Pandemic Playbook – 3/17

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Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required): The Pandemic Playbook – 3/17



Beyond what we have published about Covid-19 itself since early February, we have also published a range of more explicit observations about Covid-19 from the perspective of a risk manager or asset owner over the past several weeks.

On February 27th we argued that the narrative of Covid-19 continued to be complacent. We argued that most investors should pursue the universal shrinking of active risk and gross exposure. We argued for a circumstances-based analysis to consider risk asset exposure reduction (i.e. net exposure). We also wrote what we thought would trigger a reevaluation of circumstances:

It means we’d be doing all of the above until the cargo cult of Covid-19 analysis turns back into science. In short, we’d be doing the above until we felt that the measurements being provided about the state of Covid-19 infections reflected some underlying reality.

Covid-19 Cargo Cults

Following the speech given by Donald Trump yesterday (3/16) and the change in strategy adopted by the United Kingdom that same day, we believe this is now the case. The two components of this change are the capacity and willingness/recognition to make testing the single highest priority. The former quality is identifiable. Covid-19 testing across (most of) the United States ramped up substantially over the weekend. Individual states like New York are now performing more than 1,000 tests per day. The latter is subjective. Watch both speeches for yourself.

What do we think that means?

It means we think that the narrative of market complacency about Covid-19 is officially over.

It means that data demonstrating the importance of asymptomatic transmission in earlier infected countries has supported a rapid sea-change in the seriousness with which countries have embraced social distancing measures that explicitly reduce tail outcomes (for the disease).

It means we think the uncertainty overhang related to non-testing and the lack of institutional inertia within business and government to act on testing and mitigation has been relaxed.

This is NOT an all clear, folks. But it does mean a change in the game being played and in our ability to play that game. We’d like to walk through our updated framework for thinking about the governing narratives and events we see for the Covid-19 pandemic (a term which you should understand we always mean in context of the medical, economic AND quarantine effects unless otherwise stated).


We recommend that institutions and asset owners construct their response framework from what we have referred to previously as the Koan of Donald Rumsfeld.

Decision-making under certainty – the known knowns. This is the sure thing, like betting on the sun coming up tomorrow, and it is a trivial sub-set of decision-making under risk where probabilities collapse to zero or 1.

Decision-making under risk – the known unknowns, where we are reasonably confident that we know the potential future states of the world and the rough probability distributions associated with those outcomes. This is the logical foundation of Expected Utility, the formal language of microeconomic behavior, and mainstream economic theory is predicated on the prevalence of decision-making under risk in our everyday lives.

Decision-making under uncertainty – the unknown unknowns, where we have little sense of either the potential future states of the world or, obviously, the probability distributions associated with those unknown outcomes. This is the decision-making environment faced by a Stranger in a Strange Land, where traditional cause-and-effect is topsy-turvy and personal or institutional experience counts for little, where good news is really bad news and vice versa. Sound familiar?

The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld

To that end, below we outline for each of the three categories the facts, narratives and events which we think will frame how information that matters to markets is conveyed. To the extent we can, we will identify the type of narrative structure which we believe exists and how we think new information will be processed.

Importantly, you should know that this will necessarily evolve. We will not always be in a position to update the state of each item. What we are recommending is incorporating aspects of this into your own framework in ways that suit your objectives, process and ability to take in rapidly evolving new information.

The Known Knowns

Other than “the sky is not falling” and “the sun will rise”, practically nothing falls into this category today.

I don’t mean this flippantly. It matters that this set is empty for all practical purposes, because it would usually include things like “markets will be open” and “you’ll be able to short” and “daily variation margin on centrally cleared derivatives is de facto riskless.”

That means that your framework must assume a non-zero probability that your hedges will not work. That means that your framework must assume that series of small trades structured to exploit asymmetry / volatility have a non-zero chance of not paying out.

We think that continues to argue for a smaller gross exposure or (for long-oriented investors) smaller active risk position than your perceived edge would otherwise lead you to establish.

We think that furthermore argues for some caution in thinking that options-based view expressions are a “workaround” for gross exposure aversion. If this were part of our strategy and we weren’t explicit about this in our risk management to begin with, we’d explicitly cap our negative carry from premium.

The Known Unknowns

We refer to the below as known unknowns because we think they are appropriately thought of as decisions that can be made under risk rather than uncertainty. But make no mistake: the level of risk attached to any predictions you might make on any of these categories is substantial.

