Who’s Paying For Lunch?

I’ve always been a fan of the old saw, “there are no free lunches.”

Not too long ago I heard this re-framed as “someone has to pay for lunch, and I don’t want it to be me.” I much prefer the second version. It underscores the fact that you can’t destroy risk. You can only lay it off onto someone dumber more willing to bear it than you.

The Wall Street Journal reports on enterprising San Franciscans gaming referral bonuses from VC-backed startups:

Elad Ossadon and Noam Szpiro, who work in software engineering, have become referring pros. In 2016, they created a website called VC Fund My Life, which catalogs discounts and freebies. When a user signs up for the startups listed, they get a referral bonus, often altered by a buzz of their phones.

Mr. Ossadon said before he started the site, he was pushing startups with bonuses on anyone he knew.

“Friends that visit here, move here—friends of friends, random people,” he said. His reward: free burgers and Thai food delivered by startup Postmates and “months over months” of free housecleanings from on-demand services company Handy.

In all, Mr. Ossadon and Mr. Szpiro estimate they have earned over $10,000 in referral credits, although many startups have started to put an expiration on the credits. “The challenge after a while became, can you use your credits before they expire?” said Mr. Szpiro, in a gray knit shirt acquired with the aid of referral credits from online retailer Everlane.

This is one of those “squishy” data points worth paying attention to. Low interest rates encourage investors to move into “long duration” equity investments such as biotech, cryptocurrency and (of course) venture capital. Even with all the talk we hear about “rate jitters” these days, capital remains cheap and cash incinerators are objects of envy.

Guess who’s paying for lunch?

 

Investing vs. “Getting Market Exposure”

Like “financial advisor” and “hedge fund,” the word “investing” is probably one of the most abused terms in our financial lexicon. These days many people use the word “investing” when what they are really talking about is “getting market exposure.”

For fun I googled the definition of investing:

investing_definition
Source: Google

I also re-read this post from Cullen Roche where he discusses “allocating savings” (what I would call “getting market exposure”).

It’s funny how “investors” abuse the term “investing”. What we’re really doing when we buy shares on a secondary exchange is not really “investing” at all. It’s just an allocation of savings. Investing, in a very technical sense, is spending for future production. So, if you build a factory and spend money to do so then you’re investing. But when companies issue shares to raise money they’re simply issuing those shares so they can invest. And once those shares trade on the secondary exchange the company really doesn’t care who buys/sells them because their funds have been raised and they’ve likely already invested in future production. You just allocate your savings by exchanging shares with other people when you buy and sell financial assets.

Now, this might all sound like a bunch of semantics, but it’s really important in my opinion. After all, when you understand the precise definitions of saving and investing you realize that our portfolios actually look more like saving accounts than investment accounts. That is, they’re not really these sexy get rich quick vehicles. Yes, the allure of becoming the next Warren Buffett by trading stocks is powerful. But the reality is that you’re much more likely to get rich by making real investments, ie, spending to improve your future production. Flipping stocks isn’t going to do that for you.

This leads you to realize your portfolio is a place where you are simply trying to grow your savings at a reasonable rate without exposing it to excessive permanent loss risk or excessive purchasing power loss. It’s not a place for gambling or getting rich quick. In fact, it’s much the opposite. It’s a nuanced view, but one I feel is tremendously important to financial success.

I have promised myself I will stop using “investing,” “getting market exposure” and “allocating savings” interchangeably.

For me, the semantic line between investing and “getting market exposure” is a little different from what Cullen proposes. For me it’s this: as an investor you are looking to compound capital at a rate exceeding your cost of capital (opportunity cost), while avoiding permanent impairment of capital.

Yes, “extraordinary” is a fuzzy term. To me, pretty much anything above 10%, net of expenses, is extraordinary. That will give you nearly a 7x return over 20 years. If you can do 15% (an extraordinary achievement, btw), that multiple jumps to over 16x.

Some of you are no doubt thinking you can net 10% annually forever in an S&P 500 index fund. And maybe you are right. In my view the odds are stacked against you over the next 10 years. In fact, I would gladly take the other side of that bet over next 10 years. But beyond the next decade or so it is hard to tell.

The reason is broad market returns measured over long time periods are sensitive to starting valuations. If you ask the average equity analyst he will probably tell you the market is “fairly valued” today based on the one-year forward price/earnings multiple. Which is another way of saying “meh.” By other measures, such as the Shiller CAPE, the US market is extremely expensive. But if you are allocating your savings based on one-year forward earnings multiples you’ve got bigger problems than parsing the nuances of various valuation multiples.

