others, obligation that doesn’t fit neatly or at all into our bizarro world of crystalized self-interest, where scale and mass distribution are ends in themselves, where the supercilious State knows what’s best for you and your family, where communication policy and fiat news shout down authenticity, where rapacious, know-nothing narcissism is celebrated as leadership even as civility, expertise, and service are mocked as cuckery. Going to the funeral is at the heart of playing the meta-game – the game behind the game – of social systems like markets and elections, and it’s something we all need to understand so that we’re not played for fools.
Sheep Logic: We think we are wolves, living by the logic of the pack. In truth we are sheep, living by the logic of the flock. In both markets and politics, our human intelligences are being trained to be sheep intelligences. Why? Because that’s how you transform capital markets into a political utility, which is just about the greatest gift status quo political institutions can imagine.
Clever Hans: You don’t break a wild horse by crushing its spirit. You nudge it into willingly surrendering its autonomy. Because once you’re trained to welcome the saddle, you’re going to take the bit. We are Clever Hans, dutifully hanging on every word or signal from the Nudging Fed and the Nudging Street as we stomp out our investment behavior.
Pecking Order: The pecking order is a social system designed to preserve economic inequality: inequality of food for chickens, inequality of wealth for humans. We are trained and told by Team Elite that the pecking order is not a real and brutal thing in the human species, but this is a lie. It is an intentional lie, formed by two powerful Narratives: trickle-down monetary policy and massive consumer debt financing.
The Three-Body Problem: What if I told you that the dominant strategies for human investing are, without exception, algorithms and derivatives? I don’t mean computer-driven investing, I mean good old-fashioned human investing … stock-picking and the like. And what if I told you that these algorithms and derivatives might all be broken today?
Rusty’s series of essays, Things that Matter (and Things that Don’t), connects to mine with his just published The Three-Body Portfolio. It’s a wonderful piece on its own (I can’t believe I didn’t think of the Soylent Green reference – Epsilon is people!) and is a great segue to his 2017 serial opus. In chronological order:
With A Man Must Have a Code, Rusty begins the conversation about why we think that all investors ought to have a consistent way of approaching their major investment decisions.
In I am Spartacus, Rusty writes that the passive-active debate doesn’t matter, and that the premise itself is fraudulent.
In What a Good-Looking Question, Rusty writes that trying to pick stocks doesn’t matter, and is largely a waste of time for the majority of investors.
In Break the Wheel, Rusty argues that fund picking doesn’t matter either, and he takes on the cyclical, mean-reverting patterns by which we evaluate fund managers.
In And they Did Live by Watchfires, Rusty highlights how whatever skill we think we have in timing and trading (which is probably none) doesn’t matter anyway.
In Chili P is My Signature, Rusty writes that the typical half-hearted tilts, even to legitimate factors like value and momentum, don’t matter either.
In Whom Fortune Favors (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that quantity of risk matters more than anything else (and that most investors probably aren’t taking enough).
In You Still Have Made a Choice, Rusty writes that maximizing the benefits of diversification matters more than the vast majority of views we may have on one market over another.
In The Myth of Market In-Itself (Part 2 here), Rusty writes that investor behavior matters, and he spends a lot of electrons on the idea that returns are always a reflection of human behavior and emotion.
In Wall Street’s Merry Pranks, Rusty acknowledges that costs matter, but he emphasizes that trading costs, taxes and indirect costs from bad buy/sell behaviors nearly always matter more than the far more frequently maligned advisory and fund management expenses.
There is no animal more important in the ascendancy of Western Civilization than the horse, and no invention more important than the horse collar. It has nothing to do with warfare, and everything to do with farming and transportation.
Horses can work 50% faster than oxen, and they can go all day, particularly the draft horses of Northern Europe. But if you put an ox harness on a horse, the horse will choke to death. Very different bone structures, particularly with the shoulders.
When the horse collar was introduced into Europe in the 10th century (invented by the Chinese, of course, just like everything else of note prior to the Industrial Revolution) agricultural productivity skyrocketed. The resulting food surpluses led to a population boom, labor specialization and diversification, and the development of a merchant class. The horse collar (plus the horse shoe and the heavy plow) sparked a productivity revolution that totally reshaped European civilization and the history of the world.
A farm should have a foreman, a foreman’s wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one donkey driver, one man in charge of the willow grove, one swineherd, in all sixteen persons; two oxen, two donkeys for wagon work, one donkey for the mill work.
― Cato the Elder (234 – 149 BC), Roman senator, farming aficianado. Also Carthago delenda est.
I get about the same amount of work done with my John Deere 4610 as Cato accomplished with his sixteen people and five animals, particularly when I’ve got a 460 loader up front and a shovel mounted in back.
The parable of the man who has fled from an elephant
This is the story of a man who, in fear of an enraged elephant, has escaped into a pit, into which he has let himself down, hanging down and holding on to two branches at its edge. He looks down and there is a dragon, its mouth open, waiting for him to fall so that it can devour him. Then he raises his eyes to the two branches and sees two rats at their root, a black one and a white one, that are gnawing at the two branches untiringly and without flagging.
While considering his situation and worrying about his fate, he notices near him a beehive containing honey. He tastes the honey, and its sweetness preoccupies him and the delight of it distracts him from thinking about his plight, or from seeking a means to escape. Thus he remains diverted, unaware, preoccupied with that sweetness, until he falls into the mouth of the dragon and perishes. ― Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa, from “Kalilah wa-Dimnah” (c. 750).
An Iranian who wrote in Arabic, Ibn al-Muqaffa had a knack for telling Persian fables with a political bent. He was killed for that, of course.
In 1917, Pierre Cartier bought the townhouse at 653 Fifth Avenue in exchange for his most valuable two-strand pearl necklace, valued at $1 million. Today, you can get a two-strand pearl necklace of similar length and pearl size from Macy’s for about $2,000. As for what 653 Fifth Avenue is worth today … well, it’s a lot more than $1 million.
Some of my happiest hours are spent on a tractor. The John Deere 4610 engine has 42.8 horsepower, which means that it generates the raw energy to lift 23,540 pounds one foot into the air in one second. That’s 32 kilowatts for people who think of energy in those terms. The tractor uses this raw energy to power both a drivetrain with enormous torque and a top speed of 30+ miles per hour, as well as a hydraulic system to which you can attach loaders and shovels and the like. It’s a beast, and the ability to control a beast like this is an absolute rush. My girls get this rush by riding and controlling an actual horse. I get it through a tractor that aggregates 43 horses into one hunk of metal.
The tractor isn’t just a powerful beast, but — like an actual horse — is also an incredibly versatile beast. It makes me a one-man wrecking crew if that’s what needs doing around the farm (and occasionally when it doesn’t need doing … I’ve inflicted my share of unintentional damage over the years). But my favorite and best use of the tractor is to Repair and to Make. Need to grade the quarter-mile driveway? Tractor. Need to carry the lumber and lift the roof to build the mustang’s run-in? Tractor. Need to shovel out the boot-sucking ankle-deep “mud” from the sheep and goat pen? Tractor. Need to brush hog a field and clear some trash trees to keep it healthy? Tractor. I am productive with my tractor to a degree and in a manner that I had no idea was even possible in my pre-farm life.
I’ve got two tractor-as-metaphor points I want to cover in this Note From the Field, one on investing and one on macroeconomics.
The investing metaphor is a simple one — a tractor leverages my personal strength a hundred-fold (assuming that I could lift 235.4 pounds one foot into the air in one second, which sounds about right for my maximum ability … on a good day … once … followed by a week in traction). I can accomplish amazing things with that untiring, never flagging, hundred-fold leverage. I can also kill myself.
In 2015, more than 400 people died in farm accidents in the U.S., and tractors accounted for about half of those fatalities. Interestingly, tractors only accounted for 5-10% of non-fatal farm accidents. When you screw up with a tractor, the consequences are deadly.