TopicNarrative StructureNarrative Observations
Current General Spread / Fear of Covid-19:MixedAs noted above, we would no longer classify this as an Unknown Unknown, or as complacent. This may be too clever by half, as there is a non-zero chance that we allowed ourselves to get far enough out on the exponential curve that the downside risk of reality revealing itself exceeds any feasible prediction. But in general, we think the pandemic’s spread in this cycle is being transformed by effective policy back into a risk. However, we don’t see a single narrative here, but multiple narratives in competition. We think that means there is bi-directional risk on bets on the speed / expansion of spread. 
Political SeriousnessConsensusWe think that there is now common knowledge that there is political awareness, willingness and capacity to act on Covid-19-related policies. Everybody knows that everybody knows that policies proposed in one state are quickly manifested across the country. We think that means there is short-run one-way risk owing to any events giving the impression of politicization, lack of focus or excessive focus on short-term financial market responses.
Depth of Economic OutcomesConsensusThe potential economic effects of Covid-19 are both vast and vastly variable. Difficult to predict as they will be, we think they generally qualify as risks rather than uncertainties at this time, however. We think that there IS an expectation of very bad GDP and EPS prints. We aren’t saying they won’t have negative effects on asset prices when reported as news, but we do think in GENERAL that bad Q1 / Q2 prints will be tuned and framed and generally excused within that existing narrative. Not unreasonable to expect the odd less-nightmarish than expected Q1 prints to produce an asymmetrically positive response.
Length of Economic OutcomesComplacentWe saw flashes of this in what appeared to be the market’s response to”July or August” comments from the president on March 16th; however, in our judgment, the narrative of economic effects is that they will be short-lived. “One to two quarters” is common shared language among nearly ALL reports and research pieces. Given this complacency, we think there is mostly one-way risk (i.e. negative) on information relating to the length of EPS / GDP effects at this time. We would be very concerned about the emergence of the narrative – and obviously about the actual existence of – an extended global depression. We think this is a really significant long-term risk to markets that is being almost completely ignored in current narratives. We would take it very seriously.
Cases of Economic RuinComplacent
(with Exceptions)
Related somewhat to the “Bailout” unknown unknown in the following table, the narratives of industries at risk remains confined to first-degree effects: hospitality, leisure and transportation. There we think the narrative is consensus, subject to the binary risk of bailout policy posture. Outside of that and dalliances in feature coverage considering small restaurant businesses, there appears to be zero narrative about knock-on effects in adjacent / dependent / broader industries and sectors. We think there is significant, targeted one-way (i.e. negative) risk for some of these non-hospitality, leisure and transportation industries for contrarians. 
Emotional / Visceral ResponseComplacentEven though it has been predicted and seems almost statistically inevitable, there is practically no recognition or discussion of a prospective news cycle of overwhelmed New York City hospitals and ICUs. We think there remains complacency about the unique short-horizon impact of two weeks of news focused exclusively on the region where so much of the financial industry AND Covid-19 outbreaks are located: New York, Westchester County and Fairfield County, CT. We think this is largely a one-way risk, but over a short horizon that probably has potential to manifest in the last two weeks of March. 
Fiscal Policy ResponseMixedThere are enough policy proposal drafts and stalking horses in the wild at this point to treat this usually binary kind of event as a Known Unknown. It is difficult to pin down a narrative here, as there are clusters of commentary and missionary behaviors around multiple suggested strategies. There isn’t a global expectation of what the policy package will look like that has become common knowledge. If anything, we think the narrative tilts toward cynicism that households, families and small businesses will be helped quickly enough relative to industry backstops/bailouts. Accordingly, we mostly view this as two-way risk based on the size of the package, but our opinion (not really present in the data – purely subjective) is that there is some asymmetric upside sensitivity to a quicker or larger-than-expected package. 
Monetary Policy ResponseMixedWhile the data set is limited in scope, since Sunday (3/15) we think that a strong narrative with two dimensions – “out of ammunition” and “focused on liquidity and orderliness” – has emerged about central banks, and the Fed in particular. We think the former is a consensus narrative with more upside asymmetry in certain extreme cases (ie – everybody believes that everybody believes the Fed can’t take actions that will support asset price). We think the latter is supportive of framing most illiquidity-related news, data or research in a positive way, but also creates downside asymmetry if they aren’t as rapid dealing with issues in CP markets or other sources of market illiquidity.

The Unknown Unknowns

Part of the concept of unknown unknowns is, of course, that they are unknown, so the first allowance here that must be made is a general one: there are paths here that are not identifiable in advance. They all yield the same answers: Avoid leverage. Avoid reliance on ex-post measurements of cross-asset correlations. Avoid position-level and risk-level concentration. We’d add our previously communicated “avoid illiquidity” but it’s probably too late for that at this point.

But the Koan of Rumsfeld as we have it slots in the idea of unknown unknowns as uncertainty. In addition to the many paths which cannot be identified in advance, we think there are three other major categories of uncertainty which investors must take into account.

TopicNarrative StructureNarrative Observations
Seasonality Effects and Resurgence?We have some data now about the R0 influences of heat and humidity, and that data is positive. Positive but not enough for prediction. The parameters are still insufficient to tell us what life with an endemic Covid-19 looks like. Will its resurgence mirror 1918? How effective will vaccinations be from making Covid-20 just as bad? We think investors should expect that information which rapidly shifts this critical topic’s substance and importance into the Known Unknown range could still emerge at ANY time and in either direction. This alone should keep gross exposures and active risk budgets at very subdued levels. 
Industry Bailout Response?While we think there is a general focus on risks to certain obvious industries (as described in the known unknowns above) that should govern some forms of risk-taking, specific company outcomes are subject to a veil of binary uncertainty. This is obvious counsel, but still must be part of the framework: go-to-zero bets on airlines, cruise companies, aerospace companies and hospitality companies are not risky but uncertain. We would warn investors away from spending active risk on such positions based on a fundamental thesis unless they are explicitly cordoned and risk-managed behavioral bets on other investors (e.g. in vol markets). 
Election and Unrest?We are witnesses to what we think will probably be the single biggest sociopolitical event of our lives (so far, anyway). We are shutting off entire economies. For months. Soldiers are being deployed in free, democratic countries. A base rate of a return to normalcy is probably still correct! It’s our mean case, too. But these kinds of events create branching paths with no visibility beyond them. Unrest and political upheaval in many markets throughout the world are absolutely unquantifiable possibilities. We would continue to be apply deep skepticism to the diversifying properties of sovereign debt both against risky assets and against other debt assets in our portfolio construction.

Again, we will continue to update the general framework based on events that warrant it, but the rapidity of changes in narrative structure will likely exceed that frequency. We think any of these would be additive to whatever framework your institution or team is using to monitor and manage through this situation, and will benefit from your incorporation of monitoring and judgment of news flow and research relating to each narrative and event. If you have specific questions, of course, please feel free to reach out to either Ben or Rusty via email.


Epsilon Theory PDF Download (paid subscription required):  The Pandemic Playbook – 3/17


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First-Level Foolishness

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PDF Download (paid subscription required): First-Level Foolishness


“I’d like to first repeat what I said last week, and that is that over 90% of the value of a stock is due to its profits more than one year into the future. So as bad as this year can be…we could really have a short quick recession, the long-term value is not significantly impaired…let’s face it, this is mostly going to be a demand-induced slowdown.”

Dr. Jeremy Siegel to CNBC (March 2, 2020)

In a severe pandemic, infrastructure can be disrupted at a national level, such as healthcare, transportation, commerce, and utilities. This is due partly to risk mitigation measures but also potentially higher rates of patients on sick leave, employees taking care of children or other family members, or general population anxiety about gathering in public places.

The direct and indirect U.S. healthcare costs of a moderate pandemic, like those in the 1950s and 1960s, were estimated at roughly $180 billion in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assuming no intervention, but this does not include potential for commerce disruption. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a pandemic could cost the U.S. more than 4% of GDP in a severe situation (similar to the Spanish flu of 1918) or 1% of GDP (if the pandemic is more mild, similar to 1957 and 1968 pandemics).

