Charley: Look, kid, I— how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.
Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night!” My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palookaville. You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charley: Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am. Let’s face it. It was you, Charley.
“The machines aren’t able to handle the item. No reading can come. It’s data they can’t integrate. They can’t use it for prediction material, and it throws off all their other figures.”
“It’s—it’s a variable.” Kaplan was shaking, white-lipped and pale. “Something from which no inference can be made. The man from the past. The machines can’t deal with him. The variable man!”
— Philip K. Dick, The Variable Man (1953)
This science fiction classic imagines a future world where specialization and technology have made versatility, adaptability and ingenuity obsolete. The unwitting introduction of a man from the past — Thomas Cole — capable of solving practical (and mundane) problems of this world throws off the models they use to predict the outcomes of government and military action.
Thomas Cole breaks the models because his foreignness allows him to see problems outside the confines of specialized taxonomy. He isn’t too dumb to see the tribes and archetypes of the future. He transcends them, and can’t be controlled by them. The successful navigator of policy-controlled, narrative-driven markets must be Thomas Cole. He must be The Variable Man.
When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
— Maya Angelou, as told by Oprah Winfrey
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.
— The Bible, The Gospel of John 17:14-18
One of the most powerful consistent themes of many religious texts is the battle between the adherent’s role in the spiritual world and in the physical one. The approach Jesus describes here in the Gospel of John is to be in the world, but not of it. It’s a consistent message for the man who dined with gamblers and prostitutes.
We’re presented with the same challenge. Behavior exists. Tribes exist. Taxonomies exist. “Communications Policy” exists. Rejecting them doesn’t mean rejecting their existence, and it absolutely doesn’t mean that we ought not to invest and trade with awareness of how they impact markets. Being as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves means a willingness to know about tribal thinking even when we reject it in ourselves.
Although, truth be told, there are some things it’s worth being content knowing nothing about.
We will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of us—because the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sand—the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forests—the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature—only the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains, in which work buries work, in which value buries value—leaving a virgin, sacred space without pathways.
— Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations(1981)
If anything describes the feeling I get about the market, it is disquieting strangeness. Sound familiar to you? As Baudrillard pointed out, this is the vertigo we get from a world of things that are not things in-themselves, but socially constructed amalgams of symbols and proxies for those things. With every Narrative, every bit of fiat news, the vertigo for those who seek after the truth of something increases. There is no cure, but the only treatment is to try to really, truly understand the simulacra of reality for what they are.
We live in a world awash with archetypes.
A personality test once told me that I’m an INTJ. When I play(ed) Dungeons and Dragons my alignment was Chaotic Good, and I usually roleplayed a Half-Elf Bard. I’m a #NeverTrumper on the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. I attend a Presbyterian Church, but I’ve always identified as Non-Denominational, which is, of course, a denomination that takes its denominational identity from not belonging to a denomination. I’ve been a WASP all my life, and a non-POC cishet who was coercively assigned the male gender at birth for about 2 ½ years since society decided that the sentence I just wrote is not at all horrifying and makes any kind of sense. I am of Scots-Irish extraction, a Libra or a Virgo depending on the calendar, and Buzzfeed tells me I would be Faramir in the Lord of the Rings Universe, Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and Miranda in Sex and the City. Apparently, if I were admitted to Hogwarts the sorting hat would put me in Ravenclaw.
Over the last few months Ben and I have written a lot about archetypes like this, along with tribes and symbols, and the way that they are used. In Gandalf, GZA and Granovetter I argued that when symbols are used as allegories — as tools to divide and dominate — they have the effect of either (1) causing people to shift their beliefs and actions to match up with the symbol or tribe they identify with or (2) causing people to treat others as if their beliefs and values align with the symbol. Or, in Ben’s terminology, the (1) obedience collar and the (2) dog whistle. In that note, I took particular issue with the latter, with the idea that anyone gets to determine our intent as citizens or investors.
Here, as we continue the exploration of why investor behavior is one of the Things that Matter in our Code, I want to expand on the first: the tendency for the temperament and behaviors of investors to coalesce around archetypes. Because while we believe we ought to fight to ensure that we are all treated like principals, we also believe that when someone shows us who they are, we ought to believe them. And investors show us an awful lot about who they are. Archetypes are everywhere in markets, and if you have the patience to understand and observe them, you will understand what we think is one of the Things That Matter for all investors.
Notes from a Much More Boring Field
I grew up running through corn fields in Minooka, Illinois, but I don’t have it in me to be a gentleman farmer like Ben.