The source of a tractor accident (or in my case, thankfully, near accidents) is always one of two things: overconfidence or distraction. The machines themselves are phenomenally robust and well-engineered, which means that it’s never equipment error that gets you into trouble. It’s driver error.
Not coincidentally, the most careful, measured people I’ve ever met are professionals who drive big pieces of powerful machinery. There’s no bravado with these guys, no “sure, I guess you can stand on that, why not?”, no “yeah, be right with you, just wanna check my Twitter feed real quick.” It’s always measure twice, cut once, and if there’s anything that’s out of place or out of sight … the answer is no. They are, without exception, the antithesis of Donald Trump (in behavior I mean, not politics), which I suppose is a third tractor-as-metaphor story, given that the White House is the biggest piece of powerful machinery on Earth.
I’ve tried to bring this same sense of non-bravado professionalism to my farming activities, particularly whenever I’m around the tractor. I have to admit that it’s a work in progress, particularly on the overconfidence side. After all, I grew up in Alabama, where invitations like, “Hey, come on over, we’ve got a box of fireworks and a shotgun, so we’re gonna blow stuff up!” were not unknown. But there’s nothing like a slight feeling of “tippiness” while you’re sitting in that tractor chair with 2,000 pounds of gravel in the loader that you’re carrying juuuust a bit too high on a sideways slope that’s juuuust a bit too steep to refocus the mind into a more appropriate frame.
As importantly, and I think with more success, I’ve tried to bring this same measured sensibility to my investing activities, particularly whenever I’m around leverage. As with the tractor, the two devils to battle are overconfidence and distraction. That’s not to say that underconfidence — i.e., irrationally taking too little risk — isn’t a chronic problem for investment performance (Rusty Guinn’s recent notes are a must read on this!). An underconfident investor will inevitably suffer the cuts and sprains of underperformance. It’s the leading cause of high frequency, low severity investment accidents, and it’s hard to make a living in this business if you’re always banged up. But it won’t kill you. Not directly, anyway.
The tractor-as-metaphor is about fatal investment accidents, not non-fatal accidents. It’s about low frequency, high severity market events, which are almost always caused by the use of leverage in an overconfident or distracted manner. It’s not equipment error. It’s not a risk parity fund or an LBO fund posing some sort of inherent crash risk to markets. It’s the overconfident or distracted driver of a levered portfolio that poses crash risk to himself and to others, and that’s what we need to guard against in ourselves and in others.
My macroeconomic story with tractor-as-metaphor also hinges on overconfidence and distraction, but the sources and mode are very different. The macroeconomic story focuses on the manufactured overconfidence and distraction that are intentionally imposed on us, creating a stable political equilibrium even as productivity growth grinds lower and lower.
Probably the biggest economic question in the world today is why productivity has stopped advancing, why we are no longer making more stuff with the people we’ve got.
US Labor Productivity Growth (2-year moving average)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
As I wrote in “Gradually and Then Suddenly”, how is it possible — with the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever experienced, with all the amazing technological advancements that we read about day in and day out — that companies have not invested more in plant and equipment and technology to improve their labor productivity? How is it possible that we’re not buying more and bigger tractors — not in the literal sense (although maybe that, too) — but in the figurative sense of doing more of what I do with my tractor on my farm: Repairing and Making in the U.S. economy.
My view: The reason companies aren’t investing more aggressively in plant and equipment and technology is BECAUSE we have the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever seen.
Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for real growth when they are so awash in easy money that they can beat their earnings guidance with a risk-free stock buyback? Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for GAAP earnings when they are so awash in easy money that they can hit their pro forma narrative guidance by simply buying profitless revenue?
Math is a funny thing. You can increase a ratio by enlarging the numerator OR by shrinking the denominator. But we are well and truly trained to focus on the earnings numerator of our most cherished metric for valuing stocks — earnings-per-share — not the share denominator. We’ve been well and truly trained to believe that’s what companies are supposed to do — grow earnings. So we don’t pay nearly as much attention to the total number of outstanding shares, either for a particular company or an overall market. In fact, the traditional meaning we attach to capital markets is that the total number of outstanding shares should naturally increase, either by new companies going public (IPOs) or existing companies issuing new shares to raise capital in order to buy “tractors” that will grow earnings faster than the cost of that new capital. This traditional meaning attached to capital markets — a transmission belt by which shares are issued for growth capital that increases the productivity of the firm — is dead and gone. Instead we have had a decade of shrinking share counts, as more companies leave public markets through acquisition or going private than enter through IPOs and as more companies use cash flow and debt to buy back shares. This — plus the aforementioned purchase of profitless revenue to satisfy a narrative of growth — is financialization. And it works. It increases both earnings-per-share and the multiple assigned to earnings-per-share (or revenue-per-share or bookings-per-share or whatever your market narrative demands) in a less risky and more predictable fashion than making more stuff at a lower cost and trying to sell it to more people at a higher price.
That’s what I think is going on with corporations, or at least the publicly traded companies that can easily tap into the magical elixir of financialization. Smaller companies and individuals don’t have this access. So why aren’t private companies buying more “tractors” to increase their productivity and make more money? Why aren’t individuals buying “tractors” to start a productive business where they make stuff to sell at a profit?
There are two popular explanations for this lack of productivity growth in the vast real economy of private companies and private individuals, both of which are two sides of the same coin, I think, as understood through the tractor-as-metaphor.
The first explanation is that we are measuring productivity all wrong today, that the glories of modern technology have succeeded in improving our quality of life even if they are not directly benefitting our gross national product. Put satellite position-tracking technology together with mobile telephony devices and electronic payment networks and voila! … on-demand driving services like Uber magically appear, making transportation a breeze. We’re not buying more cars, but we’re able to consume more driving. It’s what I’ll call “experiential consumption”, and it’s at the heart of all of these on-demand business models that absolutely dominate the modern economy, from transportation to education to food to retail to entertainment to politics. Yes, politics. Think about how you consume the experience of politics today, how it’s served up to you on a plate in on-demand fashion without requiring you to go out and actually participate in a political activity. If you don’t recognize that this is a conscious business model, no different than how Domino’s serves up pizzas in on-demand fashion, then I don’t know what to tell you.
The second (and related) explanation for productivity loss is that job growth since the depths of 2009 has been robust in low value-added sectors like healthcare services or leisure & hospitality, but meager in high value-added sectors like IT or financial services. By value-added we mean how much revenue or profits a human being, driving whatever “tractors” are common in that sector, can add to the firm’s coffers. A new hire in a software company or a bank, armed with all the leverage-increasing technologies and processes available in those fields, can add north of $300,000 to that company’s revenues. Unfortunately, there are fewer people working in IT today than there were in 2007 (!), and essentially no growth in financial services. On the other hand, a new hire in the leisure & hospitality sector adds only $50,000 or so to the hiring company’s revenues, but there are 20% more employees in that sector today than there were in 2007 (value added data from U.S. Commerce Dept. and job change data from U.S. Labor Dept.). The same phenomenon holds true for small business creation over the past decade, which has been dominated by low value-added gigs and personal services. It’s what I’ll call “experiential production”, and it’s at the heart of all the personal training and personal shopping and personal tutoring and “lifestyle” businesses that have cropped up after the Great Recession like mushrooms after a spring rain.
Over the past eight years we have thrown our money into relatively unproductive activities (experiential consumption), and we have thrown our bodies into relatively unproductive jobs (experiential production).
It’s as if we’ve intentionally returned to the recommended farming practices of Cato the Elder in 200 BC, where instead of a tractor with a 43 horsepower engine to get the work done, we’ve got “a foreman, a foreman’s wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one donkey driver, one man in charge of the willow grove, and one swineherd”. Because god forbid we miss out on the experience of being a swineherd. Hey, with modern technology, you can drive for Uber herd swine whenever you like. Just imagine the personal satisfaction, not to mention all that extra cash, that comes with “being your own boss” as an on-demand swineherd.
It’s as if we’ve intentionally returned to the recommended farming practices of Cato the Elder because it IS intentional.