Overall, we think the costs of coronavirus will mirror those of a milder pandemic. As we assume a lower death rate that primarily focuses on patients over the age of 65, we think there could be a significant short-term hit (1.5% of 2020 GDP) but minimal hits beyond, as the economy should be in position to rebound quickly.

Morningstar’s View: The Impact of Coronavirus on the Economy (March 10, 2020)

It is an uncertain time, but I’m willing to bet on a couple things: I know what your personal email inbox looks like. I know what your professional email inbox looks like.

And I bet yesterday – March 11th – felt like a dam breaking for both.

There wasn’t any real change in the facts on the ground about Covid-19 in that time. Nothing fundamental. China continued to report few new cases. Korea continued to report improvement, with a little new concern in Seoul, perhaps. Italy continued to be grim. Germany and France had pockets of growing concern. America looked to be somewhat closer to the path of southern Europe than East Asia. The fact pattern on the morning of March 11th was consistent with the day before and the week before.

What changed was common knowledge. What changed was what everybody knew everybody knew.

It changed because powerful missionaries who had been in the grip of “just the flu” and “panic would be worse than the disease” memes – memes promoted in financial media beginning in January, as we highlighted previously here – threw in the towel. The WHO, which for weeks pretended it could be agnostic about the “p” word, relented. Harvard sent students home, and a raft of schools followed within hours.

That change in common knowledge is why yesterday you received a dozen or two “Here’s what we’re doing” emails from your kids’ schools, your local fast food chain, the airline you have frequent flier miles with, and the hotel flag you used to be loyal to until they merged and made your points worth half as much. A long-time friend and reader informed us of a Covid-19 CYA Communication from a……food truck. Apparently they got his email through Square.

It’s also why (along with a little bit of feisty market action) your professional inbox filled up with new sell side reports, buy side update letters and – unless you were lucky – one or two “can we talk after the close?” emails from a fund manager or two this morning.

Will you permit me one more wager? I will also bet more than a few of THOSE emails probably looked like the lukewarm garbage that produced the two quotes above.

Both the Siegel appearances and the pseudo-scientific “scenario analyses” Morningstar and others are pumping into your inboxes are emblematic of the same thing: first level thinking, the mistaken assumption that markets function by assessing the first order effects of events. But it is far worse than that. They are also emblematic of ergodic thinking, which is a ten dollar way of saying that someone is using their estimate of the potential range of current outcomes as a proxy for the potential range of how outcomes may unfold in sequence over time.

Just one problem with that:

The path that events follow matters.

Path-dependence is why a disease that is only moderately more deadly than the seasonal flu becomes a Big Deal when its characteristics give it the potential to overwhelm hospital capacity. Path-dependence is why every college, school, sports team and corporation made their decisions in unison once missionaries finally created common knowledge. Path-dependence is why uncertainty in markets should inform your portfolio risk management.

The first-level thinkers miss this, and they miss it in three big ways.


1. They treat the market as if it were a clockwork machine, constantly repricing everything about issuers and securities. In reality, the market is a bonfire, unevenly assessing investors’ expectations of other investors’ responses to information at the margin.

The Siegel style of analysis is perhaps the most emblematic of this idiotic framework. That shouldn’t be surprising – the notion that market participants wake up every day and reassess everything in their portfolio and what it ought to be worth is a foundational abstraction of academics in finance, even today. To be true, it IS useful for teaching DCF-based thinking on a bottom-up basis. But it is utterly nonsensical for explaining asset prices changes at a top-down level.

At any given time, millions of people setting prices at the margin treat the prior day’s price as a Thing In-Itself. In other words, the prior day’s price becomes the thing that matters, completely independent of whatever information was being considered by the participants who participated in the prior day’s price setting activities. Take that back a week or a month and you start to realize something very important about markets: at any given time, simple inertia is a very important part of why people believe the price of a thing is correct.

When prices move after an event, first-level thinkers say, “Well, only X has changed, so the price should only change by the effects of X.” The problem, of course, is that when prices change by a sufficient amount, investors who AREN’T first level thinkers don’t just question how much Event X ought to have changed the price; they begin to question the inertia that led to YESTERDAY’S price.

One financial markets commentator observed the following today (March 12th):

All the permabears are coming out now and saying, “I told you so.” It’s just too bad that not a single one of their theories is the reason why we are in the current sell off. But don’t worry, they will congratulate themselves anyways.

No!

Thinking that the sell-off we are observing can be completely divorced from all of the assumptions that led to the prices yesterday that are being subjected to closer scrutiny TODAY is first-level thinking. All those things the “perma-bears” straw men theorized cannot be ignored. The expectations of undue central bank asset price support and profligacy that led to those prices is going to be questioned. The appropriateness of multiples that led to previous prices is going to be questioned. The behavioral expectations investors had for other investors that led to previous prices is going to be questioned.

In short, any event of sufficient size is capable of influencing asset prices BEYOND the scale of the event itself, and that influence must NOT be considered an inherent overreaction. It is a fundamental part of the long-cycle process whereby markets periodically reevaluate endemic assumptions that exist on the basis of inertia alone!


2. They treat market events as if they were isolated from the non-market events they influence, especially in political and regulatory spheres.

Ben is going to be write about this in a great deal more detail for a note next week, so I won’t belabor it too much here. But analyzing purely market fundamental events through probabilistic analyses to estimate market outcomes is worse than useless if it abstracts from the range of potential non-market responses.

Some of those events under a cloud of uncertainty are bullish! A massive landmark fiscal package coupled with aggressive state government aid would be a seminal such event, and could dramatically change the complexion of the market event.

Some of them are not so bullish. Some of those bearish outcomes manifest in major structural changes, such as changes to the narrative of globalization Ben and I have both hinted at observing as an emerging narrative. This is a potential multi-year outcome that could become part of core market narratives much sooner than most investors expect. The effects of a forced return of manufacturing and supply chains to North American shores would go far beyond the Siegel Cartoon of a 1-year share of a stock’s present value.