No, my notes from the field are much more dull — as regular readers will know, my prior field was an institutional allocator. And people who were and are in my position bear a lot of responsibility for the archetypes in markets. You see, picking fund managers is hard, usually a waste of time, and basically everybody sucks at it. Fund evaluators have very little visibility into what causes a manager to generate returns that produce outperformance or a higher-than-expected risk-adjusted return. And so, instead of focusing on a few “things that matter” to identifying strategies and approaches that could even conceivably have an edge, the emphasis of nearly every fund allocator is exclusively on process.
Here’s the problem with that: process is a necessary but insufficient condition for consistently beating the market.
The fund allocator’s toolkit is full of ways to tell if a manager is following his process. He looks at tracking error. Rolling correlations to all sorts of indices. Cash positions over time. Factor exposures over time. Risk contributions from factor exposures, country bets, all sorts of things. These are the things that fund managers are expected to discuss, and they are often the right things to discuss. But if you have no justifiable idea whether the process itself should or will lead to outperformance, what the hell are you actually measuring? We have built an entire industry on accurately measuring whether someone followed the recipe, without knowing if the recipe tastes like hot garbage.
As a consequence, the conventions of our industry are exactly the same as the conventions of our political reality: we evaluate participants’ consistency with an archetype that is vapor, a construct, a simulacrum. In so doing, we create strong forces to drive them toward consistently behaving in that very particular way, toward incentives and responses to stimuli that are repeatable mostly because we reward them for being repeatable! It’s not really even a Pavlovian response, because the reward is usually crappy performance.
Managers of institutional pools of capital are one of the largest influences on markets, and so it is critical to understand the languages that coalesce around these archetypes. Others form around the conventions of retail gatekeepers (Howdy, Morningstar… or Lipper for the mutual fund managers who didn’t like their Morningstar rating), around sell-side research providers, around the styles of well-respected investors (e.g. Buffett) or around insufferable gasbaskets (e.g. Cramer). Others form around the self-reinforcing conventions of esoteric worlds like FinTwitter, which end up driving far more of something like USD/BTC than anything fundamental about cryptocurrency.
Returns are anywhere and everywhere a behavioral phenomenon. Dick Thaler likes to quote Herb Simon’s characterization of “behavioral economics” as a pleonasm, but talking about a behavioral approach to markets is just as redundant. It is impossible for a non-behavioral analysis of market returns to be useful. If we are ever to understand why prices move and why our investments generate returns for the portfolios we build for ourselves and our clients, we must at least develop some understanding of how and why blocs of investors form, how they buy and sell securities, how and when they change their stripes, and how that results in changes in the prices of the investments we own. We’re going to do a lot of generalizing, so caveat the below however you deem appropriate. This isn’t a precise science — or at least it isn’t yet.
The Value Archetype
It’s easy enough to introduce what it is we’re talking about with a “style” that most investors are familiar with. Well, sort of, anyway.
The language of value is familiar—buy cheap things. The investor who has adopted it is rarely a news-responder. In many cases he fancies himself a bettor on things that are out-of-favor or forgotten. In the market voting machine, he casts his ballots and crosses the [actual and proverbial] spread for things with bad tape, with bad narratives, with problems. Don’t mistake the language for the style. Graham and Dodd, Buffett and their “intrinsic value” ilk are value investors in the way that everyone is a value investor – in that they want to buy something they think will be worth more in the future than it is today. They aren’t who we’re talking about here.
We are talking about the investor who believes that investors pay too much for quality, for growth, for sex appeal, and that it will harm their returns. These days, most of these value investors are quants. Some of them are financial advisors selling a package of contrarian ideas, of differentiated thinking. Many more of them are fundamental shops, folks that focus on multiples-based analysis and build fancy models after the fact to justify the things they buy on the basis of multiples, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
So how do these value investors impact prices and returns?
Visualize the order book from Part 1, and again, think about it in long-horizon terms. Members of the Value Archetype form a big part of the willingness of the market to buy things that most think are unattractive. They form the corpus of the out-of-the-money bid for any security or market, and like their counterparts in the Mean-Reversion Archetype we’ll read about shortly, that’s when they tend to participate in the marginal price-setting process. That, and on the ask side, where they tend to be the sellers of gains. When a lot of people are rallying at this banner, it can be a pretty meaningful force to constrain upward movement in prices.
When there aren’t as many, the Value Archetype plays a much smaller part in the price-setting process. Consider: who is selling a stock that goes from trading at 45x earnings to 50x earnings? It ain’t the Value guy. He sold it a long time ago, and the next guy couldn’t care less.
