They Live!

This is the second note from Demonetized, a new guest contributor. No, that isn’t his real name. Rather atypically, this guest contributor is anonymous. To you, anyway – we know who he is. But even before we did, we were admirers of his approach and many shared point of views. We don’t and won’t always agree, but we’re very happy that he’s doing some pieces for us here. We think you will be, too.

[Dollar Note with subliminal message]: THIS IS YOUR GOD

They Live (1988)

If ever you find yourself struggling to keep the difference between Narrative and narrative straight, think of John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action flick, They Live. No doubt it’s a goofy movie. The basic premise will be familiar to anyone who’s seen movies like Dark City or The Matrix. Reality, as we perceive it, is an illusion. But, if you obtain the gift of special sight, you may see the world as it is. In the case of They Live, you put on a pair of special sunglasses only to discover the world is, in fact, controlled by hideous aliens, which use mass media to shape our behavior with subliminal messaging.

The subliminal messages are Narrative. Mass media is the delivery vehicle.

What I love most about They Live are its “alien vision” shots. (Okay, and Roddy Piper’s iconic line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum”) Anyway. Back to “alien vision.” The beauty of the production design here is how sharply it contrasts the superficial optics of media we’re used to seeing every day with the blunt force of the subliminal messaging.

It’s a wonderful visualization of how symbolic abstraction operates in our world. And who knows, maybe Jerome Powell and Janet Yellen really ARE hideous aliens.

But this isn’t a note about your Friendly Neighborhood Central Bankers, or even how symbolic abstraction can be weaponized to sell you a new refrigerator. This is a note about how symbolic abstraction is used to shape your investment behavior. Both your behavior and your clients’ behavior.

Look at the below chart. You’ve probably seen it before. Maybe in a white paper. Maybe in a blog post. Maybe it hangs in the conference room where your firm hosts client meetings.

Source: CRSP

Now let’s put on our special sunglasses:

I must confess I have come to hate this chart. I don’t hate it because it’s wrong. I hate it for how it’s used, which is to imply anyone who isn’t overweight US equities is some kind of charlatan or idiot.

Why do you suppose that chart hangs in your conference room? Why that chart, and not a chart of German or Russian or Japanese equity returns? Better yet, why not that chart alongside charts of all different countries’ equity returns? Isn’t there an important point about the path dependency of investment returns to be made here?

No. There’s not. The chart doesn’t exist to educate you about the possible paths your portfolio’s performance might take, and the resulting impact on your financial position. The chart is there to send a message. It’s there to reinforce right thinking about asset allocation and portfolio construction in the minds of financial advisors and their clients.

Sure, we like to think we make investment decisions based on the objective analysis of data.

But in reality, it’s all negotiable. We modify asset allocations and financial plans all the time, for reasons that have nothing to do with data. We do it to accommodate the cognitive and emotional biases of our clients (home country bias being a prime example). We do it to protect our business relationships. Not because we’re charlatans or snake oil salesmen, but because if we don’t give a little on portfolio construction there’s a chance clients will fire us and hire real snake oil salesmen—smooth talkers who will tell them whatever they want to hear to their faces and do awful things to their finances when they’re not looking.

Most of us are overweight US stocks simply because an overweight position in US stocks has been forced upon us. We own cap-weighted index funds (particularly S&P 500 and US Total Stock Market funds) because when the US market goes up and up and up how can you do anything but get long the market while keeping fees and taxes as low as possible?

It’s right there in the data. How can we call ourselves fiduciaries if we ignore the data?

Investing according to that chart is common sense, right? I mean, we all know tactical asset allocation doesn’t work. It’s right there in the numbers.

Oops. Forgot to take off the special sunglasses. But you get the idea.

You might think by owning a bunch of index funds as cheaply and as tax efficiently as possible you can somehow “opt out” of making macro calls. “Forecasting is a fool’s game.” I get it. I’ve seen that data, too. But there’s no such thing as opting out of macro calls. Our 60/40 or 70/30 or 80/20 portfolios, implemented with the simplest, cheapest index funds and ETFs we can find, are themselves macro calls.

