The Ministry Of Love: A Play In One Act

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(We open on a nondescript, windowless room. A FUNDAMENTAL INVESTOR sits strapped into a GROTESQUE TORTURE CHAIR. The torture chair is designed to inflict the physical, psychological and financial pain of enduring a short squeeze on its occupant. An ECONOMIST dressed in an ordinary suit addresses the investor)

ECONOMIST: I would like to begin by emphasizing we have invited you to this Continuing Education Session in the spirit of educational goodwill. Here at the Ministry, we work not for money, but out of love. Our love for you. Our love for your fellow investors. Our love for the financial markets and the global macroeconomy. Now, we shall begin today’s session by reviewing some simple concepts. What is a financial market?

INVESTOR: A financial market is where buyers and sellers– (mid-sentence, the Investor convulses in pain, letting out a guttural sound that is half-grunt and half-scream)

ECONOMIST: –Already we are starting off on the wrong foot. A financial market has nothing whatsoever to do with buyers and sellers. A financial market is a wealth creation mechanism for individuals and thus societies. Now, what do you suppose a market should do over time?

INVESTOR: It depends– (again the Investor convulses in pain)

ECONOMIST: Incorrect. The correct answer is RISE. A financial market RISES over time. Can you tell me why?

INVESTOR: Earnings– (another convulsion)

ECONOMIST: WRONG AGAIN! A market rises because a market MUST rise over time. It is a tautology that a market must rise. I am beginning to suspect your misconceptions about our financial system are more fundamental than I had initially believed. I shall endeavor to correct this. (The Economist pauses briefly, as if switching to a new script in his head) Tell me, why should someone invest?

(The Investor hesitates)

ECONOMIST: Go on. I am genuinely curious.

INVESTOR: To earn a return on capital.

ECONOMIST: Yes. To earn a return on capital. And why should an investor prefer bonds, to say, cash?

INVESTOR (hesitant): Higher returns.

ECONOMIST: Yes, quite right. And why should an investor prefer stocks to bonds?

INVESTOR: Higher returns.

ECONOMIST: And WHY do you suppose stocks should return more than bonds or cash over time?

INVESTOR: As compensation for the incremental risk associated with taking the most junior position in a capital structure, with only a residual claim on cash flows and assets.

ECONOMIST: Yes, very good. And how does an investor decide whether he is being compensated fairly for taking the most junior positions in capital structures, instead of owning bonds?

INVESTOR (after a long pause): Relative valuations.

ECONOMIST: And what determines relative valuations?

INVESTOR: Investor preferences– (this time the convulsion is extra long and painful)

ECONOMIST: Now we’ve arrived at the crux of our misunderstanding. You investors only BELIEVE you determine relative valuations across asset classes. You are so absorbed in your own brilliance, in your petty little security selection games and benchmark arbitrage games and sales and marketing games that you COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY FAIL to see the world AS IT IS. In reality, WE determine relative valuations. The Federal Reserve. The European Central Bank. The Bank of Japan. In nature, it would be as though we controlled the force of GRAVITY. Investors do not “determine” anything. They merely RESPOND to our influence as it manifests itself in the world. Can you tell me, whence we derive this incredible power?

INVESTOR (for the first time, calm and self-assured): You control the supply of money.

ECONOMIST: Not only the SUPPLY of money, but the PRICE of money. Said another way, we control the price of RISK. You investors can no more escape our influence on the price of risk than you can escape the force of gravity. Excellent. (The Economist is obviously delighted with this progress) Now that we’ve reached this understanding, we shall practice with a brief exercise. What is a reasonable return on Treasury bills?

INVESTOR: Depending on inflation–(a brief zap of pain)

ECONOMIST: Incorrect. Let us try again. What is a reasonable rate of return on Treasury bills?

INVESTOR: I need to know–(a longer convulsion ensues)

ECONOMIST (sighs): Again, what is a reasonable rate of return on Treasury bills?

INVESTOR (desperate; frustrated): I DON’T KNOW! Just tell me what you want to hear!

(This is the longest zap of the torture device yet, and when it ends the Investor is little more than a blubbering pile of mush)

ECONOMIST (to the audience): A reasonable rate of return on Treasury bills is whatever OUR models say it should be. A reasonable rate of return on Treasury bills is whatever WE want it to be. WE decide whether you should prefer bonds to bills, or stocks to bonds. WE decided whether you should be incentivized to hold cash or spend it with reckless abandon. WE decide whether the market should rise or fall. Only deciding whether the market should rise or fall is no decision at all. The market rises over time because it MUST rise over time. That the market rises over time is a tautology.