The Growth Archetype
We tend to think of “growth” as being the opposite of “value,” but that isn’t strictly true. For most of the indexes that track these styles, it is kinda true, although in their vernacular, “growth” is really just “anti-value.” In other words, when you see a growth index, in most cases it isn’t sorting companies by how quickly they grew or are expected to grow, but by how expensive they are. That’s not what we’re talking about.
There may be a few investors out there who are actively looking to buy things because they are expensive, I suppose, but there are plenty who don’t care all that much if it has what they are looking for. What many of them are looking for is growth, or at a minimum the narrative of growth. That narrative may be favoring one stock over a peer. It may be in favoring technology securities over the retail sector. It may be in favoring emerging markets investments over developed markets. There are some investors — at certain times and under certain conditions — who see valuations as temporary phenomena and growth narratives as the only relevant focus.
Some of these individuals actively choose this posture. They believe the narratives, they buy, and they cross the spread to do it. Prices rise.
Some under this banner have no choice. They have asset-liability issues that require them to seek out growth. They are pushed by falling yields in alternative asset classes precipitated by central bank action. They, too, must buy and cross the figurative spread to do it. Prices rise.
We’ll come back to this, because it’s important.
The Momentum Archetype
Quantitative investors do this. Traders do this. In a way, of course, these are people responding to the Epsilon that represents a portion of market returns. In most cases, they do it because it generally works. Winners tend to keep winning and losers tend to keep losing. Many investors who coalesce around this archetype do so very willingly (pictured right), while others would be mortified to think that they would be tarred with a “technical” investor brush. And so they are focused on consistent improvement in earnings, or in guidance from management, or in an improving story. Narrative momentum rather than price momentum, but momentum all the same.
In the end, what matters is that these individuals ‘cross the spread’ to support continued movement in the price of securities. Some can be long/short, and so this can happen in both directions. But it’s generally long, and getting longer.
The Mean-Reversion Archetype
I’m abstracting a lot from time horizons here, and I’m doing so intentionally. Part of my story is that in a non-ergodic world, the idea that the long-term can be considered fully independently from the path that begins in shorter horizons is madness. And so, while I fully recognize that there are many, many funds that pursue strategies that happily encompass each of value, momentum and mean-reversion strategies, I’m not talking about strategies. I’m talking about frameworks of thinking and talking about investments that color the decisions that investors make across the board.
And on this dimension, while mean-reversion has a specific meaning within the context of, say, CTA and statistical arbitrage strategies, what I’m really talking about is the consciously contrarian asset allocator. Only instead of looking for unloved companies, this is the falling-knife catcher. The one looking for the turn, the top, the bottom, the inflection point.
Some demonstrate this trait consciously, but far more do so passively through policies called “rebalancing,” most of which have a negative expected return. After all, momentum works. But these people are volatility reducers. They step in to provide the bid when the longs are screaming bloody murder and the ask when the shorts are getting crushed.
Look, there are all sorts of taxonomies people rally around. We could talk about some nebulous definition of “quality” guys or the nothing-land that is most “GARP” investing. We could talk about investors who are students of more arcane technical trading approaches, or about those who invest based on macroeconomic data or news. But it’s the four things above that matter.
Except that there is a rapidly growing fifth category, a sort of Nihilistic Archetype. It’s the passive investor. Except inasmuch as he adheres to another archetype in his cross-asset allocation decisions (which he frequently does), the passive investor expresses no opinion whatsoever with respect to the pricing of individual securities. He doesn’t participate in relative price-setting.
He is out of the game.
Where Does This Put Us?
Can you tell that I’m going somewhere with this? To better understand why I think it’s important for all investors to think about the behaviors of their fellow-travelers in markets, let’s walk through what I think is happening right now:
The Value Archetype is dead: No one is rallying around this banner. Read the sell-side language. No one is pitching value-oriented research, because they’d have no one to sell it to. Even the old stalwarts, the quants, have evolved toward either risk premia-based or Value+Momentum+Quality mandates that dampen the emphasis on value alone. Sure, you’ll get the occasional bank strategist calling for a rotation into financials (they’ve got to be early calling the new thing), but of the people setting prices, very few of them are speaking this language. I’m not saying I don’t believe in value. I do! But the market’s belief in it is nothing more than lip service right now.