There is a very stable political equilibrium to be found in convincing a citizenry to trade, in Biblical terms, their birthright for a mess of pottage, or, in early 20th century terms, their townhouse for a string of pearls, or, in early 21st century terms, their sense of self-worth and self-actualization for the meme of “being your own boss” as an on-demand swineherd. There is a very stable political equilibrium to be found in convincing a citizenry to value experience and identity over stuff.
And yeah, I know this is coming across as all materialistic and crass. I know it’s rank heresy to say that it’s better to buy a tractor than to take your family on “the vacation of a lifetime”, that it’s better to stay an extra hour at work crunching on a project than to “take a little me-time” at the yoga studio. I know that it’s social suicide in red states to say that fighting over gender identity and who can use what bathroom is stupidity incarnate, just as it’s social suicide in blue states to say that diversity isn’t even a top three goal of anything that matters, much less an end-all-and-be-all goal, and by the way you’re bonkers if you think the Russians altered the 2016 election by one iota. These are all intentionally manufactured diversions of the first order, combined with a preening overconfidence generated by the wealth effect of intentionally inflated financial assets, creating a politically stable Western society of division, diversion, and debt. Yeah, that’s my heresy.
Why is it stable? Because it takes governments off the hook. Taken a ride on BART recently? The NYC subway? I have, and they’re appalling. But there’s no public outcry for Repairing and Making these systems and hence no need to spend the money that doesn’t exist or raise the taxes that can’t be raised or make any of the hard choices that can’t be made without running the risk of upending the entire municipal political system. There’s no public outcry because you’ve got an army of on-demand swineherds cruising the streets of the city providing driving services for everyone who wants to consume that experience. It’s the same tacit social equilibrium with EVERY government function and service in the modern Western world. Including defense. Including banking. Especially banking.
It’s happening now, at least on the Making side of things (Protecting and Teaching are a little more enmeshed with government monopolies, so that may take a bit of time). It’s happening with every Maker Faire and every public library with a 3D printer and every kid who learns to solder.
I have been in Cash for the last 4 years and feel like a Wet Monkey. Expecting a 50% Market reset that simply does not happen…
I feel that The Fed has been buying stocks via ETFs since 2013, notice the slope of SPY since 2013, with a “Buy the dip” program ….
Do you think that is possible, or just the Brain Worm talking? – James
Sorry, James, but that’s a Brain Worm talking. The Fed doesn’t need to buy stocks directly, not like the Bank of Japan, anyway. And not like the Swiss central bank. No, the Fed has deputized each and every one of us to act on its behalf, which is really the way you want to set these things up. You want to establish a meme of Central Bank Omnipotence … err, excuse me, I meant to say “expanded forward guidance” as part of “communication policy”, so that you don’t need to get your hands dirty directly. You want to control the meme. You want to control the Brain Worm. THAT’S the power of the Common Knowledge Game.
And now two letters for the time capsule. If one of my daughters ever asks me what investing was like in the Hollow Market, I’ll show her these.
I just read through your piece (and then I read it again) [“Tell My Horse”]. It was a sobering start to the day as it pretty succinctly captured and reflected back to me my broken spirit. I used to love this business. I used to believe in its methodology and the integrity of its analytics. Now, like a priest having had a crisis of faith, I can no longer stand in the pulpit and preach the gospel. I don’t [know] what to believe. I don’t know what the message is anymore. The “markets as political utility” meme strikes me as correct, but one can’t represent that to clients much less prospects. I have slowly made “accommodations” for this environment: including a quant sleeve, including more overseas exposure, including structured ETFs. All the while, I have held to my deflationary thesis and stayed long bonds and overweighted to alternative selections. Performance has been middling but sufficient. But, there is zero joy to it. The sole satisfaction comes from still believing that I am doing the “right” thing by my clients, even though the market rarely affirms my conviction. I do surround myself with like-minded (but open minded) folks, and while there is a risk of isolating oneself in an echo chamber, the constant cacophony of mainstream narratives is more than enough to provide balance with the “bull” thesis. My real fear is that we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we’ll never again see the light of day. I don’t think this business will ever be the same again (and I don’t really even know what I mean by that). Perhaps this business was never what I thought it to be! The sole goal at this point seems to be survival. I do think there will be a massive come-uppance at some point. But if so, I know there will be little satisfaction in having been “right”. Thus, it’s just one day at a time as I try to take some comfort in the wisdom of the ages that “this too shall pass”.
So I cannot thank you enough for expressing what is at the pit of my stomach. Both in the underlying distrust of the bull market, and in the Hollow Market analogy. You see our business is in fact losing its soul.
I met with a board member of the CFA Institute who lives in our area. After beating me up on fees for a half hour, he then asked about our recent GIPS compliance project. Did we find it helpful? Was it a benefit in managing accounts?
So being well trained after years of attempting to control reactions and impulses, with varying degrees of success, I was actually able to restrain myself from both dipping his head in his soup, or erupting into a cascading use of the f bomb in its many derivative forms. But I was tactful and I pray professionally pointed in my response. That compliance with GIPS costs a full analyst position, or PM position. That as fees decrease, and costs escalate we are squeezed. That as we are squeezed we cannot do more with less, so we either have to employ less CFAs or pay them substantially less, making the skill set less valuable. Did I find it helpful? No, I found it eroding my abilities to deliver the very product he wants with no pricing power.
What I did not say, but thought about substantially on my drive home, is that the other far-reaching consequence is that the institutionalization of money management has made career risk more and more an issue, as analysts and PMs become benchmark huggers, and allocators in varying percentages. That compliance standards which now prevent personal investment destroy the skill set of the “investors” that are professional PMs. That in fact the destruction of Alpha and investing skills has been the professionalization of the industry.
So I sit here invested, raising cash, feeling stupid, wondering about my personal investing skill, as I cannot figure out where to place funds with strong conviction. It’s a strange new world we work in, Ben. I feel disoriented in this Hollow Market, not trusting the upswing in the markets. Too afraid to sell out, but too afraid to implement cash into it either….. maybe I will buy some passive product…..wait, but what about excellence? –John
But what about excellence? That’s the cry that goes echoing through the canyons of Midtown Manhattan, fading more and more into the distance each and every day.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the old adage: “a broken clock is right twice a day”.
It is universally accepted (sans Yellen) that a correction will occur at some point in the future. The debate isn’t so much around the existence of economic cycles but around distance (time) until the back end of the current cycle arrives. I would place us (the broad Epsilon family) among the minority who believe that the inevitable correction will occur sooner rather than later. I would also admit that we (I) have been a believer of sooner rather than later for some time now. The question I keep asking myself is that if the correction does come over the nearer term. Will we (I) be vindicated, or will we (I) have been patient enough for that broken clock to be telling the current time?
I don’t have a good answer… at least not one that is satisfying. – Paul
You and me both, brother.
I wonder what you think of the following- We know that the feds QE and the govts build up of massive debt fragilizes (to use a N.N. Taleb word- another genius) the economy. However, I wonder if you think there is a chance that these ridiculous policies will get bailed out if they just reduce GDP by some percentage points, say from 5pct to 2pct annually for some amount of years. This would cost us trillions of dollars in never realized growth over the long run, but it could all be blamed away on other factors of course. In a similar way to how a Ponzi scheme can dig itself out of a hole with a really lucky grand slam investment (Pharma boy Shkreli did it until he mouthed off on twtr).
In this case there may not be a financial asset crash and instead we just blow up at a WAY later date when swaths of countries can no longer pay their debts.
Do you see this as plausible? Or is it inevitable that assets eventually tank and the economy gets into real trouble again? – David
Absolutely plausible, although I’d bet on joint U.S.-Japan-Europe debt monetization as the weapon of mass jubilee if it comes to that (google “trillion dollar coin” and try not to gag). There’s nothing inevitable about any of this, including an asset price crash.