Some of the more bearish potential outcomes are almost impossible to bake into prices in ANY way prior to them taking shape. Your septuagenarian president hung out for a good bit with a Covid-19 exposed (and potentially infected) Jair Bolsonaro a week ago. How much of today’s price decline would you estimate accounts for the probability that our >10% CFR bucketed administration will announce infection next week? Some? None? Lots? A little?

You have no idea. I have no idea. There are a hundred events exactly like this – both bullish and bearish (but probably more bearish, if we’re being honest) – lurking in the fog of uncertainty, of unknowable incidence and severity. The idea that some sell side guy on CNBC thinks he can tell you what S&P earnings level for 2H 2020 the market is discounting should offend your spirit. The idea that there’s a clockwork machine pricing a risk premium on this basis should produce pain deep within your capitalist soul.

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3. They miss that nearly all financial assets exist in and cannot be divorced from their portfolios. When events change the interaction of those financial assets, those events can have reflexive responses in asset prices that we cannot assume are temporary or irrational!

Ben and I have both written frequently about how critical the narrative of stocks and bonds as mutual diversifiers is for the plumbing of the asset management industry, much of which has formed around that assumption during the last 35 years. If an event like the Covid-19 response produces compression of rates on US sovereign debt toward zero and an extended period of zero to positive correlations between rates and risk assets, modeling the event itself without accounting for how these assumptions would dramatically change the behaviors of institutions from pensions to insurance companies to family offices to yield-sensitive high net worth individuals is incomplete to the point of irrelevance!

And a reminder, since this is Epsilon Theory after all: to be IMPORTANT, these things don’t have to be long-term true in fundamental space so long as they are true in narrative space. If everybody knows that everybody knows that bonds don’t diversify stocks, or if everybody knows that everybody knows that you don’t buy bonds for yield but for duration bets alone, the game has changed on dimensions that go far beyond what one might model for the event.


What does all this mean?

It means that the appreciation for uncertainty that we have counseled throughout this process should remain. There are single events ahead of us which will completely change the complexion of this situation. They will shift the incidence and severity of outcomes on their head. Some may even bring probabilistically modeling outcomes back into the realm of the reasonable.

We should manage risks for an uncertain market, and monitor the signs investors’ are transitioning back to a risky market.

What do we do?

The same thing you did the last two weeks. By far the most important play in this playbook, because it responds to EACH of these three problems, is this:

Shrink your book.

Keep your use of leverage at a minimum.

Keep your reduced reliance on covariance estimates.

Keep your trimmed down gross exposure.

If you’re deciding between a selling and hedging, sell.

The most important place that path-dependence rears its head to create unexpected risks is in the breakdown in relationships among assets. A limited gross and skepticism about covariance estimates is how you reduce your exposure to THAT. And keep it down.

What do we look for?

We counsel looking for signs of an emerging narrative that uncertainty is changing back to risk.

I’ll be more explicit. I think bearish behavior subsides for some period if and when everybody knows that everybody knows that US testing is happening and is representative. There are enough analogs in Korea and Italy to frame the problem. Once this data exists, missionaries of “quantifiable risk” narratives will be more successful.

But let’s be clear on another point. We think that is a tradeable phenomenon in the short run. We also think that it doesn’t necessarily change the real, fundamental uncertainty of some long-term outcomes precipitated by Covid-19.

More on that to come next week.

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Minimax Regret

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This email is the foundation of a much longer ET note that I hope to publish next week, but wanted to share the basic idea with you and get your feedback.

The title of the note is going to be Minimax Regret, which is a game-playing strategy referring to minimizing your maximum regret. It’s a very different approach to playing any game, whether it’s investing or voting or living with our families, than the approach we almost always take in life, which is straightforward Utility Maximization. I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time describing what Utility Maximization is, except that it’s so embedded in our social psychology that sometimes people have a hard time imagining that there is any other way to think about their choices in a game … or in life. Certainly it’s embedded in everything we do as professional investors, from the very definition of an “efficient frontier” in economics and portfolio construction to the monomaniacal focus we have on evaluating “performance”.

One aspect of Utility Maximization that usually goes unnoticed, however, until it bites us in the ass when something like the coronavirus comes around, is that it’s based on a “normally distributed underlying stochastic process”. Now there’s a mouthful! In English, that means that when we engage in Utility Maximization (which we are always doing, whether we recognize it or not) we assume that there is some sort of a probabilistic bell curve that sits behind our guesses about the answer to a question we’re pondering. Like I say, this is so embedded in our human psychology that we don’t even recognize that we’re doing it.  

But you can see this phenomenon clearly in surveys about things which people have NO IDEA about.

A screenshot of a cell phone Description automatically generated

This is a “snap survey” from one of those independent market research firms that you may subscribe to, and I want to call your attention to the first question: when do you believe the maximum impact from the coronavirus will be felt?

Now what I will tell you, from years and years of constructing surveys like this in a prior lifetime, is that if you give humans three dates as possible answers to a question like this, the middle date will ALWAYS get the most votes. If you give them seven dates, the middle date will get the most votes, and the dates just before and after will get the second-most votes. If you give them 15 dates (yes, you always give an odd number of possible responses in survey questions like this, for this reason), you’ll see the same pattern take shape. Doesn’t matter what the dates are (I mean, within reason) … the votes will take the form of a bell curve, aka a normal distribution.

Again, this is for questions where the respondents have no freakin’ idea what the right answer is … like asking investors when the maximum impact of the coronavirus will be felt.

The problem, of course, is that we assume there is some information to be taken from surveys like this, some sort of “wisdom of the crowd” to be gleaned from this exercise. There’s not. There’s zero information here. What we’re seeing is nothing more than the bell curve probability distribution that we human utility maximizers apply when we have no idea what the future holds.

The larger problem, of course, is that SO MUCH of market price setting and market behavior is based on “surveys” like this. For example, all of CNBC’s coverage of CV-19 has been a form of a survey like this … asking professional investors what they think about the “impact” of coronavirus on these Markets in Turmoil ™. There’s zero information here. Zero. All you are receiving is different votes for an underlying bell curve of possible outcomes. That’s it. There is literally nothing more to the entire exercise than that.