The Mean-Reversion Archetype guys in CTA and Global Macro Land are bleeding out: Selling winners and buying losers has rarely been a more painful trade. I’ve talked to a few FAs who are sticking with long vol trades or defensive positions because, well, at this point, you might as well stick to your guns. But other than that, this is a dead language, folks. If you expect someone to bail you out of a short squeeze, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Passive Investing is levitating broad markets but allowing intra-market volatility: Investors, allocators and fund managers alike have piled into the Growth train, in part because they want to, and in part because retirees and pension plans with unfunded future liabilities have no other choice. Since they are doing so through broad market instruments and are not about to sell into weaker growth prospects, there is continued upward pressure on prices. Within markets, the decline in participants who are actively participating on individual securities is allowing continued spread potential between sectors, styles, etc.
The combined effect? Everything is levitating. With value and mean-reversion as lingua non grata, the people setting prices are (1) Growth investors, (2) Momentum investors and (3) Passive investors adhering to those archetypes. There is no one left to sell, because there is no one left who cares nearly enough about valuation or is confident enough in their ability to time a top in markets to sell into strength. The result is — in Information Surface terms — a market that has tremendous difficulty generating any price volatility to the negative.
What Does This Mean for Investors?
We can be in the market and be long. We can be not of this market and be ready for the move to the downside. Or we can be in the market, but not of it, by incorporating the behaviors of others into our thinking about markets AND retaining our ability to think independently about possible outcomes. How?
With the core of your portfolio, you don’t fight it. This is most of what being aware of investor behaviors and the complete hegemony they have over market movements means.
You think more specifically about how other investors are thinking about this market. Why they’re buying. Why they’re buying what they’re buying. You think about their motivations. And you think about how a change in their motivations would change in response to various market influences. Is a shooting war in the Middle East going to materially change investors’ view of and preference for growth? (Probably not) Is a material change in language coming from all Central Banks going to shift it? (Maybe, as Ben has written)
You prepare your portfolio — or at least your framework — for what happens when that informational bowling ball climbs the wall to the downside, because when it does, volatility can return in a big damned hurry.
Thomas Cole wasn’t a genius. He succeeded because he was capable of acknowledging the existence and influence of archetypes without succumbing to them in his own behavior and actions. If you would navigate this market, your Code should allow you to do the same.
Hopefully it’s book Faramir, and not the movie Faramir that Peter Jackson made into a spineless clone of Boromir because Jackson lacks any understanding of plot or character.
That space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and hence are only conditions of the existence of things as phenomena; that, moreover, we have no conceptions of the understanding, and, consequently, no elements for the cognition of things, except in so far as a corresponding intuition can be given to these conceptions; that, accordingly, we can have no cognition of an object, as a thing in itself, but only as an object of sensible intuition, that is, as phenomenon — all this is proved in the analytical part of the Critique; and from this the limitation of all possible speculative cognition to the mere objects of experience, follows as a necessary result.
— Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
I know, diving right into 18th-century German metaphysics is a real crowd-pleaser. But this is just a bunch of fancy words to say that we can never know the fundamental truth of a thing independently from our perceptions and experience. It’s the realization that makes Kant probably the most indispensable of the great thinkers. Doubly so for Epsilon Theory. We desperately want to believe that with enough information and analysis, we can know the true value of something. There is an almost mythological belief in the market as the mechanism through which we uncover that truth. The rest of the world will realize that we are right, and then we will make money. But the ‘true value’ of a thing — the market in-itself — isn’t something we can know. We observe value only through price, a measure based on our collective subjective experience.
Is there any hiding of the character of an apple-tree or of a geranium, or of an ore, or of a horse, or of a man? A man is known by the books he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives, by his dress, by his tastes, by his distastes, by the stories he tells, by his gait, by the motion of his eye, by the look of his house, of his chamber; for nothing on earth is solitary, but everything hath affinities infinite.
— Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, June 7, 1860
Still, just because there isn’t a knowable intrinsic value to an investment, no investment in-itself, it doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about it. The people who form the market and apply their sensible tuition to these things have affinities infinite. Some of those affinities can be observed or inferred. This is the soul of the Narrative Machine writ large.
Run a BBW Tumblr blog and forget the password
I may be speaking too soon but this is a disaster
Like old people in modern sneakers
I saw Book of Mormon with a congregation of true believers
— milo, “In Gaol”, a toothpaste suburb (2014)
As investors, it is very tempting to get so caught up in our own tribe of investing — our style, our philosophy — that we sit in a state of constant bemusement of other investors, sure that everyone is going to come around to our point of view on the value of something eventually. That congregation of true believers we can’t believe are watching a parody of their beliefs can stick around for a long, long time, folks. Over a sufficiently long period, being wrong about value but right about price can become indistinguishable from being right about value.
Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.
— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968)
I’ll admit it. At any given time around our Houston office, there are four TVs tuned to CNBC. Don’t ask me why. Or at least don’t expect a satisfactory answer.
If pressed, I would tell you that it’s important to know what a voice that speaks through thousands of televisions in similar offices around the world is saying, even if it’s a meal of empty calories. After all, Epsilon Theory is about stories. Stories, those who tell them, and those who, in listening, respond. Some of those stories are powerful myths, timeless and universal, others virtuously or nefariously cultivated for a singular place in space and time. And some of them — including most of what you hear on financial television — are vapid and worthless.
A story linking six months of a presidency to the returns of a stock market at the same time. A story linking August returns to calendar years that end with the number 7. A story that “stocks slipped on the news” of a development in investigations of Russian collusion with no evidence of relationship other than that the two things happened on the same day. Oh look, oil fell on “profit-taking.” Linking a down day in U.S. markets to one of a million macro factors that moved that day. We say the stock moved “on this news” or “on that news” when, if we’re really being honest with ourselves and each other, we know that all of these stories are stupid and wrong. Deep down we know that we have no earthly clue why our investments go up and down every day, much less moment to moment, and we’re just grasping for answers. Stories. And boy, are people ready to give us some.
It’s a problem. And it’s a problem we can’t ignore, because our investment decisions communicate views about our expectations even if we don’t intend it. We don’t get to say that “it’s OK” not to understand what moves markets, because every day we are all making bets that say we do. Sure, we have all sorts of explanations for why investments should rise in value. We should be paid for taking risk. We should own something valuable if it continues to grow its earnings. We should be able to trust the fact that risky investable assets have produced positive returns over almost any long-term horizon for the last several centuries.
But the distinction between understanding why we ought to be paid for owning something and understanding how that manifests itself in changes in securities prices is not just academic. It is fundamental, and it sits squarely in Epsilon Theory’s wheelhouse. In the same way that Ben bastardized Gresham’s Law, I’m going to steal from Friedman:
Investment returns are always and everywhere a behavioral phenomenon.
That’s why Investor Behavior is #3 on our list of Things that Matter.
Knowledge and Information
I know we all know this, but from time to time it bears repeating: until it defaults, matures or is called, the price of every security in the world is ultimately driven by two — and only two — things:
Who is willing to pay the most to buy the thing, and
Who is willing to accept the least to sell the thing.
That’s it. A lot of applied behavioral economics IS flawed and less rigorous than it ought to be, but at the risk of giving Taleb the vapors, any argument for how prices are determined and, thus, how returns are generated that ignores investor behavior isn’t just weak. It’s objectively wrong.
Now, while there really aren’t any strong-form efficient market guys out there with skin in the game (i.e., outside of academia) anymore, there are still a lot who think about markets as being generally efficient, by which they mean that the market generally does a good job of pricing available information. This is actually a pretty fair point of view. To believe otherwise is to take a dim view of the value of markets as a mechanism for expressing the aggregated will of individuals. That ain’t me. I was and will always be a Hayekian at heart. Since we’ve decided it’s now acceptable to terminate employees for expressing wrongthink, I’ve started firing anyone who doesn’t see my copy of The Road to Serfdom and slam it down on the conference room table, shouting, “THIS is what we believe!” à la Maggie Thatcher.
The problem with most interpretations of information, however, is that fundamental data alone isn’t information in any real sense that matters. Facts about a company only become information when they are passed through the perceptions and preferences of the people who are participating in determining the security’s price. There is no objectively ‘right price’ for a security based on the available information about its business, its assets, its prospects or its profitability, because there is no objective sense in which changes in any of those things ought to result in changes in prices. There is only a price which reflects how that information is viewed through the collective lens of individuals or groups of individuals who participate in that market.
Now while two people functionally determine the current price of any security, the movement of prices in that security from that level are also influenced by a much larger group who are willing to buy for a little bit less than the guy setting the bid price, and those who are willing to sell for a little bit more than the guy setting the ask price. Those who’ve made those views explicit are part of the so-called order book, an actual group of people willing to buy and sell at certain prices. Greater is the group of individuals who haven’t explicitly put a line in the sand at all, but who do have a view that they have an interest in expressing. They are paying attention to the stock. Far, far larger still is the universe of investors and assets who are paying no attention to the security at all and play little to no role in its pricing, even if they own the thing. You can imagine it looking something like the below — a little bit of money is willing to trade close to the current bid-ask spread, and increasing amounts if you’re willing to sacrifice.