I think this is more “sky is falling” stuff and “getting out” out stocks and bonds and establishing a “short bias” has been proffered by many over the past years. Those that have acted on that advice are much poorer today. Not because they were less prudent but because after they took action to get out of stocks and bonds no one told them what to go in to…the price friction of getting out of stocks and bonds and then back in (forget the timing aspect) is very expensive. The loss of income is catastrophic if not timed properly. You appear to know exactly when to get out. Not sure how…
We all know that recoveries don’t die of old age but are always due to a Fed that is over tightening money supply. With $4T in excess reserves on the books of the major central banks, having a market accident, given how well capitalized now the US banks are, seems like a remote possibility. This Minsky moment that you’re holding up to us is either not happening, or at the very least, not happening any time soon.
You could well be right, and I’ll be the first to admit that my risk antennae have been quivering violently at seven of the last two market corrections. But that’s my job and my nature — to have risk antennae that suffer Type 1 errors (false positives) to avoid Type 2 errors (false negatives). I think that’s better than the alternative, certainly for wealth preservation, although it makes me totally unsuited for any job on the sell-side, ever.
I’ve gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em, though (which includes noting a couple of narrative-driven investable rallies, so I’m not exclusively a Cassandra), and what IS demonstrably different today as opposed to five years ago or three years ago or even one year ago is that the Fed has turned their barge around to engage in a program of rate hikes and balance sheet reductions. The ECB is in the process of turning their barge in the same direction. To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the beginning of the end of QE and negative rates and all of the other exercises in Magical Thinking we have endured over the past eight years, but it IS the end of the beginning. It IS an inflection point. It IS a change in the second derivative of monetary policy accommodation, a reduction in the acceleration of policy even if we’re not yet at a reduction in the level of accommodation.
Because if I’ve learned one thing as a student of markets and human behavior over the years, it’s this: markets, no matter how big and no matter how small, happen on the margins. Inflection points not only matter, they are everything to the Game of Markets. Some of my very first Epsilon Theory notes were about this [“2 Fast 2 Furious”], and I think they’re worth reviewing again today.
Geez – when are you guys going to get off this “the Fed rules the world mantra?” Do you really think in the board meetings during the AMZN – WFM negotiations that anyone really got up and said, “maybe we should wait and see what the Fed might do?“ Outside of the financial industry how many board meetings do you think have The Fed on the agenda?? I have asked many CEOs and funny I get the same answer — none! I’ve asked the ex-CFO of WMT – same answer – never! I asked him did the Fed ever come up in any strategic decisions, any mergers or acquisitions – same answer – NEVER! I’ve asked the CEO of Simon, retail – one would think might be influenced by rates – same answer – NEVER came up. Wake up and smell the roses – businessmen run the world – not central bankers.
I once asked my boss, the founder of a very successful investment firm, what his most important lesson learned had been. “Remember this, Ben,” he said. “It’s not about the money. It’s. About. The. Money.”
So I ask you, David, who makes the money? I mean, who literallymakes The Money? And sets the price of The Money. And buys trillions upon trillions of dollars of stuff with The Money year after year after year. And has implanted a meme in everyone’s brain (except yours, apparently) that even if they’re not literally making money and buying stuff today … well, they might tomorrow. Or might not.
Do you think I enjoy delivering this message? Because I don’t. It makes me sick that global stocks added more than a TRILLION dollars’ worth of value over the past few weeks because Janet Yellen said something that was perceived as dovish. It makes me sick because global stocks will LOSE more than a trillion dollars’ worth of value if she turns around next week and says something that is perceived as hawkish. It’s a joke. It’s a perversion of what a small-l liberal market should be. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
“Businessmen run the world” … I wish that were true. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Don’t be a beggar.
Where I continue to struggle, is why in the world a man like President Trump, who I believe cares about winning and self-promotion, more than the long-term success of our country, is going to appoint a Fed chair that will continue raising rates in 2018, when he knows that higher interest rates are anathema to higher stock and real estate prices, at least in the short-run?
What I have been telling my clients is that I have a hard time believing President Trump will elect someone who will make it harder for him to “appear” successful. You and I both know that our country needs higher “normal” rates as well as a much better taxation system (a national sales tax and get rid of the deductions for borrowing money) to truly stabilize and revitalize our economy in the long-run. But, you won’t get to better long-term policies without short-term pain . . . and we seem to be (as a country) in the pain-minimization mode at present.
Do you believe that President Trump will appoint a Federal Reserve Chair that will focus on the long-term health of the “real” economy, or just another Alan Greenspan groupie, who cares more about the level of the S&P than GDP? – Joel
I think that Trump wants to have his cake and eat it, too, meaning that he needs both higher short-term rates AND a steepening yield curve (i.e., higher long-term rates) to support a reflation narrative for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns, and he thinks that a reflation narrative will keep the S&P chugging along (in particular, supportive of financials as part of a rotation away from growth and into value). That would be the narrative accompanying, say, Gary Cohn taking the FOMC reins — that the Fed is raising short-term rates and shrinking the balance sheet for the right reasons, thus steepening the yield curve. And you know that the Street would absolutely eat this narrative up, even though everyone also knows it’s just another Big Lie. Wait, did I just say that out loud? Scratch that. What I meant to say is that I, for one, welcome our new Goldman Sachs overlords!
A lot of forces want to see Trump fail. Are the current Fed and Chair carrying that same agenda? Seems like they could be a lot more powerful than the politicians and the press’ infatuation with Russia, Russia, Russia. Is there a bigger motive at work here when the Fed aggressively raises rates? “Politics Always Trumps Economics”? how about “Fed Always Trumps House/Senate Investigations?
Are there examples in the past when a Fed/Chair was working to hurt the economy to make the President look bad? – James
Back in 1960, Richard Nixon blamed his loss to JFK in large part on the Fed’s tight monetary policy, claiming that William McChesney Martin — a Truman appointee — had deliberately sabotaged the economy to damage his incumbent candidacy (Nixon ran as Eisenhower’s VP in 1960). So when Nixon won the presidency in 1968, he got rid of Martin as soon as he could and appointed Arthur Burns, who was basically Nixon’s lapdog. Nixon famously told Burns to keep interest rates low leading into the 1972 re-election campaign, and when Burns resisted, Nixon planted negative stories about him in the press until he finally gave in. So yes, politics have always been a big part of Fed policy, and I think the Yellen Fed would be perfectly happy to hang a recession around the Donald’s neck, so long as it didn’t damage their post-Fed earning potential … err, I mean, their credibility and gravitas as prudent bankers.
Of course, what’s new today and is the biggest difference-in-degree-but-not-in-kind between Trump and Nixon is that Trump plants negative stories about everyone, including the Justice Department, which is just about the most depressing thing I can write. I’ve said it before [“Virtue Signaling, or … Why Clinton is in Trouble”] and I’ll say it again: Trump breaks us, not because of his policy specifics, but because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.
I travel a LOT, speaking with investor groups all over the country, of every political persuasion. Plus I have dual citizenship, having grown up in Red America and now living in Blue America, so I speak both Good Ole Boy and Team Elite fluently and without an accent. My observation from this perch is that we are utterly divided as a country, that the polarization is getting worse, and that political entrepreneurs (including the one in the White House and a whole host of smaller players on the Democratic side) are doing what political entrepreneurs always do — they’re embracing and accelerating this sea change in our social behaviors and institutions, and they’re using Fiat News to do it.
Your conclusion is very clear, but I’m confused by the path you get there. You suggest that Yellen’s response function has flipped since the Trump election (implying that she is being politically partisan?), and yet you also seem to suggest that she is being consistent with the long term real job of a central banker, which is to maintain the power of capital and so prioritizing the suppression of wage inflation. Is it just co-incidental that the job market is becoming “unstable” after Trump’s election, or has that been there, ignored, for a while, and Yellen is picking it up now as an excuse to damage Trump?