(Abruptly, the stage goes black)

(Scene change)

(Slowly, the lights come up. The Investor is seated at his desk, working. He is on a client call, holding his phone up to his ear. He is flanked by an enormous plasma TV, showing Neel Kashkari being interviewed on CNBC)

Investor (smiling broadly): Well, of course the market goes up over time, Mister and Missus Smith. The market pretty much HAS TO go up over time. It’s basically a tautology. (He pauses momentarily, listening) Of course! Happy to explain…

(Fade to black)

ET Note: Kobayashi Maru

I suspect I have some significant reader overlap with Epsilon Theory, but for those of you who aren’t also ET readers (you should be, btw), I was recently invited to contribute to the site. Perhaps needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m excited to join Ben, Rusty, Peter, Neville and David on a platform offering some of the most unique perspective out there on politics and investing. For now, I expect to contribute approximately one note every three weeks, and to cross-post the links to those notes on this site.

My first note went live Tuesday afternoon. It’s titled “Kobayashi Maru”, and it’s about how in a no-win scenario, the best strategy is to change the conditions of the game.

More specifically, it’s about discretionary active management and the way ESG investing is sold to investors and financial advisers.

And, obviously, it involves a Star Trek analogy.

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The Haunter of the Dark

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Source: Jens Heimdahl via Wikipedia

I had never heard the name NYARLATHOTEP before, but seemed to understand the allusion. Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in public halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts—first, a horrible—possibly prophetic—cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus. As I received the letter, I seemed to recall that Nyarlathotep was already in Providence…. I seemed to remember that persons had whispered to me in awe of his horrors, and warned me not to go near him. But Loveman’s dream letter decided me…. As I left the house I saw throngs of men plodding through the night, all whispering affrightedly and bound in one direction. I fell in with them, afraid yet eager to see and hear the great, the obscure, the unutterable Nyarlathotep.

–H.P. Lovecraft

Nyarlathotep (try saying that 10 times fast!) was inspired by a dream. Lovecraft dreamed his friend Samuel Loveman wrote a letter encouraging him to see the “itinerant showman”:

Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterwards. I am still shuddering at what he showed.

Nyarlathotep is a perversion of the Wizard! archetype: a twisted incarnation of the mad scientist futurist.

In the Cthulhu Mythos, Nyarlathotep serves the Great Old Ones. He’s a kind of messenger. The guys over at Epsilon Theory would call him a Missionary. In fact, Nyarlathotep is the archetypical Evil Missionary. He most definitely does not respect our autonomy of mind. The notion of pathetic, insignificant humans exercising autonomy of mind and spirit would be utterly incomprehensible to him. To Nyarlathotep, we’re no more worthy of autonomy of thought and feeling than cockroaches. Typically, whenever one of Lovecraft’s unfortunate protagonists encounters him, the result is either insanity or death.

Nyarlathotep’s nature is never entirely clarified in Lovecraft’s fiction. Some commentators think of him as a lesser god, subordinate to the Great Old Ones. My preferred interpretation is that Nyarlathotep isn’t a discrete being with his own conscious will, but rather the manifestation of the Elder Gods’ power and influence in our world. He’s a vessel for the Old Magic. For Dark Magic. He channels the Elder Gods’ power for their cults here on Earth.

But Nyarlathotep isn’t simply a purveyor of cosmic horror. No, he’s also a purveyor of science. Scientism, to be precise. Nyarlathotep’s special blend of scientism is occult magic, gussied up in the trappings of science and technology, with some religiosity thrown in for good measure. It’s occult scientism.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with economics, geopolitics, or investing?

Well, once you start looking for Nyarlathotep, and his particular brand of occult scientism, you’ll see him everywhere. I made a snarky nerd joke about Nyarlathotep at Davos on Twitter the other day, and received a rather evocative reply:

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Indeed. And we see his handiwork everywhere.

It’s the Gaussian Copula.

It’s eugenics and racial pseudioscience.

It’s Soviet collectivized agriculture.

It’s esoteric securitizations of risky assets and byzantine structured products.

It animates the Chinese social credit system; the Intellectually Superior Davos Man; the Cult of MMT-Enabled Economic Management; the Cult of Supply-Side Economics; the Divine Order of the Ever-Wise and Benevolent Central Banker; the erstwhile Caliphate of the Islamic State; the Malthusian Society of Self-Loathing Climate Warriors.

