Blood and Oil

Why do you think everyone suddenly cares about some Saudi journalist?

Which of the following seems more plausible to you?

#1. The world suddenly cares deeply and passionately about human rights in Saudi Arabia. (note that this wailing and gnashing of teeth was conspicuously absent when Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman decided to go full Michael Corleone on the Saudi elite last year)

#2. The US financial/political/industrial complex cares deeply and passionately about inflationary pressures and what they might mean for the future path of interest rates, is irritated that the Saudis prefer a higher oil price, and has lucked into the perfect issue with which to needle Riyadh.

Forgive my cynicism, but this all strikes me as by-the-numbers geopolitical gamesmanship.

 

Weapons Of Mass Destruction?

There is this meme out there that the increasing popularity of ETFs as investment vehicles is eventually going to blow up the world. This came up in a meeting I attended recently. Whenever I have these conversations what I take away from them is that a shocking number of financial market participants do not actually understand how ETFs work.

The meme goes like this: there are too many people investing through ETFs these days and when there is a nasty bear market they will all redeem from the ETFs at the same time and the ETFs will all explode. On the off chance you’re wondering how this meme got started this graphic should set you straight.

ETF_flows
Source: ICI

As you can see, if you’re an active equity mutual fund manager you’ve got several hundred billion reasons to portray the rise of the ETF as a harbinger of doom. And so here is the first and most important thing everyone needs to know about ETFs:

ETFs are not mutual funds!

From what I can tell, the ETF-As-Weapon-Of-Mass-Destruction meme is founded on the incorrect assumption an ETF is like an open-ended mutual fund or hedge fund that needs to liquidate holdings to meet redemption requests in cash.

That’s basically the opposite of how an ETF works.

An ETF is much closer in nature to a closed-end fund that can trade at a premium or discount to net asset value over time. The difference is that certain sophisticated market participants (“authorized participants”) can transact with an ETF issuer to create or retire shares. In theory, this mechanism should keep an ETF’s share price in line with its NAV (Arbitrage 101, friends).

Here is a helpful diagram, courtesy of ICI:

ETF_create_redeem_process
Source: ICI

When individual investors like you and me want to sell ETF shares, we don’t participate in the creation/redemption process. We couldn’t participate in that process if we wanted to. Instead, we have to sell our shares in the secondary market like a stock. The price we can transact at is determined by supply and demand. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on circumstances.

Some Grains of Truth

ETF investors do face risks as they transact in the secondary market. The biggest risk is that they become forced sellers when the market for a particular ETF is thinly traded. In that case, they’ll have to take a haircut to unload their shares. This is no different from what happens when someone tries to unload shares of an individual stock in an illiquid market. That’s Trading 101.

Thus, if you’re going to invest in ETFs you need to pay attention to liquidity. This goes for your personal liquidity (under what conditions might I become a forced seller of this security?) as well as market liquidity (are bid-offer spreads for this security going to stay reasonably tight across a range of market conditions?).

If, for example, you own the S&P 500 index in ETF form you probably don’t have much to worry about from a liquidity standpoint. This won’t protect you from behaving like an idiot as an individual, but it’s fairly unlikely you will ever have to part with your ETF shares at a 50% discount to NAV. In fact, the early S&P 500 ETFs have been battle-tested across a number of stressed market environments, including the global financial crisis. They have yet to explode.

If you own more esoteric things, however, (e.g. the EGX 30 index, high yield debt, bank loans, complicated VIX derivatives) you need to think carefully about liquidity. Shrewd traders will eat you alive if you try to unload esoteric stuff in a dislocated market. In general, it’s dangerous to assume a share of something can ever be more liquid than the stuff it owns or represents. Yes, bank loan and high yield ETF investors, I’m looking at you here.

But these risks aren’t unique to ETFs. They’re present with every exchange traded security. It’s just that mutual fund investors aren’t used to thinking about this stuff. They just buy or redeem each day at NAV.

In Conclusion

Never generalize about any security or type of security.

Securities are not inherently good or bad. Investing is not a morality play.