Lots of letters about the Fed wanting to damage Trump. I really don’t think there’s an animus here as much as there’s an intense desire to declare institutional victory and cement a legacy. If that legacy means a headache for the Donald … well, so be it, but that’s not the primary motivation. This has been brewing for a while. I wrote a note about this last September, called “Essence of Decision.”
Yesterday I was listening to Neil Howe’s presentation at the Mauldin Strategic Investment Conference last month, during which he suggested that a recession/downturn is exactly what Trump needs to make progress on his agenda. That is, because the economy is doing so well and stocks continue to rise, no one in DC or NY has any incentive to compromise. However, should things start to go into reverse – and Fed tightening has been the trigger for almost every recession – that’s when he can really get stuff done. Thus, in the current bizarro world we live in, malice toward Trump by the Fed could actually end up helping him. – David
Too clever by half. I once had an analyst tell me that he wished that a stock we owned would go down so that we could buy more. Ummm … no. Neither life in markets nor life in politics works that way. Buying more may be the right reaction to an unlucky beat, but show me a PM who wants to lose today in order to win more bigly tomorrow, and I’ll show you a PM who’s not long for this world. Ditto for presidents.
Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far, but I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will be.
I dunno, Janet, that’s a statement that might not age well, the sort of thing that ends up as a rueful tagline on an otherwise distinguished career. Just ask Chuck Prince about dancing until the music stops. George W. about “Mission Accomplished”. Statements like this are rewardless risk. You know, kinda like negative interest rate bonds.
Good to hear Devin’s thoughts [podcast with Devin Anderson, “Does It Fly, Really?”], and that I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed McCullough’s take on Orville and Wilbur’s empirical method. Kill Devil Hills is sacred ground. When you talk about American Makers …. I’ve flown and kitesurfed that area frequently, keeping aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.
Two great books: David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (2015) and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May’s Thinking in Time (1986). Thucydides wrote a great book, too. I’ve taught a course on it. But Brendan is right. The Peloponnesian War was 2,500 years ago. The U.S. ain’t Athens and China ain’t Sparta (much less the other way around, which would be a lot more accurate to the power dynamics that Thucydides actually described). So give it a rest, all you war hawks on both the left and the right. Just stop it with the “lessons from history” that you cherry pick. Want a lesson from Thucydides about war and conflict? Go read about the Syracuse campaign and then get back to me.
I was particularly struck by the below claim in your note [“Tell My Horse”]. I tried unsuccessfully to find a source on google, so I was wondering if you could help by pointing me in the direction of the data that supports this? “ETFs and index products — of which there are now more such aggregated securities listed on U.S. markets than the company stocks which comprise them!”
My background is science; I am/was a forestor. The late great Stephen Jay Gould was also a master of telling one story by telling the tale of another more common event. I read everything he wrote.
So you talk about diversification being the ‘bird’ for all seasons. Not as flashy as the Goldfinch [“The Goldfinch in Winter”], but more reliable. I’d like to offer a viewpoint from an ecologists POV about your field and birds.
I would offer that portfolio diversification is more like your field and surrounding forests than the occasional flock of birds that visit. Because you make the effort to knock back the growth in that field you get new plants and new plant growth, which attract flocks of birds. Even to the extent of keeping them around through the year. From an ecologists POV this is called ‘robustness’; an environment that has a greater number of species co-existing has a greater chance of maintaining a greater number of species through a greater variation of conditions.
So, you keep clearing out that field occasionally and clean out the underbrush near the edge of the forest (the interface between forest & field is where the greatest local biological diversity will occur) and you will continue to be rewarded with occasional delights of all god’s creatures. I dare say you might be visited by the Fox or even the Owl in winter.
There really is a parable for investors here. – Kimpton
In my client reviews, I like to leave them with something thoughtful or philosophical, and many of those nuggets start in Epsilon.
One original one I wanted to share, which has likely been thought of in a different way. “it is not often that both US stocks and bonds are at all time highs at the same time – those are the things we are thinking about while managing your money”.
Have you done any research about what that means for diversification? – Vince
Your recent posting regarding the Fed’s decision to unwind its massive securities portfolio contained the following comment:
“Or just ride your 60/40 vanilla stock/bond allocation through the cycle, which is the whole point of the 60/40 thing (even, though, of course, you’re really running a 95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective).”
Is it possible to provide a brief explanation of what you meant by “95/5 portfolio from a risk perspective?” I’m a small investor, admittedly currently following a Vanguard-inspired “vanilla” strategy. – Jim
Nothing wrong with vanilla, Jim, and to Vince’s question, yes, the Salient Brain Trust has done a tremendous amount of work on what all this means for diversification. A couple of points before I suggest further reading.
Allocations like 60/40 are talking about the dollar amounts you have invested in different asset classes, in this case 60% of your dollars allocated to stocks and 40% of your dollars allocated to bonds. But a dollar invested in stocks has a different amount of risk associated with it than a dollar invested in bonds; i.e., the historical volatility of the stock market is a lot higher than the historical volatility of the bond market. So from a risk “budget” perspective as opposed to a dollar budget, a 60/40 stocks-to-bonds portfolio is really more like a 95/5 stocks-to-bonds portfolio.
Even if stocks and bonds are positively correlated, as they have been on the way up over the past eight years and as they may be on the way down (if there’s ever a down), a diversified portfolio should still own plenty of bonds. Period.
When we’re thinking about diversification, it’s useful to consider dimensions beyond just stocks vs. bonds. That includes the risk/volatility dimension. That includes the asset class dimension (commodities, real assets, corporate credit as distinct from government bonds, etc.) That includes the geography dimension. That includes the classic Fama/French dimensions. That includes behavioral dimensions such as momentum. Markets radiate information on many different wavelengths, not all of which are naturally visible to the human eye, but all of which are important to take into account in a well-balanced portfolio.
After reading all of these, I continue to have one question: how does one set expectations for returns? Assuming a solidly built (nothing is perfect), diversified portfolio and 10(?) years, what is the curve of return with the horizontal axis being vol tolerance… – Matt
While your logic seems counterintuitive at first, on second thought, I get that there could be a zone where rates are still low enough that raising them is inflationary not deflationary as the world is not so black and white as the investing masses assume (i.e. too much brain damage to think in greyscale). Do you have the data to support the thesis (either in our market or a similar market … am guessing we won’t have a lot of statistical significance)? – Felix
We’ve got eight years of data on the original premise of QE — that more central bank printing of money and buying of financial assets would lead to greater amounts of money getting into the real economy to spur more real economic activity — and the inescapable conclusion is that it doesn’t happen. Money goes into bank reserves but it doesn’t get out, in a classic example of a roach motel … err, I mean a liquidity trap. That fact, which was clear to all by 2012, led to a bit of a schism in the High Church of Monetary Policy, with one Pope saying that QE 1 was a good idea, but that subsequent printing and buying sprees were a wash at best, and we should stop doing more of this. That Pope’s name, believe it or not, is Ben Bernanke, which is why the U.S. denomination of the High Church is way ahead of the other denominations in unwinding their QE experiment.
Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the other Popes weren’t convinced when Bernanke started saying that QE doesn’t really work that well in the real economy, particularly when they saw how well it could work to prop up financial asset prices and deliver political stability. As a result, the other Popes have generally been of the mind that the answer wasn’t to do something else, but to do MOAR! than the U.S. Church ever thought possible. Hence we got negative rates and efforts to outlaw cash and direct central bank buying of equities and all the other madness of the past three years in Europe and Japan. But MOAR! didn’t work in those real economies, either, although it sure did cripple the banks, which is why Pope Draghi is now coming around to Pope Bernanke’s view.
On the reverse argument — that as central banks now start to tighten monetary policy through both traditional interest rate hikes and nontraditional balance sheet contraction, inflation and loan growth will actually start to pick up — we have zero historical evidence that this will be the case because we’ve never been in this situation before.