Source: Salient 2017. For illustrative purposes only
Again, excluding terminal events for a security — like its default, retirement, maturity or being called away — there are only two ways for a security to change in price:
Someone who had an explicit or implicit view in the “order book” — a blue or red bar from the above chart — changes their mind about the price at which they would buy or sell.
Someone who didn’t have a view before decides to express a view.
Many of the things we do to trade, like a market order or most common trading algorithms, cross the spread in order to find a trading partner. In other words, as the day wears on, a lot of the people who thought they’d only sell for $75.10 — but need to sell — end up saying that they’d take less. Those folks are making the price move by changing their mind about the price at which they’d buy or sell. In other situations, maybe we get a call from a client who needs money for a down payment for house. It’s a big, liquid stock, so we put in a market order. We take $74.90 for our shares despite having not expressed a view on price before that, and everyone else in the market tries to figure out why.
So why do these people change their mind? Are they, in fact, responding to the stimuli that financial TV suggest? Did a barrel of oil really just trade up by 15 cents because investors changed what they were willing to pay as a result of North Korean sabre rattling? Other than major sources of observable volatility — earnings, corporate actions and the like, and often even then — if anyone tells you they know, they are probably lying to you. All we know, because it is a tautology, is that it is absolutely a reflection of human behavior (which includes, mind you, the behaviors incorporated on the front-end of a systematic trading strategy or implicit in a trade execution algorithm). That doesn’t mean that people can’t make money off price movements over this horizon — plenty of stat arb and high-frequency trading firms do exactly that, albeit in different ways. But over the very short run, the drivers of market movement are noisy and overdetermined, meaning that there are more factors driving that noise than there is noise. They are also nearly impossible to generalize, other than to say that they are reflections of the behaviors of the individuals who caused them.
The great investor Benjamin Graham famously characterized his views on the matter in this way. “In the short run,” Graham said, “the market is a voting machine, but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.” This is a popular view. But with respect due to Mr. Graham, it is also wrong. Since I’ve bastardized and restated the words of one financial genius already, let’s make it two:
In the very short run, the market is a voting machine.
In the short run, the market is a voting machine.
In the long run, the market is a voting machine.
The Long-Run Voting Machine
There’s a contingent of people reading this who are probably saying to themselves, “Wait a minute. What about a bond? Every time I receive my coupon I book some return. Every day I get closer to maturity, and I can predict pretty accurately how a bond trading at a premium or discount is going to converge to par.” The implication of that argument is that while fundamental characteristics of an investment may only technically manifest themselves in some terminal event, they are effectively still very predictive because we can have a high degree of confidence around them for some types of investments. In other words, maybe sentiment is a bigger predictor for risky securities than it is for securities where the return is coming from predictable cash flows.
This is true.
If you intend to hold something to maturity, or if you hold an investment that is reliably paying enough cash flow to repay you over a reasonable length of time, all else being equal, the variability in the price attached to your investment and its returns, and the behaviorally driven component of those returns, ought to be lower. This is one of the reasons why we tend to buy and hold bonds in our client accounts to maturity. Yet, even here, your compound returns are going to be influenced by investor behaviors outside of that bond — you have to reinvest those coupons at rates determined by individual actors influencing prevailing interest rates, after all.
The other, more common argument — this is the Graham argument — is that these behaviorally driven features of markets are, even for investments in riskier parts of the capital structure like credit or equity, temporary noise on the path toward convergence of the investment’s price with its value. Investors have historically found comfort in the idea that the voting machine will someday converge to the weighing machine — that one day, everyone else will come to the conclusion that I have about this company and value it like I do.
This forms part of the story for a vast range of investment styles. For the investor who speaks the language of growth, it is indispensable. He is saying, explicitly or implicitly, “I believe this company will grow faster than other investors expect. When I’m right, the price will converge to the value implied by the higher earnings.” For the intrinsic value or quality investor (I’m talking to you, too, Holt, EVA, CFROI wonks), it is an even stronger impulse. He believes that a company’s ability to deploy its current assets and reinvest at higher rates than the market expects (or for a longer time than the market expects) forms a value that is essentially the stock-in-itself. That’s kind of what intrinsic means, isn’t it? Frankly, it is the multiples-driven value investor who approaches the question with the keenest awareness of behavioral influences on prices. He’s comfortable implying that investors tend to do a bad job of knowing which companies ought to be worth a lower multiple of their earnings/assets/cash flow, and that enough time will cause the outperformance of the cheap company to be recognized and rerated. Or maybe just the increase in earnings will cause investors to apply the same multiple to create a higher value. There is, at least, the self-awareness of behavior’s fickle influence.