In fact, any time someone is presenting a security or investment philosophy as a black/white, good/bad, dualistic type of situation it’s a good sign he’s financially incentivized to sell you something.

There are smart ways to use ETFs and stupid ways to use ETFs. But that’s more a comment on investor behavior and specific implementations of ETF investment strategies than the structure itself.

You Have To Earn It

Personally, I’m relieved to see market volatility pick up again.

I’m sick of all this feel-good, bull market crap where everyone can be investing geniuses as long as they focus on the “long term” and own the lowest cost, most tax efficient index funds. It’s high time some volatility comes along and shakes some weak hands out of the market.

People want to live in a riskless world where all the market ever does is go up. You know what kind of returns you are entitled to in a riskless world where all the market ever does is go up?

T-bills.

(Arbitrage 101, friends)

Lately, we’ve gone soft. We’ve forgotten good investment returns aren’t some god-given, inalienable right. Good returns must be earned. And here are some ways you can earn them:

  • By being so far ahead of a secular shift in technology or market structure that everyone else thinks you’re insane.
  • By investing in esoteric stuff no one else can sell to an investment committee.
  • By putting money to work when the world looks to be going to hell in a hand basket.
  • By enduring short and medium-term pain in unloved assets.
  • In spite of inevitable blowups and meltdowns in individual investments.
  • More generally, by persevering when fear and loathing reign supreme in the markets.

Whenever volatility picks up and people start freaking out, I’m reminded of Nick Murray’s definition of a bear market: “a period when stocks are returned to their rightful owners.”

The Alchemy of Risk, Revisited

In a meeting last week an asset manager predicted that whenever the next major market drawdown occurs, a massive central bank intervention will immediately follow. This will prop up asset prices. The drawdown will be brief and v-shaped.

Th natural follow-up question: how long can this go on?

In theory, of course, it can go on forever. As long as market participants are willing to believe in the infallibility of ever-wise and benevolent central bankers, the Fed can effectively outlaw market crashes.

But that implies central bankers can somehow destroy financial risk. We know from market history risk can never be destroyed. It can only be transformed and laid off elsewhere.

So, what kind of risk transformation underlies this process?

What’s happening is financial risk is being transformed into political risk. Or, if you prefer, market volatility is being transformed into political volatility.

In an old Epsilon Theory note, Ben Hunt describes central banks as “creatures of capital:”

Not to get all Marxist here, but these vampires share the DNA of Capital, in opposition to the DNA of Labor, and this is why you will never see the Fed or any other central bank lift a finger against them. Because the Fed is also a creature of Capital — not a vampiric destroyer as these modern manifestations of Capital have become — but a creature of Capital nonetheless.

Meaning what, Ben? Meaning that all of the Fed’s policies — and particularly the monetary policies that are most impactful on our investment portfolios — are in the service of Capital. Sometimes, as we’ve experienced over the past eight years, that means incredibly accommodative monetary policy to support asset collateral prices. Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the past and I think we’re about to see again, that means punitive monetary policy to crush labor and wage inflation.

Pop quiz: What do President Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have in common?

Answer: They’re creatures of Labor.

In the case of Trump that might seem like a controversial statement. But think about it. Do trade barriers serve Capital or Labor? Does restrictive immigration policy serve Capital or Labor? Cheap imports and immigrant labor sure are good for Capital. Not so much for Labor.

There’s certainly more nuance to it than that. There’s an argument to be made that Trump merely duped the voting public into seeing him as a creature of Labor. But for the purposes of this post that’s irrelevant. In politics, all that matters is what the crowd believes. (Enough of the crowd to sway an election, anyway)

Trump speaks the language of Labor in front of crowds of steel workers and the like who have spent decades on the pointy end of globalization. Likewise when Ocasio Cortez talks about “economic dignity” she’s speaking the language of Labor.

The way Labor traditionally puts the hurt on Capital is through collective action. Ideally that’s political participation and modest civil disobedience. But in the worst cases it’s violent revolution. (Talk about tail risk)

Speaking of tail risk–a similar dynamic is afoot in China.