Now, I think there are good reasons why 60/40 portfolios have done well historically. I also think there are good reasons to be structurally overweight equities. I have a solid chunk of my own money in equities, and a healthy exposure to US equities at that. Why? Partly because it’s not clear to me capitalism works in a world where equities don’t earn a structural premium over bonds and cash. And if capitalism stops working, it’s not clear to me anything we do in our portfolios will help us build or preserve wealth. If you’re short the world, and the world goes to hell, taking the global financial system with it, then who’s left to pay you out?

Now, I can justify my macro bet in any number of ways, but I’ve still made a macro bet. It’s an implicit bet on the persistence of the conditions that have historically created equity outperformance, both in the US and abroad. It’s the kind of bet we should be making with Clear Eyes and Full Hearts.

We should place our bets after carefully weighing the various options available; our clients’ goals and circumstances; and a probabilistic view of future states of the world. We should not place bets (or do anything, for that matter) just because we’ve been conditioned to believe it’s what right-thinking and right-acting fiduciaries must do to serve their clients.

We place our bets with Clear Eyes and Full Hearts because in a Three Body Market, our bets can easily go the wrong way.

We know there are market regimes where today’s predominant macro bets won’t pay off. Ben wrote about them here: they’re the inflationary bust and the deflationary bust. Both spell trouble for equity beta. Big trouble.

And what works when cheap beta doesn’t?

All the strategies we’ve been conditioned to believe are BAD.

It’s low net long/short equity. It’s CTAs. It’s long vol and gold and discretionary global macro and farmland and pretty much everything else that’s less correlated, uncorrelated, or negatively correlated to equity beta. Basically, any bet against the successful transformation of financial markets into political utilities–any bet against the Nudging State’s agenda.

If you view the world through Clear Eyes, and hold loosely to your convictions, you’ll have an easier time adapting to a dramatic shift in the market regime than your competitors who’ve been lulled into a Narrative-induced fugue state. You’ll make up your own damn mind. You, your clients, and your business will all be better off for it.

Because we’re here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, both for ourselves and on behalf of our clients.

And, unfortunately, we’re all out of bubblegum.

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  1. Avatar for cbeirn cbeirn says:

    So if capitalism stops working, the world goes to hell? Not hardly, I think. Today’s manipulated markets frequently divorce risk from reward, mostly eliminate genuine price discovery, institutionalize moral hazard, and greatly reduce real competition. And are we really sorry? On “Friday Night Lights,” they may celebrate the struggle of grinding out the yardage to score a touchdown, but in the brief interval of our actual lives, isn’t it usually preferable to just move the goalposts whenever we can? The process of transforming markets into utilities that Rusty described so cogently described in his last post has been well underway for some time. Want to Make Capitalism Great Again? Anyone who’s prepared to see their business or their portfolio creatively destroyed, please raise your hand.

  2. Avatar for nick nick says:

    Appreciate the comments!

    The question you raise is an important one. How do we define whether capitalism is “working?”

    For the purposes of this post, I approached this very narrowly in terms of whether the owners of capital are compensated in the form of financial returns for taking/“owning” risk. If that doesn’t happen, it’s more or less a tautology that investing is a useless exercise.

    In the larger sense, I very much like your “moving the goal posts” analogy. I think this is EXACTLY what happens in practice, and is EXACTLY why historically we tend to see cycles of wealth concentration, increasing debt, etc. followed by (often violent) periods of deleveraging and wealth redistribution. As you point out, when the rubber meets the road, we collectively tend to cast our votes for kicking the can versus making painful adjustments. What is of significant interest to me here (and I’ve not made up my mind about) is whether this kind of long-run meta-instability is inevitable or not. But I tend to think it is.

    I didn’t have the space to explore it in this note, but in addition to being “macro calls” in the traditional sense, our portfolios roll up into “macro calls” on geopolitical relationships and the stability/metastability of our social and economic systems as well.

  3. Avatar for Wraith Wraith says:

    The special sunglasses prop from the film made me think about a modern application of the concept. If you’ve seen the recent Netflix Fyre documentary, or the recent interview of Tim Pool on the Rogan podcast ( or seen the clickfarm episode on ‘Silicon Valley’, I am going to use these as modern examples of the ‘sunglasses’.