In each of these cases, the investors recognize that the market is a noisy, behaviorally complicated voting machine in the short run. This is why when you meet with a fund manager, they will always always always tell you that the rest of the market is looking at the next quarter’s earnings, while they stand alone at the top of the mountain, summoning the courage to weather short-term storms in favor of long-term outcomes. They’re very brave. Lots of people have been talking about it. But in each of these cases, the reality is that other than significant sources of real cash flow distributions (i.e., not stock buy-backs or debt pay-downs, for fans of the “Shareholder Yield” concept), the convergence of the voting machine to the weighing machine can take a very, very, very long time. And it may never happen, for the forces that will cause it to take place are themselves behavioral in nature! Somebody’s gotta say they’re willing to buy your stock at that price, and that somebody is either a person or a computer programmed by a person.
If the market wants to convince itself that Amazon can and will someday raise its prices to generate actual profits, and that they will then use those profits to bestow untold trillions of dollars (or maybe bitcoins, by the time this actually happens) in dividends on its loyal investor base, it can do it for a very, very, very long time. If you do not think Amazon can manage to preach this narrative to its investor base for another 10, 25 or even 50 years, you are dead wrong.
Do you think I’m arguing against value investing? Against fundamental research? Because I’m not. Not even a little bit. OK, maybe a little bit in the case of most fundamental research. What I am arguing is that when these approaches work, they still work because of the lens of preferences and experience that those who participate in the pricing of the investment bring to the table with them. ANY criticism of “behavioral” methods of investing must also be a criticism of fundamental ones, because they both include assumptions about how humans will respond to something.
This has a lot of implications:
For asset owners and allocators: How much time and effort do you spend thinking about who else owns the investment? Who else might want to own it if some bigger thing happens in the world? To that investor’s situation? To the investment or company itself? Compare that to the amount of time you spend sifting through macro data, research reports and constructing models. If you’re like most of us, you’re spending <5% of your time and resources on the former and 95% on the latter. That’s a mistake.
For fund selectors: Spend more time developing theses about managers who — through intuitive or quantitative techniques — seek to understand what drives the behaviors of other investors (or non-investor influencers of securities prices), rather than simple security-based or macroeconomic analysis.
For all investors: Always keep in mind how prices are determined when you think about how certain trends and events may impact markets and your portfolio. Think about how regulation-driven moves toward passive instruments may change price-to-value convergence. Think about how an increase in private equity dollars may influence or change price-to-value convergence in public markets. Think about what behaviors a low global growth environment could induce on the part of financial advisors, institutions and individuals as they participate in the price-setting process.
OK, so how do we do all this? If the Market In-Itself is a myth, how do we adjust our thinking?
There is no mathematical proof that solves this conundrum for us, because we can’t know people’s full motivations, preferences and exogenous influences. We do not know what investors or traders are paying attention to, except by observing the results after-the-fact and coming up with stories to attach to those analyses. Even if we could, many of these behaviors are emergent properties of the market in the aggregate, meaning that the way people behave isn’t nearly as independent of the path or state of the overall market as we’d like it to be. The market is a complex system.
What we can do is recognize what we recognize about every other aspect of society: that these motivations, preferences and exogenous influences on our behavior are reflected in the tribes we select and the language we speak. We may not be able to observe specific behaviors in action, but we can understand a lot about investors by observing, for example, the sell side. Not because they have anything useful to say (sorry), and not even because we think that they somehow reflect the consensus about a fundamental fact about a company. Because the sell side is telling us who their customers are. The feedback mechanisms of industry conventions, of style boxes, of terminology and language that our fellow investors adopt — these, too, all tell us a great deal about investor behaviors. They can also give us insight — incomplete insight, but insight nonetheless — into things like sustained low volatility, limited liquidity, the rationale for the existence of behavioral premia like momentum, value and low volatility, and how they go through sustained periods of weak or strong performance.
And that’s exactly where we’re going in Part II: the languages and tribes of investing and how they can help us understand the behavioral drivers of the Long-Run Voting Machine.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
― Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014), author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
And in our business, people will forget what price targets you set, people will forget what funds you managed, but people will never forget how you impacted their personal account.
Longer summer means longer winter.
― traditional Westerosi saying
We’ve got a five acre field that I brush hog once a year if I’m feeling particularly industrious, and one day I suppose we may do something with it.