To be fair, usually this isn’t a problem at all. Usually this is nothing more than harmless entertainment, because usually the reality of something like corporate earnings or a jobs report (technically, the difference in our guesses about things like corporate earnings and the reality of things like corporate earnings) truly does fit some sort of bell curve distribution. There’s a reason we’ve been so well trained to be utility maximizers in our social lives … it usually works!

But when reality doesn’t fit a “normally distributed underlying stochastic process”, then all hell breaks loose. Like happened in 2008 with mortgage-backed securities. Like is happening now with CV-19.

All of our thinking about CV-19 is wrong and all of our decision-making about CV-19 is wrong because we believe we’re getting “information”, when actually all we’re getting is an irrelevant error distribution.

Investing (or just living for that matter) under the shadow of CV-19 is not decision-making under risk. It is decision-making under uncertainty, and for that you need Minimax Regret.

Here are four older ET notes that talk about Minimax Regret (there are others, too):

The Koan of Donald Rumsfeld

It’s Not About the Nail

Why Take a Chance

Things Fall Apart (Part 3) – Markets

My goal is to take some elements from these older notes and write a couple of notes on how I think we have to change our thinking about investing in an age of CV-19. Because I believe that CV-19 is bringing forth permanent and secular changes to our world, changes that will not show their “maximum impact” by … [[checks survey]] … April.

CV-19 is the catalyst that not only slows down globalization, but reverses it.

I’m trying to figure out the first, second and third order consequences of THAT. And I’d love your help. If you have any thoughts or ideas, I’m all ears.

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Not Gonna Lie

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Not gonna lie … the more I dig into the statistical analysis of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak (I used to call it nCov2019, but going forward I’ll call it COVID-19 to follow the latest World Health Organization naming convention), the more I believe that the virus has not been contained in China and that we are far more likely than not to have a major outbreak of the disease outside of China.

This statistical analysis is principally based on two research papers (both attached here as PDFs), one written by WHO-sponsored doctors based in Hong Kong and published in The Lancet, and the other written by DARPA-sponsored researchers based at Los Alamos National Labs. The skinny from these notes is that COVID-19 is ridiculously infectious. Yes, it’s airborne. Yes, it’s waterborne. If it’s anywhere near you, odds are you’re going to catch it. I mean, when China is sterilizing and quarantining paper money from Hubei province, that should give you an idea that no one has any idea whatsoever how to contain the disease once it’s in a population center.

So when I read that there were more new cases of COVID-19 infection identified yesterday on that cruise ship in Yokohama than were identified in all of Africa and the Southeast Asian sub-continent, you can forgive me for believing that we *already* have a cluster of COVID-19 cases in cities like Djakarta … it’s just not being measured. How long will it take for this cluster to reach a noticeable mass given COVID-19’s high reproduction baseline? Using Wuhan as an example, I figure three or four weeks.

We also have a front-line doctor’s report coming in from Wuhan, also published in The Lancet, and real-time feedback from doctors in Singapore and Beijing on what they are observing in patients-under-investigation (PUI). The skinny here is that Wuhan fell because the healthcare system in that city collapsed. Doctors and nurses themselves contracted the virus in vast numbers, and once hospitals became a source of infection rather than treatment, the Chinese authorities made the decision to shut off the city and effectively let the disease run its course.

This is what we must avoid when/if there is an outbreak outside of China.

I believe we must stop playing the “Confirmed Cases” game, which is just that … a public relations game … and start doing three things:

  1. PROTECT healthcare professionals with pre-positioned gear NOW (esp. in cities like Jakarta);
  2. INFORM healthcare professionals with better diagnostic criteria NOW (Singapore is doing strong work here);
  3. INSULATE healthcare professionals with (much) bigger isolation wards that should be built NOW (esp. in cities like Jakarta).

Unfortunately, I don’t believe any of this is going to happen, in large part because senior leadership of the World Health Organization is primarily concerned with maintaining the favor of their Chinese patrons and toeing the (literal) party line. The way that WHO leadership has handled COVID-19 thus far is not just a disgrace, not just a humiliation for the thousands of people doing good and important work under WHO auspices … it’s a betrayal of the entire world.

Yep, strong words. And here’s my latest note to back it up – The Industrially Necessary Doctor Tedros.

When WHO Director General Tedros recommended on Feb. 4 that there should be NO systematic limitation on air travel and visa issuance in and out China, he KNEW that the CCP-provided “evidence” for that recommendation was a crock. How did he know? Because independent WHO-sponsored doctors had published their paper on Jan. 31 showing that the CCP-provided evidence was a crock.

Barf.

Is there good news? Yes. If you’re young and female, you have an excellent chance of surviving an infection, and perhaps being asymptomatic entirely. On the other hand, if you’re an older male with a pre-existing cardiovascular condition or high cortisol levels … well, that’s a problem.

The critical thing is that we can’t let another city fall like Wuhan did.

Not gonna lie … they got us in the first half. But I think if we prepare and strengthen our healthcare systems NOW, we can still win the game.

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That Escalated Quickly

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I published this note today on the website, and it’s making a bi of a splash. We’ll publicize it more actively tomorrow, but wanted to give you a headstart, including a copy of the PDF.

From a narrative perspective, China is fighting this war against nCov2019 exactly like the US fought its war against North Vietnam.

It’s what the Best and the Brightest always do … they convince themselves that the people can’t handle the truth, particularly if the truth ain’t such good news. They convince themselves that they can buy enough time to win the real-world war by designing and employing a carefully constructed “communication strategy” to win the narrative-world war.

That strategy proved to be a social and political disaster for the United States, as the cartoon tail (gotta get more NV casualties for Cronkite to report) ended up wagging the policy dog (send out more counterproductive search-and-destroy missions).

I think exactly the same thing is happening in China, and I think the social and political repercussions will be exactly as disastrous.

I believe that the Chinese government is massively under-reporting infection data in the pandemic regions of Hubei and Zhejiang provinces. Worse, I also believe that Chinese epidemic-fighting policy – just like American war-fighting policy in the Vietnam War – is now being driven by the narrative requirement to find and count the “right number” of coronavirus casualties. And I think I’ve got pretty strong evidence this is the case.

It’s a good note. I think you’ll like it (and I’m all ears to how anyone thinks this plays out in markets).