China’s economy is more or less run as a closed system. This is extremely important for the CCP, which needs to be able to push imbalances around the system to keep it from collapsing. There’s an argument to be made that the Chinese economy is a perpetual game of whack-a-mole with the CCP always needing to pop a bubble here and let another one inflate there.

This is another dynamic that can in theory go on forever but for villagers-with-pitchforks risk. There’s a practical reason the Chinese government has constructed a massive surveillance state.

It’s the tail hedge.

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people in this world. If you drill down deep enough into someone’s psychology you will find she is hardwired psychologically for either momentum or value (a.k.a trend or mean reversion).

Some Characteristics Of Momentum People

Of the two types of people, momentum people are more sociable. They are innate trend followers. For momentum people, it’s always best to stick with what’s working.

Their business and lifestyle decisions reflect this. “Get while the getting’s good,” is what they think during an economic boom. They prefer to “cut losers and let winners run.”

Momentum people are pro-cyclical. They are fun at parties during boom times. It’s easy to be the life of the party when you are making a lot of money.

Some Characteristics Of Value People

Value people by contrast are a pain in the ass. They are often curmudgeonly and unpopular. This is no accident. Value people are innately contrarian. Mean-reversion underlies a value person’s worldview. For a value person, “things are never as good as you hope, or as bad as they seem.”

A value person’s business and lifestyle decisions reflect this. Value people pare risk and accumulate cash during boom times. They take risk and deploy cash during bear markets.

Value people are counter-cyclical. They are never much fun at parties because they’re always out of phase with the crowd.

Which Are You?

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you are a momentum or value person. You can succeed in life and business either way (well… assuming you don’t over lever yourself).

What matters is that you recognize whether you are wired as a momentum person or a value person, and that you avoid putting yourself in positions that are a fundamental mismatch for your psychology.

For example, I think I would probably make the world’s worst venture capitalist (spoiler alert: I am a value guy). Not because I would lose money but because it would be hard for me to invest in anything in the first place.

The high base rate for failed venture investments would loom large over every decision. The incessant cash burning would haunt my nightmares.

Unhelpful, Misguided, Amateurish

A reader responds to my MMT post:

[t]he above is a terrible unhelpful, misguided and amateurish review of MMT. Your understanding of the role of inflation and the actual operational positions espoused by its proponents is useless. Perhaps it’s driven by politics or some ideology but you could probably learn a bit by spending a bit more time on it all.

Fair enough.

Look. I’m not an economist. I write as a practitioner in financial markets. As such, I’m mainly concerned with incentive systems and how they impact strategic decision making by individuals and institutions.

Politicians are always and everywhere incentivized to run deficits and print money. Hand politicians a license to run deficits of arbitrary size and they will print and print and print. This isn’t left versus right political thing. This is a human nature thing.

Under MMT, it would be up to self-interested politicians and their appointed bureaucrats to ensure we don’t end up with hyperinflation. Self-interested politicians and appointed bureaucrats hardly have an unblemished track record when it comes to economic management.

Now, I should be clear here that my commenter is correct. My opposition to MMT is absolutely ideological. Specifically:

  • I don’t believe bureaucrats are capable of pulling off the operational balancing act MMT requires.
  • More importantly, I don’t believe bureaucrats ought to be empowered to try and pull off the operational balancing act MMT requires in the first place.

In my estimation, the downside risks are catastrophic. We could end up on The Road To Serfdom. We could end up with hyperinflation. Anyone regularly involved in decision making under uncertainty knows that the way you manage the risk of ruin is either to hedge it or to avoid taking it in the first place.

That’s not to say MMT can’t work. The theoretical viability of MMT is something for economists to argue over.

My argument is much, much simpler. Given what we know about human nature and fallibility, and given the historical track record of economic planners and administrators, the potential negative outcomes from a real-world implementation of MMT (you know, total economic collapse) far outweigh the potential benefits.

As a wiser man than me once said: “you were so preoccupied with whether you could, you didn’t stop to think whether you should.”