The End of the Beginning

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“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” 

Winston Churchill

I have not written much since the coronavirus outbreak blew up. Not because I’m not thinking about things. But I simply haven’t had much to say. I have no unique perspective to add regarding epidemiology or public health policy. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply hang back and reflect. This post contains some thoughts on where we’ve been, and where we might be headed.

One indisputable consequence of this pandemic is that we have quickly transitioned from a disinflationary or even (I would argue) mildly stagflationary regime to a deflationary economic regime. The duration of this new regime is an open question. Policymakers, particularly on the monetary side, have reacted as expected. They did MOAR. And they will continue to do MOAR to backstop financial markets, so long as they deem it necessary. Unsurprisingly, this has done wonders for financial assets. Particularly duration sensitive assets such as long bonds and growth equities.

Some dominant themes/narratives I think we will grapple with as this evolves:

The transformation of financial markets into political utilities is complete. It has always been a mistake to assume markets are a perfect reflection of the real economy. Now, markets are probably less a reflection of the real economy than ever before. A consequence of MOAR is that markets (or at least pockets of them) have seemingly become completely untethered from the real economy. There are sensible reasons for this, of course: ultra-low discount rates; the fact that solvent businesses with liquidity to draw on should not see long-term impairment of value as a result of the virus, etc. But as with the financial crisis, policy geared toward owners of financial assets has been implemented quickly and decisively. Much more decisively than policy geared toward vulnerable small businesses and their employees. This will have social and political consequences.

We are all MMTers now. Government deficits will never matter again. Well, at least not unless/until an inflationary bill is acknowledged as having coming due. Central Banks are explicitly engaged in debt monetization. This is mainstream. It is accepted. Yes, there are a different flavors of it. There is the progressive flavor, with its Green New Deals and job guarantees. Then there is the “fiscally conservative” flavor, with its tax cuts and its endless promises of shrinking government (of course, government is never actually shrunk in a material way). I’m not interested in arguing over whether this dynamic is right or wrong at this point. All I care about is acknowledging is that it IS. Because it matters. It matters a lot.

Politics is going to get nastier. The United States government is now explicitly in the business of choosing winners and losers in the economy. As usual, owners of financial assets have been selected as winners. As usual, those who do not own financial assets are losers. I expect the long-simmering political conflict between Capital and Labor to further intensify as a result. Political rhetoric will become more extreme. Politicians will become more ridiculous. Congress will become even less effective (difficult to imagine such a thing is possible, I know). Fun times.

Investment-wise, it’s going to be MOAR of the same. Beyond the obligatory post-recession bounce, there will not be significant mean reversion in value versus growth factor performance. Long duration growth bets will continue to perform well, because there is no opportunity cost to making them. I suspect long duration bonds will also continue to perform well in the short-term, against all odds. Because despite what Jerome Powell says in his pressers, I believe we will test negative interest rates here in the US before we test higher interest rates. And convexity is a thing people seem determined to refuse to understand.

Now, this idea of long duration growth bets merits some additional comment. It’s something that doesn’t get enough pixels, in my opinion. Certainly not relative to its importance. 

Most investors are familiar with the concept of a fixed income security’s duration. It’s a (linear) approximation of a bond’s price sensitivity to interest rates. The longer a bond’s duration, the more sensitive it will be to changes in interest rates. But at the end of the day, a bond is just a bunch of cash flows. From a discounted cash flow perspective, all cash flows are sensitive to changes in the cost of capital.

The archetypical example of a long duration equity is probably development stage biotech. These companies have no free cash flow in the present. They burn cash on R&D and regulatory approval processes. Their free cash flows lie far out in the future. But, if a biotech succeeds in developing and commercializing a therapy with a large addressable market, the future cash flows can be enormous. In the meantime, these equities are kind of like the world’s craziest zero coupon bonds.

In this sense, any breakeven or cash burning growth equity can be seen as a duration play. Much of the small cap enterprise SaaS space fits this profile, for example.

Ultimately, interest rates are financial gravity. When rates are high, and gravity is strong, valuation multiples collapse. When rates are low, and gravity is weak, everything floats. And the longest duration stuff either falls or floats the most.

But how does it all end? I see a few very different endings to this story. The first, of course, is some kind of inflationary or stagflationary regime triggered, in part, by relentless monetary easing. But people like me have been worried about this for a long time. And it’s never shown up. Another possibility is that some kind of transformational technological innovation, similar to the internet, allows us to return to much higher trend growth rates. This would be ideal. Perhaps the darkest scenario is that the political conflict described above spirals completely out of control, and we get to live through a reprise of the 1930s and 1940s.

This is not a very hopeful post. It is not hopeful because I do not have a very positive outlook on the macroeconomic and political trends of the day.

That said, this is also not an argument for bearish positioning in a portfolio. If you follow me on the Twitter, you may recall my exhortation to “dare to be smart enough to be dumb.” Flexibility is key here. I can forgive people (myself included) for not grasping how monetary policy would impact financial market behavior post-2008. That mistake is less forgivable today. In my opinion, it is nigh on impossible to invest today without accounting for the gravity of monetary and fiscal policy.

To be perfectly explicit, as things stand today:

Quantitative deep value (“owning really cheap things because they are really cheap”) is at best a tactical trade.

Economic policy will hamper mean reversion.

As investors, trends are our friends for the foreseeable future.


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Farmer Don
Farmer Don
5 months ago

“Interest rates are financial gravity” just may be the best line I’ve heard in nearly 40 years in this business.

Lawrence Pusateri
Lawrence Pusateri
5 months ago
Reply to  Farmer Don

I am so gonna steal that.

Landvermesser
Landvermesser
5 months ago

If push came to shove and Powell were to dig in his heels on his aversion to negative rates, what could the Fed do about it? Start to liquidate some of the balance sheet? That would seem pretty weird, during the End Times and all. I think it’s probably all talk, and this will just erode the credibility of the Fed a little bit more.

I’ve believed for a while that the widening gyre is almost entirely explained as a consequence of a shrinking pie. Shrinking for the rubes, anyway, as the elites scoop up more and more for themselves. Wealth inequality has the first order effect of depriving the rubes of resources they would need to be a real threat, but also the second order widening gyre/shrinking pie that keeps them at each others’ throats to hamper their ability to use what resources they do have to effect change. Nonlinear positive feedback (to WI) makes for some kind of singularity in the future, and probably not the cool VR kind.

Demonetized
Demonetized
5 months ago
Reply to  Landvermesser

I have a pet theory that we need a Big Project to arrest the widening gyre. Ideally one that is not a revolution or a big war. I like to poke fun at Elon Musk as much as the next guy, but SpaceX in particular is inspiring and aspirational to me.

Peter
Peter
5 months ago

I prefer the phrase written as “THEY are all MMTers now”

and they’re jerks for doing it

Lawrence Pusateri
Lawrence Pusateri
5 months ago

First of all this was a fantastic read!

As far as inflation is concerned I’ll share a story. In 2008 our manager came in my office and asked “ how close are we the bottom?” My reply was this — “ I don’t know but I will tell you exactly when we will hit the bottom, when I longer have the energy or the will to try to talk panicked investors from selling all of their positions.”

I was right on both counts , that day came, and it was the bottom.

My feeling on inflation is the same , once we all become convinced that this time somethings different and inflation is not coming that is when it will come. I think we have inflation now in everything but the inflation number, but I am talking about inflation that cannot be ignored or 🙅‍♂️.

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