2Q18_JPM_PE_Returns
Source: JP Morgan

Also, analysts kind of suck at forecasting earnings growth. So the forward price/earnings multiple is a flawed input at best.

BI_earnings_forecasts_vs_reality
Source: Business Insider

Anyway, if none of this stuff interests you, you aren’t thinking like an investor. The whole point of investing is to seek out asymmetric risk/reward propositions. That’s very different from “simply trying to grow your savings at a reasonable rate without exposing it to excessive permanent loss risk or excessive purchasing power loss.”

Netflix Levers Up (again)

From Dow Jones Newswires (emphasis mine):

Netflix Inc. (NFLX) said Monday it is planning to tap the high-yield bond market with a $1.5 billion deal. The company said it will use the proceeds for general corporate purposes, including content acquisition, production and development, capex, investments, working capital and potential acquisitions and strategic deals. The company’s most active bonds, the 4.875% notes that mature in April of 2028, last traded at 96.50 cents on the dollar to yield 5.332%, or at a yield spread of 239 basis points over Treasurys, according to trading platform MarketAxess.

I’m not going to belabor the point here. You can decide for yourself whether 5.332% is appropriate compensation for lending on a 10-year term to a company management says will burn $3bn to $4bn of free cash in 2018.

Disclosure: No position.

The Many Flavors Of Dumb

Lack of intelligence (“book smarts”) = “Dumb”

Lack of “street smarts” = “Dumb”

Lack of “emotional intelligence” = “Dumb”

Unwillingness to define a circle of competence = “Dumb”

Inability to define a circle of competence = “Dumb”

Overestimating your own intelligence = “Dumb”

Overestimating the impact of intelligence on outcomes = “Dumb”

Believing intelligence translates into control of outcomes = “Dumb”

There are many dimensions to intelligence. Yet we tend to talk about intelligence in a reductive way. As if it is somehow straightforward to separate the world into the “smart” and the “dumb.” By the standard of raw IQs the folks on Wall Street responsible for creating synthetic CDOs circa 2006 were frighteningly intelligent. Look what they wrought.

People with low IQs tend not create really bad outcomes. At least not at the level of society at large. People with low IQs are rarely put in a position where they have that much power and influence.

Really bad outcomes result from “smart” people overestimating their intelligence. They result from “smart” people mistakenly believing being “smart” allows them to control outcomes in complex systems. And they result from “smart” people being coerced into doing dumb things by warped incentive systems.

Some examples (not comprehensive):

Literally every financial crisis.

The Titanic.

Literally every speculative bubble.

World War I.

The Challenger explosion.

Tobacco companies.

The Hindenburg.

Love Canal.

Badly cooked dinners.

Socratic Solitaire: Russian Belligerence

One thing I like to do on this blog is engage in some “live” analytical exercises. So here is one in the vein of my reasoning from first principles post. I will play a round of Socratic Solitaire to examine Russia’s belligerence on the geopolitical stage. This is not a trivial exercise to me. I have real dollars on the line (see disclosure at bottom).

In general I think people do a poor job of analyzing geopolitical risk. There are many reasons for this. Availability bias is probably the most significant issue, especially in emerging markets. Also people do not put themselves in the shoes of the person on the other side of the table. Investment analysts especially tend to be quantitatively oriented people. They struggle to price the “squishy” stuff. So what I am really challenging myself to do here is think like Vladimir Putin.

What Motivates Me?

This is tough. But anyone who enters the political arena does it for some combination of the following three things:

  • Power
  • Money
  • To make the work a better place

Given Russia’s behavior on the geopolitical stage I would say we can safely rule out “making the world a better place.” That leaves me with money and power.

If I am Vladimir Putin, and I am motivated primarily by money, the smart thing for me to do is straightforward: play nice with the other Great Powers (US, China, EU) and simply focus my energy on looting the Russian economy. Without some overriding desire for political power, things like backing Bashar Al Assad and invading Crimea make no sense. They introduce catastrophic risks into the equation. Namely: a large scale military conflict I might lose.

Thus, on a weighted average basis I think it is safe to say that power is the most significant driver for my behavior. The relevant question from the perspective of an investor in Russian securities is: to what extent am I willing to put constraints on my drive for power?

Why Would I Constrain My Desire For Geopolitical Power?

All else equal I would simply work to swallow up the world. What would stop me?