Also …

I’ll have more from our narrative Monitors in next week’s email, but I think we’ve got a really important finding in regards to the Inflation narrative. Last month I highlighted an inflection point in the structural Attention measure for Inflation (how much financial media drumbeating exists for Inflation relative to other big macro narratives).

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So here’s the Attention data for Inflation this month.

Wow! Now to be clear, the narrative *substance* of all this narrative attention is NOT “oh, my god, inflation is starting to get out of hand.” On the contrary, the biggest cluster in the inflation narrative (and the source of a lot of the attention increase) is the equivalent of a prayer to the Fed in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in China. It’s a wail about global growth and a hope that the Fed will ease in response (and with “inflation being so low”, why not?). So I don’t want to get too worked up about the spike here. In the absence of the coronavirus growth scare, I think the narrative attention score would be up this month – and “for the right reasons” – but not at these highly elevated levels. Which is a good thing. If narrative attention were this high because of an “inflation out of control” cluster, then it would be too late to position yourself effectively for a trade. As it stands, I think you’ve got time.

Also of note (and also supportive of the gradual development of this trade), it’s very notable that for the first time in a loooong time, the gold / precious metals cluster is now near the center of the overall narrative map (it’s usually way off to itself on the periphery of the map) and is directly connected to the other central clusters. This is quite bullish for gold.

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US Recession Monitor – 1.31.2020

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  • Like other topics, Recession narratives rose somewhat in attention and cohesion, but less dramatically than other categories.
  • We believe that this is because coronavirus outbreak fears manifested most in fear about asset prices, leading to rapid missionary behavior with respect to central bank / interest rate activity.
  • In contrast, while the impact of the virus on global economic growth – and potential recession fears – was a topic, it was far less connected.
  • For that reason, we think that there is still a very weak global narrative around recession. In the US that narrative is even weaker.
  • If there is such a narrative, however (as seen in our sentiment and fiat news trackers), missionaries are telling us that there is little risk or reason to be concerned.
  • We have no edge / opinion on whether that is factually accurate. We do believe that markets and media are complacently accepting of it.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Souree: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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US Fiscal Policy Monitor – 1.31.2020

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  • Like other topics, Recession narratives rose somewhat in attention and cohesion, but less dramatically than other categories.
  • We believe that this is because coronavirus outbreak fears manifested most in fear about asset prices, leading to rapid missionary behavior with respect to central bank / interest rate activity.
  • In contrast, while the impact of the virus on global economic growth – and potential recession fears – was a topic, it was far less connected.
  • For that reason, we think that there is still a very weak global narrative around recession. In the US that narrative is even weaker.
  • If there is such a narrative, however (as seen in our sentiment and fiat news trackers), missionaries are telling us that there is little risk or reason to be concerned.
  • We have no edge / opinion on whether that is factually accurate. We do believe that markets and media are complacently accepting of it.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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Trade and Tariffs Monitor – 1.31.2020

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  • Attention on Trade and Tariffs topics rose somewhat, but the inclusion of coronavirus language proved a distraction to the stories being told about them rather than a unifier.
  • More importantly, we think that the Phase 1 agreement between US/China led to a far more positive, Pollyannaish narrative structure on Trade.
  • We think that the fatigue over Trade news and the vacuum of the generally weak narrative structure in Q4 created a readiness to move on to other topics, including events like Iran and coronavirus.
  • We still have no edge (and believe it is impossible to have an edge) predicting long-term trade deal outcomes, but we are concerned that the Trade narrative is highly complacent, more likely to respond surprisingly to bad news than good.
  • We think any asset owners / managers with active positions on exposed assets should manage their risks accordingly.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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Central Bank Omnipotence Monitor – 1.31.2020

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  • Attention on and cohesion of Central Bank macro narratives rose sharply in January.
  • We believe that this is largely the result of a (hopefully!) short-term crystallization of language on many topics around language describing coronavirus-related risks.
  • In short, the narrative being promoted by missionaries is that central banks can and must step in quickly to stabilize any risks created by a potential outbreak.
  • We think that the emergence of this narrative is largely responsible for the return of an explicit bad-news-is-good-news regime in early February.
  • We wouldn’t understate this one – the fiat news utilization is at highs since we have tracked it, and the missionary behavior on this issue is strong.
  • Separately we observe that climate change and inequality topics continue to move toward a central part of the Central Bank narrative. Take note.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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Inflation Monitor – 1.31.2020

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  • Attention on inflation rose rapidly and surprisingly in January, we think in response to two developments:
    • The very modest emergence of inflation in even heavily cartoonified macroeconomic data; and
    • The attachment of very similar coronavirus language to articles about nearly ALL topics, including inflation.
  • It is hard to discern just how much to attribute to both, but we expect it will become apparent if/when the outbreak fades from the news cycle.
  • The inflation narrative appears to be “There are some signs of modest inflation, but it is still not near enough to justify moving away from an easy posture.”
  • We also note for the first time in quite some time that gold / precious metals coverage has attached itself to the core narrative structure (it is usually well distant on its own island with its own peculiar language).

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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The Deflation to Inflation Playbook

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First things first, we published what I think is an important note last Friday, “A New Road to Serfdom,” which I’ve included as a PDF attachment, as well.  

Here’s the skinny: Today there is a global political effort to convey vast new powers to central banks in order to “fight” climate change. In truth, however, this effort is not about climate change, any more than it could be about any number of significant dangers. This effort is about narrative. This effort is about power. It is an effort that must be resisted, especially if you believe (as I do) in the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the severe threat it poses to human society.

Second, and relatedly, I think that the use of central banks to monetize vast new fiscal spending programs in every developed nation on Earth – under the guise of CB-financed Green Bonds for left-leaning governments and CB-financed Infrastructure Bonds for right-leaning governments – is the biggest economic story of, not just the next year, but the next decade. This is how the Fourth Horseman of the Investment Apocalypse – inflation – rides into town, and it will challenge everything we think we know about investing and asset allocation.

We still have time. Deflationary shocks like the Wuhan coronavirus will rear their deadly head from time to time, pushing us temporarily back into the slowing global growth narrative (and reality). More importantly, there is still no narrative missionary, no political entrepreneur, yet willing to turn the world on its head and say that inflation is here … and that it’s a good thing. But in an MMT world we’re getting close to that. Most importantly for the question of time, shifting to an inflationary regime isn’t going to feel so bad for months at a time. As the old country song goes, falling feels like flying … for a little while.