What we do have, however, is both a supply and a demand argument for why this will happen. On the supply side, central banks pay commercial banks interest on the reserves they hold. As the Fed raises rates, they pay the banks more interest, which — given the massive reserves in the system — is a non-trivial boost to the capital position of the banks on a present value basis. Boosting the capital ratios of the banks should make them more willing to take risk and put money out. Couple that with a steeper yield curve (see my earlier response regarding the forthcoming Gary Cohn narrative) to generate higher net interest margins on these loans, and you should see the velocity of money really pick up as banks reduce lending standards and push, push, push on getting those loans out the door.
The demand argument isn’t talked about as much, because it’s not under the direct control of the regulatory mandarins of the Fed and the ECB. Central banks control all the levers on the supply side. To repeat, they literally make The Money. And they control its distribution. But they don’t control who asks for a loan or what that loan is used for. They don’t make the demand. They can influence the demand by making the price of The Money cheaper (lower interest rates), but even there they only have direct control over the price of short-term money.
My opinion is that when the price of money gets exceptionally low AND you’ve got a massive buyer of financial assets waiting in the wings, it tilts the risk and reward of debt-taking away from making stuff and towards investing in stuff, towards what’s commonly called “financialization.” I think we see this tilt everywhere in the modern economy, particularly in the largest corporations with essentially unlimited access to capital. Why take the chance of building a new factory or launching a new growth initiative when you can generate a highly predictable and substantial earnings growth rate or return on equity through a buyback or dividend program? If you don’t have unlimited access to capital — and most small businesses don’t — then you’re limited to the avoidance of making stuff without the ability to embrace financialization. So you just stall. It’s not terrible. You’re getting by. But you’re just getting by.
So what diminishes the demand for “financialization” loans and increases the demand for “productive” loans? I promise you that it’s not cutting the price of money by another 50 basis points. On the contrary, the price of money has to go UP and the reward of markets DOWN before the risk-reward calculus of debt-taking shifts back to making stuff in the real economy.
Whew! That was a long-winded explication. Here are some letters that say it more pithily than me …
That’s just crazy enough to be totally dead on.
Your idea will also accelerate the velocity of money in the great American bingo parlor of life. – John
The current Fed policy effectively injects liquidity into the financial system through raising the IOER rate — printing money to make interest payments on reserves banks hold on deposit at the Fed. This compares to the traditional monetary where the Fed drains reserves from the financial system to drive the Fed Funds rate higher. We are years off to getting back to traditional monetary policy. Maybe not in our lifetime.
No wonder markets are going bonkers. We believe this is why the Fed has quickened its pace to start shrinking their balance sheet. Rather than being forced to overshoot interest rates, which could adversely affect the economy, the Fed will start draining reserves through balance sheet reduction hoping to introduce some risk aversion and sense back into the giddy global markets. – Gary
You are describing [“Gradually and Then Suddenly”] a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop whch can be described mathematically as a geometric or exponential function, until it reaches a maximum.
Has the “barge” already left the dock, or will it have done so only upon the fact of FED balance sheet run-off commencing? The jawboning this week was only a damper, contemporaneous as it was with weak data. Last month’s Draghi comments whch lifted the global sovereign yield curves, I believe, was the barge tooting its horn as it departed its mooring at the dock.
Buy DUST and hold it through the FED’s asset sales.
Interesting, apparently crazy, and probably dangerous times, indeed. Good speculation and investing. Thanks for your writing. – Robert
So you are talking about the unintended consequences of policy-driven interest rates. Hmm. John Locke talked to the parliament about the exact same thing in 1691 (sic!). Then one and a half century later came Bastiat with “That which is seen, and that which is not seen” addressing similar concept. I’d guess Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is related to (positive) unintended consequences as well.
That’s some of the biggest names of libertarianism 🙂
Today’s short letter was so empowering and enlightening, I almost didn’t miss your beekeeper stories or movie quotes. – Johan
The counter argument would be that each country that has tried QE, has seen their economies slip back into recession when they finally took the QE punch bowl away.
This has been true in the past in the US, Europe, Japan, and China (sort of) – so could we have a recession AND inflation? – West Coast Investor
You mean stagflation? I kinda doubt it, because it generates an unstable political equilibrium, but it’s absolutely possible. Market gives this less than zero odds, of course, which is … interesting, from a macro trading perspective.
That said, it’s smaller businesses, those without access to the financialization goodies of the modern monetary policy system, that are already suffering from a form of stagflation-lite. And on that note …
I suspect another, and perhaps more direct, answer to your question is that while we do not have wage inflation, we have compensation inflation (compensation = wages + benefits). For example (and this may be the key driver) medical costs continue to rise much faster than overall inflation and someone is paying that. To put numbers to my example: if a company is spending $4k a year on benefits on a $40k a year employee and the cost of those benefits goes up 10% then there is 1% compensation inflation. Add that to 2.5% wage inflation and you have 3.5% compensation inflation.
I have not seen anyone write about this and that may be due to the fact that there is a scarcity of good data on the subject. I am aware of this only because I have been a small company CEO. – David
By the way and for what it’s worth, wages in the construction industry are already off to the races. We are paying our professionals/ semi-professionals and experienced people probably 30% more than 2-3 years ago. At a meeting yesterday with one of the large Gen Contractors, they told me young guys are heading straight into field jobs out of the construction management schools (Auburn, Clemson, Ga Tech, etc) where they can make a lot more than they could coming in to an office as a trainee. This ship has turned fast in our business. I guess the difference is that we (as non-public entrepreneurs) ARE investing significantly. Just a data point thought you might want to hear. – Alan
You don’t have to wonder, we are at 4.3% unemployment and were not seeing acceleration yet, so clearly NAIRU has been structurally lower this cycle. The other thing that is clear we will get there and it is not years away, but more likely months.
If you look at states where unemployment is lower, like NH and ME, you have wages moving up in the 4-5% Y/Y range currently so we know the concept is sound. After all we are talking about the most basic principle of economics here – supply and demand.
Companies we talk to are baffled by the government numbers, they see it and are worried about maintaining margins (raising prices). There is a fair amount of anchoring and it is important to keep in mind that each crisis occurs because people are worried about the last crisis. In this case fighting the psychology of deflation.
So yes, NAIRU is lower, but it is also likely to be a coiled spring. That realization, along with a positive correlation between stocks and bonds, will sow the seeds of the next collapse. – Alan
In exactly the same way that almost every financial advisor I speak with feels “stuck”, so does almost every small to medium business owner I speak with. There’s a trickle-down wealth effect from their personal accounts, which is all well and good, but they’re not feeling the love from the last eight years of QE in their businesses because they can’t access the financialization wonder drug of public markets. At best they get it second hand if they can find an LBO buyer. But the LBO buyers are all mega shops today, so juiced up on the financialization steroid themselves that they don’t have time to mess around with the small to medium guys.
It’s just another manifestation of the central truth of life in 2017, on every level of aggregation and scale — if you’re in the Club, life is good. If you’re not, life is very very anxious.
Ben, I just read the piece that you sent out yesterday [“Gradually and Then Suddenly”] and I have a question for you regarding productivity. Other authors that I have read have put forth the theory that productivity growth is low because we are measuring productivity in a manner that doesn’t fit the new economy. In other words, measuring widgets produced per hour is not the accurate measure of productivity in the digital economy. They admitted that we don’t know yet how to measure productivity in the digital economy but that we would be well served to think about it.
I would very much like to hear your thoughts about their theory. – Ann
I got a lot of good letters on the Great Productivity Debate, too many to address directly in what is already an overly long Mailbag. I’ve reposted a handful below, because they do a good job of covering the waterfront. The topic deserves a full-fledged Epsilon Theory note of its own, so that’s what I’ll do next week in a new Note From the Field. I’ve already got the title picked out: “Horsepower.”