As mentioned above, catastrophic downside risk might give me pause. That happens in a couple of different ways:

1) lose a war,

2) villagers with pitchforks revolt, and

3) a coup.

How Do I Protect Myself From Catastrophic Downside Risks?

In the short term, Risk #3 can be addressed in straightforward fashion with political repression and violence. Indeed, this appears to be the current game plan. The Financial Times recently published an interview with the Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin. Potanin is notable for being one of the only old guard oligarchs who is still alive and wealthy.

“Why did we survive, [Mikhail] Fridman and myself? Maybe because we never tried to dictate to the government, to the Kremlin,” he says. He recalls a meeting where he and Fridman told Khodorkovsky, “Mikhail, the problem is you are trying to play political games. The perception is you are trying to buy power. It is unacceptable, not just for you but for all of us — we will all look dangerous.”

In Russia, it is perfectly okay to loot. It is not okay to play politics. A meta-reading of the interview suggests Potanin is addressing Putin and Russian state security directly. “I am not a threat,” he is saying. “I am not interested in political power. No need to bump me off or confiscate my wealth.”

Risk #2 is trickier to manage as it requires balancing economic and social considerations. The CIA World Factbook gives excellent high level macroeconomic data for Russia. We can slice and dice Russian GDP in several different ways but there are a couple of data points that stand out. Agriculture, energy and heavy industry play significant roles in the Russian economy. Russia also runs a trade surplus. Its top trade partners are China (22% of imports; 10% of exports); Germany (11% of imports; 7.8% of exports); and the United States (8% of imports). Heavy industry and energy are both intensely cyclical industries. The Russian economy is thus extremely sensitive to trends in global commodity prices, and subject to dramatic boom-bust cycles.

Unsurprisingly then, Vladimir Putin is acutely aware of “villagers with pitchforks risk.” In October 2017, The Financial Times reported on a 2009 incident where the Russian president publicly shamed oligarch Oleg Deripaska over unpaid workers:

In June 2009, in the depth of Russia’s previous sharp recession, Putin gave aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska a public dressing-down after workers in the northern town of Pikalyovo, where his company is the main employer, took to the streets over production stoppages and unpaid wages.

“I must say that you’ve made thousands of residents of Pikalyovo hostages of your ambition, your unprofessionalism and maybe your greed,” the president told Deripaska in front of rolling cameras. As the tycoon hung his head, Putin asked why he had “neglected” his factory. Before the president had left town, Deripaska had ordered that all outstanding wages be paid.

“The effect of that show lingers until today,” says Zemlyansky. “After what happened in Pikalyovo, in all Deripaska towns, they keep on a certain number of employees even in companies that should be shut down, just because of the fear of Putin.”

And the Kremlin is keeping a close eye on things. The National Guard, the police force in charge of riot control, monitors social stability in some monotowns. The federal government has also set up a system to collect more comprehensive data on their social and economic state. The statistics are kept secret, making it impossible even for local governments to assess the situation properly.

Aside from economic policy measures, one highly effective way of managing “villagers with pitchfork risk” is through scapegoating. In fact, this tactic can be used to kill two birds with one stone. In China, for example, the Chinese premier (now dictator for life) has used an anti-corruption campaign as cover for greasing squeaky wheels. In the US, there is nothing Donald Trump loves more than making an individual or organization a scapegoat for some real or imagined threat.

The solution to Risk #1, meanwhile, is simple but not necessarily easy: do not lose a war with a Great Power.

If I Am Vladimir Putin, How Far Will I Push The Other Great Powers?

Answer: As far as they will let me.

There are military and economic dimensions to this and we could spend years gaming it all out. The bottom line is that the optimal strategy is a carefully choreographed dance, similar to the Cold War.

The underlying dynamics are similar to those of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, or, rather, the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, is therefore an interesting model to consider. From Wikipedia:

Interest in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma (IPD) was kindled by Robert Axelrod in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (1984). In it he reports on a tournament he organized of the N step prisoner’s dilemma (with N fixed) in which participants have to choose their mutual strategy again and again, and have memory of their previous encounters. Axelrod invited academic colleagues all over the world to devise computer strategies to compete in an IPD tournament. The programs that were entered varied widely in algorithmic complexity, initial hostility, capacity for forgiveness, and so forth.

Axelrod discovered that when these encounters were repeated over a long period of time with many players, each with different strategies, greedy strategies tended to do very poorly in the long run while more altruistic strategies did better, as judged purely by self-interest. He used this to show a possible mechanism for the evolution of altruistic behaviour from mechanisms that are initially purely selfish, by natural selection.