But ultimately this is the source of the next great reset, both politically and economically. It won’t take the form of a “crash” or a “great recession” … that’s the last war. This is the next war, and we’re going to need a new strategy – a new playbook – to get through it intact.

To that end, we’re revamping the ET Pro subscription service (or at least my contribution in these emails and analysis) to focus directly on that challenge. I think you’ll find ET Pro more focused as a result, more instrumental and direct in its efforts. I really intend this to be the construction of an investment playbook, with offensive and defensive plays – some general purpose, some situational – built around a coherent minimax regret asset allocation strategy for a deflationary regime in transition to an inflationary regime.

We’ll wrap up the construction of this playbook at the Epsilon Theory Forum this October in San Antonio, where we will have a full day dedicated exclusively to ET Pro subscribers. Stay tuned for details!

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The Worm Turns

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We published our macro narrative Monitors last week (attached here), and something really jumped out at me.

Media attention to an inflation narrative turned dramatically in December, and I will tell you that I see signs of it continuing to accelerate to the upside here in January, particularly in sell-side analysis and reports (which are typically NOT picked up in our Monitor analysis, which pulls from publicly available media).

Does this mean that real-world inflation is off and running? No idea. I mean … my personal opinion is that real-world inflation is much more prevalent and entrenched than we are led to believe by the mandarins, but that’s just my personal opinion. I do not have a professional opinion on real-world inflation. I DO have a professional opinion on narrative-world inflation, however, and that is YES, this a classic “Emerging Narrative” set-up. We are a couple of CNBC missionary statements away from everyone knowing that everyone knows that inflation is off and running. We are one “hot” employment report from everyone knowing that everyone knows that inflation is off and running.

And that’s going to be a very squirrely day for markets.

Why? Because it’s going to bring the politicization of the Fed into sharper focus than any amount of overnight and short-term repo financing will ever achieve.

The Fed is playing a weak hand. If we get an inflation narrative now, just as the “global recession is nigh” narrative kicks the bucket, then the chatter immediately becomes whether or not the Fed has to HIKE. Not “stand pat”. Hike.

There is zero market anticipation for this, which makes this a dinner bell for the trader types reading this note, and a warning bell for the buy-and-hold types. Political risk starts to get real after the Iowa caucuses in a few weeks. Put that together with an incipient inflation narrative and you’ve got the makings of a volatility party. Be careful out there.

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Credit and Debt Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • The Q4 narratives promoting the idea of a ‘coming collapse’ in credit markets precipitated by leveraged loan markets has faded somewhat in attention and cohesion.
  • Sentiment, likewise, has continued to improve.
  • The language of fear of a credit market collapse continues to exist – ‘vulnerable’, ‘financial stability risk’ and ‘illiquidity’ continue to define some topical clusters, but they are peripheral and have become more so over the last several weeks.
  • The more central narrative structure exists around issuance, new fund launches and asset owner transitions of asset allocation to direct lending and private credit mandates.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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US Recession Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • Any narrative about a US Recession at this point is complacent and confident about its absence as a risk to equity markets.
  • The sentiment of articles has risen sharply – as cohesion and attention have fallen – to pre-Summer levels before recession concerns had become a somewhat mainstream media topic.
  • Even more than in prior periods, focus of even US markets commentary relating to recession has instead focused on recession risks in foreign markets, where the narrative is not quite as complacent.
  • The result is a muddled narrative structure with some lingering concern about German manufacturing, scattered emerging markets worries and articles asserting that the risk of American recession has passed.
  • We have no fundamental view on recession risks but believe the complacency may create asymmetric opportunities for investors and allocators with more substantive concerns about the US economy.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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US Fiscal Policy Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • No change in our view for several months: there is no Fiscal Policy, Deficit or Austerity narrative: “We are all MMTers now.”
  • Our only noteworthy and novel observation is that the cluster of articles referring to socialism, billionaires and investor fears about wealth taxes has become somewhat more central to the overall network.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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Trade and Tariffs Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • Despite the recent erosion in attention and cohesion across all macro themes, we think it remains Common Knowledge that the Trade War is what matters to risky asset markets.
  • Most of the erosion in cohesion is related to changes in topical language rather than changes in tone. Trade commentary is increasingly focused on USMCA, France and Brexit as opposed to China, where there have been fewer recent developments.
  • The most central clusters have become more cohesive around a focus on autos, energy technology (esp. solar) and aerospace. Agriculture, consumer products and other equipment are less central to overall trade and tariffs narratives.
  • We still see very little of the existential / military language we see as a canary for a transition of this Game of Chicken to a more predictable political game. Accordingly we do not favor significant active risk positions on Trade and Tariffs views.

Narrative Map


Narrative Sentiment Map


Narrative Attention Map


Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


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Central Bank Omnipotence Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • As with the other macro narratives we track central bank narratives have become highly diluted relative to prior periods, we think in large part as a result of the emergence of a wide variety of additional macro questions attracting moderate levels of competing attention.
  • Part of the muddling in cohesion relates to a real divergence in central banking discussions, a surprising quantity of which has begun wandering into topics like climate change and central banks’ role (?) in addressing it.
  • As with our November update, we continue to see a moderate linkage between the Trade War and “necessary” policy response.
  • We still think there is a long-cycle narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence – that the Fed will step in if needed on rates, and that doing so will be effective w/r/t asset prices – but there is no question that it is muddled in the short run.
  • Given this narrative structure, we would generally expect greater than expected response to either positive or negative surprise on interest rate policy or associated language.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map


Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment

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Inflation Monitor – 12.31.2019

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Access the Powerpoint slides of this month’s ET Pro monitors here.

Access the PDF version of the ET Pro monitor slides here.

Access the underlying Excel data here.