Political hamstringing of entrepreneurs, yes. Focus on stock price not business, yes. But a simpler causation is that cheap money and open borders help suppress real wages (and, via govt spending and consumer credit, both, make up for them ) and THEREFORE mean less need to substitute with invested capital, in turning keeping marginal gain to labour low-added and so reacting back on itself. – Sean
Can you address the role of globalization on your theory of inflation going up with monetary tightening? I believe the world is awash in industrial capacity brought on mostly by Chinese overbuilding in numerous industries. I know the Chinese can’t subsidize forever, but right now they seem to be cranking out product they have no idea where it will go. Solar panels is a great example. Look what happened to the price of solar panels since January? They are selling with a negative gross margin! Every other competitor is going out of business. I think the same may be true for steel and other industrial commodities. Why invest in more capacity when you can’t compete with a Mercantilist. – John
My theory Ben is social networking is what’s keeping Prod Growth from happening. People are spending way too much time on FB and the like snapping selfies in front of fountains, inputting jokes and nonsense and not working!.. They’re not even driving their cars properly but stuck with their darn face in front of a nonsense networking device…my 0.02 – Steve
I can point to one other potential reason we aren’t seeing inflation and lower productivity – at least in engineering and construction. There are a whole lot of boomers retiring and taking with them both their experience and higher pay. The new folks are coming on at much lower pay but are also much less productive. The good news, if I’m right, is that we will start to see increasing productivity as these folks are assimilated into the work place. Assuming of course we don’t have a downturn first. – Brian
Perhaps one of the reasons productivity gains are so low is that the latest wave of the “New Economy” are companies like Uber, Door Dash and EZ Home. They provide personal services which are pretty low productivity and even with the .com overlay, there are limits to what one worker can do. For example, Uber drivers can only carry a few people around at one time, and probably only generate $60,000/yr in gross revenue working full time. The corporate organization leverages this into a high productivity and growth story on their level, but it is built on a large low productivity business. I’m sure they all have plans (fantasies?) of someday replacing all their field workers with robots, in which case productivity might soar, but that is a ways down the road.
I live in Menlo Park, Ca and the local economy (and perhaps productivity) is growing at a fast pace because companies like Uber are headquartered here. I suspect that other parts of the country are growing much more slowly or not at all because they have the low productivity economic activity that supports Uber and the like but don’t benefit from the corporate leverage. – Keith
Thanks for your stimulating articles! I never took econ but was a bad math major. To me econ theory seems to rest on two axiomatic relationships: supply and demand, unemployment and wages. In the 1980’s, we bought well-made solid wood shiny brown furniture for thousands of dollars apiece. There has been no physical depreciation, and yet those pieces today go for hundreds of dollars. Similarly for oriental rugs, sterling silver, china, etc. Only those pieces deemed worthy by the ultra-rich seem to ‘hold’ their value. Meanwhile, the overall ‘quality’ is going down (this means regular replacement of shovels, software, hardware, and phones). That combined with atrocious service (except for the ultra-rich) and regular discovery that what one just bought is actually a ‘second’ inevitably leads to consumer demand malaise, except for consumables. It is no wonder then that the children of the boomers aren’t buying material possessions, except for baby stuff. Famous economists call this area ‘aggregate demand’, and when they have to consider NIRP to stimulate aggregate demand, you know the goose is cooked. Spending on consumables, vacations, and experiences would increase; savings would decrease, and so on. The above four axiomatic econ words just do not mean much in today’s fast food, landfill economy. They are glittering generalizations of an economy that once was. I don’t know what the replacement terminology should be, but I know it’s out there somewhere. – John
You have missed the boat on unemployment and wage inflation. As long as more people enter the work force and have the proper skills then wages do not have to increase. There are other factors but job automation and people entering the work force seem to be the current keys. – Jam
How is the productivity improvement of the rise of Uber or Google search or online shopping on Amazon captured by the gov’t? They are not.
There are hundreds of examples like this. They don’t improve some form of production, they change how we run our personal lives by vastly improving our non working efficiency. Some technology, like smart phones, have revolutionized our personal lives and have a bleed over effect in productivity but that is minor in comparison to the non working efficiency. Since people use their smart phones at work for personal reasons you might even conclude they reduce efficiency. – Art
I’ve never thought to link the fact that the current low growth in productivity seems to rule out the concept that technological advancements aren’t the driving force behind low wage growth.
In saying that, can you not see a case whereby technology is driving people out of once productive jobs (manufacturing etc) and into poorly productive and lower paying jobs (retail, hospitality, etc) where they work a similar amount of hours? In this case we still have the same amount of production (with machines/new tech doing the bulk of the work) AND the same amount of hours worked, but with the % of hours worked in poorly productive sectors now representing a much greater % of the overall total?
In other words, both the numerator and denominator stay the same, thus it appears productivity has slowed to stall speed, but the real story is the change in distribution as to who benefits from productivity advances AND what is happening to those displaced by technology, i.e you move from working 8hrs/day on a factory line contributing $100k/pa to GDP, to driving for a cab/Uber 8hrs/day and contributing $40k/pa?
This also explains the growth in inequality, with those who own the technology/plant benefiting from the increased productivity of their business, while “labour” suffers with stagnating/declining wages. Seems to all fit in with the secular stagnation and growth in under employment themes too. – Sam
Good letters all. To be continued next week.
I also got a lot of good letters pointing out that “it’s the debt, stupid”. In other words, that it’s going to be deflation and economic weakness just as far as the eye can see. Here are a few …
The biggest question I have about this analysis comes from the fact that all these companies that have been buying back stock this entire decade are now up to their eyeballs in debt, and (depending on how this debt is structured) rising rates are going to crush earnings and free cash flow sooner or later. This will lead to crushing the broad market and the wealth effect it has created. Inflation offers a way out, but will inflation pick up fast enough to outrun the monster of corporate debt service? – Ian
Isn’t the Fed (or shouldn’t they be) more concerned with the demographically-induced effects on consumption than they are with potential inflation? Haven’t we seen this movie before, with the biggest demographic disaster in the formerly second largest economy sucking wind for 20 years + of ZIRP? Then again, maybe Japan only had to start raising rates ca 1995 to reach escape velocity, according to your logic herein.
Isn’t the real issue the shifting of consumption and production away from the developed world to the emerging economies? Millions every day joining the global economy, urbanizing, getting credit cards and bank accounts? Isn’t the more apt analogy the one to 20th century Europe as America thrived?
In previous notes, you have discussed the possible effects of nationalist/populist leaders, both here and abroad. The real question I’m curious about: would a trade/immigration war be inflationary or deflationary? – John
Ben, on most things we see eye to eye. However, on this one I’ll take the under. I don’t think wage inflation is or is going to be a problem at all. The 4.3% UE rate is an utter fiction. Low paying service jobs are the only ones driving any labor “growth”, and the largest segment of the population securing these jobs is people over 55 years of age. Further, I think that any Fed “tightening” will be whitewashed by other global CBs continuing to prime the pump to the tune of > $2.5TR per year. There can be no credit contraction without GDP cratering and equities falling off a cliff, and equities can’t be allowed to fall off a cliff as then the faux “recovery” narrative will be exposed and untold amounts of debt will be subject to default. Fed and all CBs are stuck. More of the same coming. – Bill
Thanks for sending this. It is obviously appealing intuitively, because it is so counter-intuitive. It makes sense, within its own parameters. The question is will this scenario play out, and I fear that no-one knows, because no-one has ever been in this position before.
He doesn’t seem interested in the problem of the quantity of debt — public corporate and household – that are now burdening economies. But for many people, including myself, that is the primary issue.
What if the reason why corporates are not investing is because there is no final demand out there to satisfy? That the current final demand is debt-driven and not real. That demand is in secular decline, for demographic reasons (ie Harry Dent approach).
Bottom line: I don’t think he is drilling deep enough to get to the bottom of the mysteries he is discussing. – P.