The winning deterministic strategy was tit for tat, which Anatol Rapoport developed and entered into the tournament. It was the simplest of any program entered, containing only four lines of BASIC, and won the contest. The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, the player does what his or her opponent did on the previous move. Depending on the situation, a slightly better strategy can be “tit for tat with forgiveness”. When the opponent defects, on the next move, the player sometimes cooperates anyway, with a small probability (around 1–5%). This allows for occasional recovery from getting trapped in a cycle of defections. The exact probability depends on the line-up of opponents.

By analysing the top-scoring strategies, Axelrod stated several conditions necessary for a strategy to be successful.

Nice

The most important condition is that the strategy must be “nice”, that is, it will not defect before its opponent does (this is sometimes referred to as an “optimistic” algorithm). Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were nice; therefore, a purely selfish strategy will not “cheat” on its opponent, for purely self-interested reasons first.

Retaliating

However, Axelrod contended, the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as “nasty” strategies will ruthlessly exploit such players.

Forgiving

Successful strategies must also be forgiving. Though players will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximizing points.

Non-envious

The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent.

If one views Russia’s behavior (or any belligerent nation state’s behavior) through this lens there are elements of the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma in play. In particular, some belligerence must be used as a deterrent. Likewise, some forgiveness and cooperation must be utilized to stop “long runs of revenge and counter-revenge” (read: World War III). In this context, seemingly “crazy” actions such as backing Bashar Al Assad are in fact totally rational.

Why Would I Start World War III?

As Charlie Munger says, “always invert.” So, let’s examine the issue of Russian belligerence through another angle. Why would I, as Vladimir Putin, intentionally ignite a global conflagration that could result in my total loss of power and personal demise?

  • I believe there is a high probability of winning
  • I am a pure ideologue / religious fanatic (not a rational actor)
  • Nothing left to lose

At this juncture none of these appear to dominate decision making on the Russian side. There is some level of ideology in play here in terms of a desire to ensure Russia remains a Great Power and a geopolitical player. However, it’s not the type of fanaticism that renders someone an irrational actor, such as Islamic Fundamentalism.

Key Learnings

Russian aggression is not irrational. There is a method to it. The method stems from the fact that Vladimir Putin is motivated to expand Russia’s power and influence (and by extension, his own power and influence). This requires a certain level of calculated belligerence so as not to be steamrolled by other Great Powers.

Domestically, the #1 rule for business leaders is to keep out of politics. The #2 rule is to allow the state some latitude for looting. Most investors look at #2 and say “forget it, I am  out” (availability bias). I look at SBRCY on forward PE of 5.67 with a 20% ROE, having just announced a doubling of its dividend, and say, “gee, maybe the looting is more than priced into the stock.”

The most controversial asset expropriation in the history of modern Russia is Yukos, which was owned largely by the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Russia did not expropriate Yukos for arbitrary reasons. Khodorkovsky had political ambitions. Worse yet (from the Russian government’s point of view), his vision for Russia ran counter to that of Vladimir Putin. Therefore, if you are invested in Russia, an easy qualitative screen to run is whether company management and ownership is aligned with the Putin regime. This is a critical to assessing expropriation risk and ensuring you are taking calculated risks versus stupid risks.

Full Disclosure: Long OGZPY, SBRCY and RSXJ. Short RSX (as a partial hedge)

Mental Model: Time Dilation

Time dilation is a consequence of relativity in physics. Put simply: individuals moving at different speeds perceive time differently. The most extreme example of this would be someone moving at the speed of light versus a stationary observer. For the person traveling at the speed of light, time measured from the point of view of the stationary observer would appear to have stopped.

Crazy, right?

Take a moment and allow that to sink in. It is pretty wild to think about. It took me two passes through A Brief History of Time before I felt like I had a decent handle on the concept.

Below is a fun animation to help illustrate.

Nonsymmetric_velocity_time_dilation
Time dilation illustrated. The motion inside each “clock” represents the perceived passage of time from the blue clock’s perspective. Source: Wikipedia

In financial markets, we experience our own form of time dilation. A high frequency trader experiences time differently than Warren Buffett. Here the relative velocity we are concerned with isn’t physical motion, but rather the velocity of activity in a portfolio of financial assets. The more you trade, the slower time moves for you.