  • All of our macro themes remain at depressed levels of cohesion and attention – in short, we think that risky asset markets are operating without a dominant narrative.
  • However, there was a notable pickup – early drumbeats – in common knowledge about inflation in December.
  • We think the fairly sharp moves (relative to recent history) in precious metals and some commodities, for example, are indicative of the influence of a complacent narrative structure in the presence of even limited new information.
  • We have no fundamental thesis regarding inflation whatsoever. We have no idea if it is coming.
  • Nevertheless, we would expect similarly disproportionate impact from new information (in both directions, but especially favoring inflation) given the continued complacency.

Narrative Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Sentiment Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention Map

Source: Quid, Epsilon Theory

Narrative Attention


Narrative Cohesion


Fiat News Index


Narrative Sentiment


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The Long Now

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PDF Download (Paid Subscription Required): The Long Now


Every year, I try to put together a series of notes that captures where I think we are, from both a political and investment perspective. This year, that series is The Long Now. I’ve compiled the four notes in that series into a single PDF, attached here.

The kicker here is that I think both parties have embraced a profoundly destructive meaning to the fiscal powers of the State – to tax and to spend. When the tether between taxes and spending is severed – and make no mistake, both the Republicans and the Democrats have been working to this end for 20+ years – then taxes become a pure mechanism for the exercise of government power. They don’t exist to pay for government programs. They exist to satisfy the ruling regime’s conception of justice, equity and retribution for prior wrongs done by the other side. Again, this isn’t a partisan thing. This is a power thing. This is a Management thing.

Regardless of who wins the 2020 election, I believe we are going to be buffeted by punitive fiscal policies in the years to come … punitive on the tax side in the usual sense, where the rich and the old will be pitted against the non-rich and the non-old, back and forth … punitive on the spend side in the inflationary sense, where we will all feel the bite of a monster we haven’t seen in 40+ years.

You know, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal today, titled “China is Taking No Chances with Stagflation”. As if this were something that could be banished by fiat … as if soaring pork prices and declining growth would cease to exist if Chinese citizens were just TOLD that they didn’t exist.

As with every “outlook” or “analysis” article in the WSJ that talk about China, I took this as a crystal ball for what’s coming down the pike in the US in 6-12 months. Seriously. It’s uncanny how that works. (and the subject for another note another time)

So yes, that’s what I think is going to be the Big Story for the next several years … disappointing growth + alarming inflation + a government that tries harder and harder to TELL us that everything is wonderful. A United States that becomes more like China *politically* as well as economically. Smiley-face totalitarian flirtations on the political front, and old-fashioned stagflation on the economic front, all bearded by a stock market that has been transformed into a propped-up-at-all-costs political utility.

The thing is that – depending on where you stand in the pecking order – it won’t feel that BAD as the world is undone by inflation and the politics that comes with it. As the country song goes, “Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’ … for a little while”. But this IS what undoes us.

We need to get together and talk about all this. Maybe I’m wrong about The Long Now. Maybe I’m exaggerating the issues here. Wouldn’t be the first time. But right or wrong I think we’d all be well served to connect in person and share our ideas and observations. Stay tuned for details on timing and location … probably early fall before the election. Let me know if you’d like to help.

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New on ET Pro: the Debt and Credit Monitor

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One of our original macro narrative Monitors attempted to analyze the US credit cycle, but we rarely got enough media articles in a given month to generate robust results, so we placed it on hiatus. Recently, however, we (and once again this is the royal we … it’s actually all Rusty) hit upon a clever way to recast our search queries so that we think we are now able to capture a decent narrative signal on debt and credit markets. Here’s the narrative map for Debt and Credit in November, first colored by cluster topics and then colored by sentiment (you can see the high resolution graphics in the Monitors document):

We’ve got three takeaways from these maps and the prior 12 months of narrative analysis with the new query formulation:

  1. After a mid-year bout of complacency in credit markets, the past few months have seen a rapid acceleration in cohesion (focused and connected narrative topics) mostly around a negative sentiment narrative of concern regarding leveraged loans, CLOs, and the liquidity of CCC loans.
  2. This is taking place as the proportion of articles we measure as Fiat News (highly opinionated/editorial articles) has risen consistently. Missionaries are increasingly promoting the idea of a ‘coming collapse’.
  3. At the same time, however, there is also an almost equally positive sentiment narrative building around technology-based lending solutions in consumer credit.

We’re going to do more with credit narratives in 2020, as we know that a lot of our Professional subscribers work in FI and credit markets. If you have questions regarding our Debt and Credit Monitor, please give us a shout!

That brings our total of ET Pro Monitors to six, covering:

  1. Inflation
  2. Central Banks
  3. Trade and Tariffs
  4. US Recession
  5. US Fiscal Policy
  6. Debt and Credit

Of the six, Trade and Tariffs remains the most dominant in terms of narrative attention. It’s also relatively coherent, as it remains dominated by US-China vocabulary. But I want to highlight two really striking (to me, at least) narrative phenomena happening here:

  1. As described in the last several emails I’ve written you (“Silly Season” and “The Sillier Season”), coherence continues to collapse across almost all macro narrative categories. What does this mean? It means this is a market waiting for a Big Narrative from a Big Missionary. Could be a positive narrative and it could be a negative narrative. But the will-they-or-won’t-they-sign-a-deal narrative regarding the US and China, what I’ve described at length as a game of Chicken where no odds are assignable, is no longer enough to move markets up or down with any sort of narrative half-life. I think that if nothing else, we’ll get a Big Narrative of some sort coming out of the Iowa caucuses in early February. Maybe that will be a market-positive narrative. Maybe that will be a market-negative narrative. Maybe we’ll get something else before then. But right now there is nothing to serve as a narrative engine – risk-on or risk-off – for this market. God help us, but fundamentals and stock-picking might actually matter for a while. I’d be long dispersion while this continues.
  2. The other really striking finding is in regards to the inflation narrative. Attention has collapsed, as has cohesion. This is the most complacent narrative structure around inflation that I’ve ever seen. If you’re looking for an asymmetric trade, where a little narrative shock could go a loooong way, this is where you need to spend some time.

And that leads to a final thought. It’s been a fantastic year of growth here at Epsilon Theory, and we truly couldn’t have achieved that without your support. We are more committed than ever to being an independent voice for original research and original thinking, and the Professional subscriber base is our most important resource for ensuring that. THANK YOU!

Happy holidays (and yours in service to the Pack),

Ben

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