    To summarize, old media had a revenue model, or a couple of them anyways, that were well understood and we could all basically wear one or two pairs of different sunglasses to see what the hell was going on behind the scenes (ie why cigarette companies in the 50’s hired doctors to promote Camels). As social media has become the dominant method of narrative construction, complexity increases in orders of magnitude.

    Someone asked me “what does the common knowledge game say about digital media making up users?”. I don’t know. It says something. It was a long time ago when Youtube was sued by advertisers for allowing/facilitating fake views of embedded ads on music videos. Mainstream media has talked about Twitter bots for what has seemed like an eternity. So it would be on the ET NLP map somewhere. But listen to what Pool is saying… There are so many more methods, techniques and ways to QUICKLY and CHEAPLY create false narrative today than there ever have been. There are LOTS of pairs of sunglasses, but each pair only lets you see certain things behind the curtain. And if your sunglasses happen to be super fancy, and can illuminate multiple spectrums of narrative, by tomorrow something else will come along and render them obsolete. But in the meantime you have a false sense of confidence in your vision because Fancy Sunglasses.

    Tribalism further exacerbates this. Tribal language and terms often have different meanings outside of that tribe. There are lots of tribal little 4chan groups that even make up fake signs and symbols to ‘troll’ the mainstream in the confusing obfuscating language and culture wars we find ourselves in.

    If there’s anything that seems certain is that the ‘right thinking’ and ‘right acting’ missionaries of social interaction (nudging state, oligarchy, MsM) have never had such a dynamic minefield through which to wade, and the old missionaries are being replaced with new ones that have a more diffuse set of narratives to push than the old regime. Markets are (or should be) a marketplace for opinions. It’s hard to understand how the right thinking financial doctrines will be immune from the 4 dimensional abstraction game that is happening in the way that most of the population now communicates with each other. It’s hard to see how any of the previous ‘beliefs’ about markets will be valid. But maybe I am wearing the wrong tint on my sunglasses.

  4. Avatar for bobk71 bobk71 says:

    Thank you for the excellent insights. In addition to collectively kicking the can because we all know the alternative will be terrible (at least for now,) I would submit another reason the modern system (of theft and deception – let’s call a duck a duck!) has survived 600 years in the West, more or less intact.

    The top elites have set thing up so they can’t lose. That is, they don’t totally depend on certain events or mass psychology unfolding a certain way, even if they have good confidence in their forecasts. If confidence in state money totally collapses, there will still be confidence in gold, silver, and now cryptocurrencies (possibly created to dilute the demand for precious metals and limit the extent of inflating away the debts.) As I mentioned before, it’s a matter of making multiple alliances, and surviving whichever party happens to win out. This would also explain why gold and silver (and especially cryptos) never quite die.

    This also seems consistent with the top elites’ strategy in the political realm. Ultimately, you can argue it is the only way to survive the long game.

  5. Avatar for nick nick says:

    I love this as an extension of the metaphor used in the note. I don’t have anything especially profound to add, but I am totally on board with this idea of The Great Scattering–that is to say, the old-school MSM monopoly on Truth and The Accepted Continuum of Views having been completely and utterly shattered by the internet. The meteoric rise of MMT is a kind of case study in how “new media” took what was a relatively fringe economic idea and transformed it into a mainstream Narrative, despite the best efforts of the High Priests of Right Thinking Financial Doctrine. MMT has been out there for a while now in the more progressive corners of the internet, but it has exploded into the mainstream with speed that astonished even me (and I have expected MMT to gain real momentum for quite a while now).

    I think your comment, and (I hope) my note pair well with Rusty’s Tanna Tavu series. If we can’t rely on the Special Sunglasses or similar tools to reliably spot Narrative in the wild, it’s all the more important to hold loosely to our convictions and relentlessly challenge our priors.

  6. I’ve read about a lot of isms. The only one that I see that really ‘works’ is tireless self-promotionism. And it’s so sickeningly pervasive that when you see the opposite, it’s transcendental (almost never). MMT is tireless. There is no comfort there, just like watching the star quarterback and prom queen win again and again. Do we really want them to lose? Choose wisely.

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