Below are two charts for AAPL, one for the last trading day and one for a trailing 1-year period. All the price action depicted in the first chart is imperceptible on the second.

AAPL_1_Day
Source: Google
AAPL_1_Year
Source: Google

This idea of time dilation presents significant challenges for investment organizations.

The first challenge is the friction it creates between stated investment horizons and performance measurement. It is tough to manage money to a three or five-year horizon if your investors are measuring performance monthly. With that kind of mismatch, stuff that wouldn’t seem significant over three or five years starts to look significant (in a way, it is). And so you are tempted to “do stuff” to keep your investors happy.

While you should be focused on the “signal” from annual reports, you get bogged down in the “noise” of quarterly fluctuations in earnings. Or, god forbid, daily and weekly newsflow. Unless you are a proper trader, nothing good ever comes of focusing attention on daily and weekly newsflow.

Also, since people pay money for investment management, it is easy for them to mistake large volumes of activity for productive activity. Yet, just because you “do a lot of stuff” doesn’t mean your results will be any better. In fact, plenty of empirical evidence argues the opposite. The more “stuff” you do, the worse your results will be.

Here is an example of market time dilation from Professor Sanjay Bakshi. Years ago he executed a “very cool” arbitrage trade involving Bosch stock for a triple digit IRR. That’s an objectively fantastic result. And yet, Prof Bakshi readily admits to missing the forest for the trees. Why? He was operating on a different time horizon.

bakshi_bosch
Source: Professor Sanjay Bakshi

You can judge whether someone truly has a long term mindset based on how he feels about being “taken out” of a stock in a merger or buyout. Long-term thinkers don’t like to be taken out of their positions! They would rather compound capital at 20% annually for 30 years than have a 100% return in a single year.

They all explain this the same way: there aren’t that many businesses capable of compounding value at 20% annually for 30 years. When you find one you should own it in size. Selling it should be physically painful. Only phony long term thinkers are happy about getting taken out of good businesses.

Now, that’s certainly not the only way to make money in the markets. The trick isn’t so much finding “the best way” to make money as it is genuinely aligning your process with your time horizon. This is not a trivial thing. Particularly if you manage other people’s money.

Clear Thinking: Why Many Great Investors Are Also Great Writers

Morgan Housel observes:

Communicating and allocating capital are miles apart. Completely different topics. But look around, and the two are constantly paired.

Warren Buffett is a great writer. Paul Graham is a great writer. John Bogle is a great writer. Howard Marks is a great writer. Josh Brown is a great writer. Brent Beshore, Seth Klarman, Joel Greenblat, Ben Graham – the list goes on.

None of this is a coincidence. These aren’t just great investors who happen to be good communicators; their ability to communicate well helped make them great investors.

The post focuses on the importance of clear and effective client communication. However, I would argue that great investors often make for great writers because great investing and great writing both require clarity of thought. Parsimony is a beautiful thing.

In writing, the ultimate example of this is Hemingway’s “six word novel.” Here it is in its entirety:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

Those six words evoke an entire lifetime of experiences and emotions. You could write a thousand page novel about the death of a child and you would struggle to make the impact of the six word Hemingway story. Why? The six word story contains only the most important parts. Your thousand page novel is going to contain all kinds of extraneous crap. And that extraneous crap dilutes the emotional impact of the most important parts.

Likewise in investing, you need clarity of thought to identify the key drivers of a situation. Most great investments hinge on two or three key drivers. Everything else is noise. You get lost in the noise at your peril. In Margin of Safety, Seth Klarman tells the story of an analyst who (badly) missed the forest for the trees on Clorox:

David Dreman recounts, “the story of an analyst so knowledgeable about Clorox that ‘he could recite bleach shares by brand in every small town in the Southwest and tell you the production levels of Clorox’s line number 2, plant number 3.’ But somehow, when the company began to develop massive problems, he missed the signs… .” The stock fell from a high of 53 to 11.

The analyst knew a lot of crap about Clorox. But he wasn’t thinking clearly. All that extraneous crap he knew about Clorox blinded him to what really mattered. So knowing all that crap about Clorox was irrelevant to the outcome.

Elsewhere, Charlie Munger has commented on how important clarity of thought is at Berkshire Hathaway:

Our ideas are so simple. People keep asking us for mysteries, but all we have are the most elementary ideas.

I have this pet theory that you should be able to go through a portfolio and summarize every single investment thesis (as a falsifiable statement, of course!) in just a couple of lines. If there are things you can’t do that for, you probably shouldn’t own them.