I’m actually very sympathetic to this view, that the massive debt of the world hangs like a millstone around our collective neck, preventing any sustained resurgence in growth, and you can find plenty of Epsilon Theory notes expressing that. But my views have “evolved”, to steal a line from our new White House Communications Director. I think that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I think that 2.5% to 3% real economic growth is absolutely attainable here in the U.S., massive debt or no massive debt, and that will feel like 4-5% growth back in the day. I think that there’s enough entrepreneurialism and desire still left in the American tank that changing the debt-taking risk/reward calculus from investing in stuff (financialization, if you can get it) to making stuff can absolutely drive 2.5 – 3% real growth in this country. Will changing the risk/reward calculus be painless for markets and the real economy? No. Is it worth it? Yes
And now for a big Mailbag finish …
On the side, I write financial poems. Here’s my latest on our fabled Fed:
Chaperoning the Dance Arrive at the Spring Fling, not a soul on the dance floor.
For you and other teachers, watching over’s a chore.
You encourage some kids. None budge and desperation ensues.
Eventually, spike the punch and pray for the effects of the booze.
For some of the kids, all it takes is a couple of sips.
They are the brave few who start shaking their hips.
Slowly but surely, others get the urge to join in.
Satisfied by your work, success brings on your grin.
Unthinkable just a few hours ago, some ruckus is brewing.
To your horror, most students are now tobacco chewing.
We’ve much surpassed the time to encourage more fun.
You try and sneak away the punch bowl to curb this run.
Despite prospect for future hangovers, the students protest.
Your actions make you the villain, the one to detest.
Controlling the party is a thankless task.
Be careful with the power. Ration that flask! – Tim
Actually not half bad.
It may be that you lived in an alternate universe in which Fess Parker had a different role [“Notes From the Field”], but when I wore my coonskin cap, I sang about Davy Crocket, not Daniel Boone. – Kit
Fess Parker played both Daniel Boone AND Davy Crockett in the respective TV shows! The Daniel Boone show ran for five or six years while Davy Crockett only aired a few times as a special series on The Wonderful World of Disney. Yep, that was my Sunday night ritual — Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by whatever was showing on The Wonderful World of Disney. Simpler times, for good and for ill.
And then there’s this: scientists have embedded 5 frames of the “Horse in Motion” into the DNA of bacteria. And people think memes are far-fetched.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
“What brought it on?”
“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)
What do socialism and modern monetary policy have in common? Magical thinking. For both, it’s true on the giddy years up, and it’s true on the sad years down.
If you’ve been reading my notes immediately before and after the June Fed meeting (“Tell My Horse” and “Post-Fed Follow-up”), you know that I think we now have a sea change in what the Fed is focused on and what their default course of action is going to be. Rather than looking for reasons to ease up on monetary policy and be more accommodative, the Fed and the ECB (and even the BOJ in their own weird way) are now looking for reasons to tighten up on monetary policy and be more restrictive. As Jamie Dimon said the other day, the tide that’s been coming in for eight years is now starting to go out. Caveat emptor.
The question, then, isn’t whether the barge of monetary policy has turned around and embarked on a tightening course — it has — the question is how fast that barge is going to move AND whether or not the market pays more attention to the actual barge movements than what the barge captain says. I promise you that the barge captains of both the Fed and the ECB believe they can tighten and taper without killing the market so long as they jawbone this constantly. This is the Common Knowledge Game in action, this is the Missionary Effect, this is Communication Policy … this is everything that I’ve been writing about in Epsilon Theory over the past four years! And as we saw with the market’s euphoric reaction to Yellen’s prepared remarks for her Humphrey-Hawkins testimony last Wednesday, which were presented as oh-so dovish when they really weren’t, this jawboning strategy could absolutely work. It WILL absolutely work unless and until we get undeniably “hot” inflation numbers — particularly wage inflation numbers — from the real world.
So what’s up with that? How can we have wage inflation running at a fairly puny 2.5% (Chart 1 below) when the unemployment rate is a crazy low 4.3% (Chart 2 below) and other indicators, like the NFIB’s survey of “Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill” (Chart 3 below) are similarly screaming for higher wages?
Chart 1: US Average Hourly Earnings, annual % change
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
Chart 2: US Unemployment Rate
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
Chart 3: NFIB Small Business Job Openings Hard to Fill
Source: Bloomberg Finance L.P. as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
The answer, I think, can be found in Chart 4 below: vanishing labor productivity. Productivity is the amount of stuff that workers make (output) divided by the amount of time it takes them to make it (hours worked). You can have productivity growth for good reasons like in the 1980s and 1990s and early 2000s (more stuff made per hour worked as companies invested in things like the personal computer or the Internet) or bad reasons like in 2009 and 2010 (massive layoffs, so making a bit less stuff but over waaay fewer hours worked).
Productivity growth for the right reasons (I know, I sound like a contestant on The Bachelorette) is just about the most important economic goal that policy makers have, because it’s how you get your economy growing in a sustainable, non-inflationary way, and for the past seven years we’ve had none of it. By the way, if new technologies were really responsible for keeping wage inflation down (something I hear all the time), we would have seen that through increasing labor productivity. We haven’t.
Chart 4: US Labor Productivity Growth (2-year moving average)
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics as of 7/13/17. For illustrative purposes only.
This is a huge question for the Fed, maybe the biggest question they have. How is it possible — with the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever experienced, with all the amazing technological advancements that we read about day in and day out — that companies have not invested more in plant and equipment and technology to improve their labor productivity, to make more with the people they’ve got?
The answer, of course, is the answer that the Fed will never admit. The reason companies aren’t investing more aggressively in plant and equipment and technology is BECAUSE we have the most accommodative monetary policy in the history of the world, with the easiest money to borrow that corporations have ever seen. Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for real growth when they are so awash in easy money that they can beat their earnings guidance with a risk-free stock buyback? Why in the world would management take the risk — and it’s definitely a risk — of investing for GAAP earnings when they are so awash in easy money that they can hit their pro forma narrative guidance by simply buying profitless revenue? Why in the world would companies take any risk at all when the Fed has eliminated any and all negative consequences for playing it safe? It’s like going to a college where grade inflation makes an A- the average grade. Sure, I could bust a gut to get that A, but why would I do that?
How does this apply to wage inflation? It’s the same thing. Why in the world would a company pay up to fill a position when it’s a risk they really don’t need to take? Yeah, we’ve got job openings, and yeah, our skill positions are increasingly going unfilled, and yeah, we’d like to expand and grow … I suppose. But, hey, we’re hitting our numbers just fine as it stands and, if you hadn’t noticed, our stock price hit a new high yesterday. Why mess up a good thing?
How does this change? As the Fed slowly raises rates, as the barge slowly chugs down the tightening river, it will force companies to play it less safe. It will force companies to take on more risk. It will force companies to invest more in plant and equipment and technology. It will force companies to pay up for the skilled workers they need. You want wage inflation? You want productivity growth? Then raise rates!
And god forbid if we actually get a tax reform bill passed. That’s the off-to-the-races moment.
My point is a simple one. In exactly the same way that QE was deflationary in practice when it was inflationary in theory, so will the end of QE be inflationary in practice when it is deflationary in theory. That’s the real world impact I’m talking about, the world of wages and output and productivity. You know, the real world that used to be the touchstone of our markets.
And here’s my other point. In the Bizarro-world that central bankers have created over the past eight years, raising rates isn’t going to have the same inflation-dampening effect that it’s had in past tightening cycles, at least not until you get to much higher rates than you have today. It’s going to accelerate inflation by forcing risk-taking in the real world, which means that the barge is going to have to move faster and faster the more it moves at all. I think that today’s head-scratcher for the world’s central banks — why haven’t our easy money policies created inflation in the real world? — will soon be replaced by a new head-scratcher — why haven’t our tighter money policies tamed inflation in the real world?
My view: as the tide of QE goes out, the tide of inflation comes in. And the more that the QE tide recedes, the more inflation comes in. I know that this sounds like a nutty scenario today, with everyone talking about how inflation is dead and gone, and how the Fed will be “fighting” inflation by raising rates, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em. It’s a scenario that neither central banks nor markets have contemplated in any serious way, but it’s going to be a focus for Epsilon Theory.