In late summer this fallow field of thistle and hay is one of my favorite spots, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon, because of the flocks of goldfinches that swoop in and around the field. The goldfinch is exactly as the name implies — a small bird with a bright yellow, almost tropical, plumage — and it looks out of place in the Northeast, like maybe it’s an escapee from a gilded cage in Greenwich. But they love these Connecticut summers, and it’s not uncommon for me to count 30 or more flying around in a swarm that at times seems to be the animal itself.
The flocks are never as big as the far more famous murmurations of starlings, which is a good thing, of course, but they generate that same sense of awe in that there is clearly some sort of order and method to the flowing chaos of all these birds moving together. Most unlike the starlings, however, is that the goldfinch flocks are absolutely beautiful. The glints of yellows and gold moving through the air like a living liquid, the morning sun piercing the flock … it’s a natural poetry that has no good reason to exist, but does all the same.
I’m as much a dilletante birdwatcher as I am a dilletante farmer, so when the beautiful yellow birds stopped making their appearances over the field every fall, I just assumed that they were like the robin, flown south for the winter. I assumed this was the case for years, And in fact some goldfinches do migrate south every year, particularly the ones who set their breeding nests up in southern Canada.
But not our goldfinches. No, our field and its thistles, together with the nearby woods and the river that runs through it, is just too good of a home base to leave even for a season (I agree!). So they don’t fly south. They don’t go anywhere at all. They stay the whole winter, there in the field and the scrub and the forest all along.
Why didn’t I see them in the winter? Because they change color, or at least the males do, exchanging their flashy yellow feathers for a quite pedestrian dull brown. Just an ordinary little bird, one you’d never give a second glance at, even if now you remember seeing so many at the bird feeders you set out when the snows come.
Yes, the goldfinches were there all along. I just didn’t know where to look.
What’s the investing lesson here?
Goldfinches are like Value investing. Or Growth investing or Momentum investing or whatever your investment style might be. They have a season where they seize the stage, blistering in their radiance. And then they recede. They don’t go away. They just fade into the background and become a pedestrian little bird, until their appointed season returns — it always does! — and they seize the stage once more, zipping around in a glorious flock with some sort of fractalish order-in-chaos.
Unfortunately for us investors, though, the seasonality of investment styles is more like Westeros on Game of Thrones than Connecticut here on Earth. “Winter is here” on Game of Thrones today, but it took a long time coming … summer lasted a good nine years this time around, and legends tell of a winter back in the day that lasted for an entire generation. The winter currently being experienced by Value investors only seems like it’s lasted for a generation.
Not surprisingly, then, investors are always asking the same question: is there a bird for all seasons? Is there an investment style or process that can be more than just a pedestrian performer come winter, spring, summer, or fall, and no matter how long or how deep those seasons might be?
The answer, I think, is yes. The answer, I think, is diversification. There’s your bird for all seasons.
Diversification isn’t a pretty bird. Diversification doesn’t make my heart skip a beat like a flock of goldfinches in July. Diversification, by design, is going to have winners and losers simultaneously. Diversification, by design, is never going to look pretty doing its job, because if your portfolio is all working in unison, swooping through the market in a beautiful glint of gold … well, you may be making money, but you sure aren’t diversified. Diversification is undeniably effective, but it’s effective like a rat is effective, wonderfully adapted to do pretty well in pretty much any possible environment without calling too much attention to itself. That’s actually one of the rat’s primary survival mechanisms. It’s not flashy. It’s not pretty. It’s a freakin’ rat.
Diversification doesn’t make us feel good like a winning value or growth investment makes us feel good, and as Maya Angelou so brilliantly said, how you make people feel is ALL they remember.
I don’t have an answer for the simple fact that diversification doesn’t sing. I can’t make a financial advisor’s client feel good about diversification. I wish I could, because I would be … umm … a very rich man. But what I do know is that it’s a mistake to gussie up diversification as something that it isn’t. You can’t sell diversification as a beautiful song bird. You have to be honest about what diversification can and can’t do, not just for a portfolio’s performance, but also for a portfolio’s experience. The more years I spend in this business, the more I am convinced that how one lives with a portfolio, how one experiences its ups and downs over time, is more important for business success and business staying power than that portfolio’s performance. And I’m not just talking about volatility, which is usually how we think about the path of a portfolio and its ups and downs. No, I’m talking about how a portfolio makes us feel. Most of us need those goldfinch moments of wonder and awe, even if they just last for a season, to feel good about our portfolios, and those are moments that diversification has a really hard time delivering.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. That holds for portfolio construction, too.