The Alchemy of Risk

Here is a recurring theme from this blog: “risk can never be destroyed, it can only be transformed and laid off on someone else.”

Or, in the words of the late, great Marty Whitman: “someone has to pay for lunch, and I don’t want it to be me.”

Often people think they’ve destroyed risk when they buy a financial product with a guarantee attached. In finance, “guarantee” is just a fancy word for “promise.” When you buy a financial product with a guarantee attached, you’re swapping market risk for something else. Usually it’s a stream of payments with its own set of risks.

The person selling you the stream of payments will tell you that you’ve gotten rid of your risk. And you have, to an extent. You’ve gotten rid of A risk. You’ve traded your market risk for credit risk (your counterparty might not make good on their promise) and purchasing power risk (your stream of payments might not keep up with inflation).

Some of you will say, “but the counterparty is contractually obligated to keep is promise!”

To which I say, “so are bond issuers and individual borrowers. Yet they default all the time. Sometimes they even commit fraud.”

Others will say, “you don’t know what you’re talking about! The government has insurance funds for deposits and pensions!”

To which I say, “promises, promises, all the way down.”

How does the government fund its promises? With tax revenue, partly. But more importantly, with debt. Like I said–promises, all the way down. Dollar bills are themselves promises. What is the “full faith and credit of the United States government” but an elaborate series of promises?

Anyway, for normal people the most common example of “risk transformation” would be buying an annuity or whole life policy from an insurance company. But there are more exotic examples.

Banks like to sell structured notes to their wealth management clients. These are difficult products for the average person to understand. They usually promise a return based on the price performance of some index, subject to certain limitations. For example there will be a guaranteed minimum return and a cap on the high end.

(Notice that I said price performance. If you buy a structured note, no dividends for you!)

Banks like this opacity because the complexity makes it easy for them to bake profits into the structures, which are literally designed by mathematicians (actuaries). The products are sold based on the guaranteed minimum return, and the chance of modest upside. As the buyer, you overpay for the downside protection (the guarantee). When you buy a structured note, you are basically lending the bank money so it can write options and eke out some trading profits. In return you get a more bond-like risk profile.

Meanwhile, you are an unsecured creditor of the bank. If the bank goes bust, your investment is toast. So much for guarantees. Get in line with the rest of the unsecured lenders. Ask the people who bought structured notes from Lehman Brothers how it worked out for them.

In general, the more complicated the product, the worse a deal you are getting. Of course, there can be good reasons to swap market risk for a guaranteed stream of payments. Just because you overpay for downside protection doesn’t make you a sucker.

But lunch is definitely on you.

Shenanigans! “Index Investing Distorts Valuations” Edition

Here is an oft-repeated meme that has begun to grind my gears. Here it is again, from the FT’s Megan Greene:

Passive investments, such as exchange traded funds (ETFs) and index funds, similarly ignore fundamentals. Often set up to mimic an index, ETFs have to buy more of equities rising in price, sending those stock prices even higher. This creates a piling-on effect as funds buy more of these increasingly expensive stocks and less of the cheaper ones in their indices — the polar opposite of the adage “buy low, sell high”. Risks of a bubble rise when there is no regard for underlying fundamentals or price. It is reasonable to assume a sustained market correction would lead to stocks that were disproportionately bought because of ETFs and index funds being disproportionately sold.

The idea that index investors cause valuation disparities within indices is a myth. It is mainly trotted out in difficult client conversations about investment performance. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s restrict the definition of “passive” to “investing in a market capitalization weighted index,” like the Russell 2000 or S&P 500. There is a simple reason everyone who makes this argument is categorically, demonstrably wrong:


It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than Russell 2000 stocks because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than OTC microcaps outside of the index because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is demonstrably false to say, “NFLX trades at a ridiculous valuation relative to the rest of the S&P 500 because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

Index funds buy each security in the index in proportion to everything else. Their buying doesn’t change the relative valuations within the index.

Here is how index investing works:

1. Active investors buy and sell stocks based on their view of fundamentals, supply and demand for various securities, whatever. They do this because they think they are smart enough to earn excess returns, which will make them fabulously wealthy, The Greatest Investor Of All Time, whatever. As a result, security prices move up and down. Some stuff gets more expensive than other stuff.

2. Regardless, the markets are not Lake Wobegon. All of the active investors can’t be above average. For every buyer there is a seller. If you average the performance of all the active investors, you get the average return of the market.

3. Index investors look at the active investing rat race and think, “gee, the market is pretty efficient thanks to all these folks trying to outsmart each other in securities markets. Let’s just buy everything in the weights they set. We are content to get the average return, and we will get it very cheaply.”

4. Index investors do this.

Despite what we in investment management like to tell ourselves, index investors are rather clever. They are trying to earn a free lunch. They let the active investors spend time, money and energy providing liquidity and (to a much lesser extent) allocating capital for real investment in primary market. They just try to piggyback on market efficiency as cheaply as possible.

In my experience, some index investors like to think of themselves as somehow acting in opposition to active managers. This, too, is demonstrably and categorically false. Index investors’ results are directly and inextricably tied to the activity of active investors setting the relative weights of securities within the indices. That activity is what determines the composition of the index portfolio.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Index investing only “works” to the extent the active investors setting the relative weights within the index are “doing their jobs.” When the active managers screw up, bad companies grow in market capitalization and become larger and larger weights in the index. At extremes, the index investor ends up overexposed to overvalued, value-destroying businesses. This happened with the S&P 500 during the dot-com era.

Now, flows of passive money certainly can distort relative valuations across indices, and, by association, across asset classes. When it comes to asset allocation, almost everyone is an active investor. Even you, Bogleheads. Otherwise you would own something like ACWI for your equity exposure.

A running theme of this blog is that there are no free lunches. Someone is always paying for lunch. These days, it’s the active managers. But that doesn’t mean the passive folks will always enjoy their meal.