Occult scientism is powerful stuff. It combines the memetic power of symbolic abstraction with a veneer of scientific (“rational”) credibility, then underscores it all with religious fervor. Occult scientism topples governments. It launches revolutions, wars and genocides. It shapes our perception of our world and ourselves in a way that scientism and religion, taken in isolation, cannot. When we encounter it, we’re transfixed.

He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterwards. I am still shuddering at what he showed.

Wherever our most powerful missionaries congregate, look carefully for Nyarlathotep and his miracles. He may not be preaching front-and-center, but he’s almost certainly there, lurking in the shadows, whispering in the dark.

The Tyranny of Optimization

Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other other dies […] To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.

–Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History

When I was younger, I used to believe strongly in what I’ll call “technocratic optimization.” In my view, the Big Problems confronting civilization could be tackled through the decisive application of computational power and human intellect. The idea was that if you got all the smartest people working on all the hardest problems eventually you could solve them. You would discover Truth with a capital T. The rest would take care of itself.

I was a fool to believe this.

Human societies don’t run like giant mean-variance portfolio optimizations, where each individual can be reduced to a personal utility function, then aggregated and mapped to a kind of efficient frontier based on the available resources. Human societies are dynamic systems. These systems are constantly evolving in the face of environmental and social pressures. Whenever we attempt to optimize social and economic systems, our models inevitably end up either overfit or underfit. Hence the abundance of “unintended consequences” that accompany major policy changes.

But here’s the biggest problem with technocratic optimization: even in the best of circumstances, where it’s reasonably self-evident, the mere existence of Truth with a capital T is insufficient motivation for people to change their behavior. As Upton Sinclair famously wrote: “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

So what’s a frustrated optimizer to do?

Well, you can force people to buy into your optimization. Or, you can convince them to buy into your optimization. Or, you can convince them to buy into your optimization by leveraging technology and their behavioral biases (a much better bet than simply relying on the merits of your argument).

If you’re an optimizer, your intellectual journey ends in tyranny.

Russland-Nord, Erschießung von Partisanen

Now, there’s certainly the concentration camp and NKVD firing squad kind of tyranny we’re acquainted with from 20th century history. All very messy. Fortunately, we now have kinder, gentler forms of coercion available to us.

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The social credit system kind of tyranny, and the fiat news kind of tyranny, for example. Here you’re not staring down the barrel of a gun but rather at a smartphone screen. Here, the trick is not only convincing people to buy into your optimization, but that buying in was their idea in the first place. This is tyranny updated for the 21st century. Much cleaner than putting people up against a wall. Once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere.

So, what’s a reformed optimizer to do?

Personally, I’ve gone back to the Lessons of History, and the collective experience of human civilization. I’ve abandoned the view we should try to engineer “optimal” outcomes for individuals or society. I’ve come to believe that rather than engineer Answers, we should focus on the maintaining and improving the integrity of our Processes: the approximate equality of justice and educational opportunity.

I’ve also abandoned the idea that human civilization progresses on a linear trajectory, or, more precisely, that human civilization can progress along a linear upward trajectory. In reality, things move in cycles and mini-cycles. These cycles are driven not only by changes in the natural world, but also the constant friction generated by individuals and states in competition for power and resources.

Put another way: we oscillate between freedom and tyranny, and between varying levels of equality and inequality over time. This is natural and inevitable (which is not to say it’s “pleasant” or “ideal”). We’ve been fortunate that the general trend over time has been upward. That doesn’t mean we’ll never experience another period of dramatic upheaval and regression a la the Dark Ages.

I believe we should be much more concerned with managing the risks inherent in sudden paradigm shifts such as the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, and the spike in aggressive, authoritarian nationalism that occurred in the 1930s.

In finance nerd terms: mind the tails.

We’re not doing a very good job minding the tails right now. In optimizing for short-term economic growth, our default fiscal policy of every-increasing borrowing and default monetary policy of “plunge protection” (a.k.a The Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen/Powell/Draghi/Kuroda Put) have provided economic and financial market stability at the expense of political and social stability. One of the most powerful voices in our political discourse today is a freshman rep who is an avowed democratic socialist (whatever that’s supposed to mean). If you can’t see how this relates to the legacy of the financial crisis; the legacy of quantitative easing; the deflationary impact of globalization and technological innovation–well, if you can’t see how all this interrelates, I’m not quite sure what to tell you.

You can’t destroy risk. You can only transform it.

That insight is in short supply among technocratic optimizers.

Are Structured Products Trash?

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I am not a fan of structured products.

For those of you who haven’t wasted hours of your life ruminating on the pros and cons of financial engineering, structured products are sold to investors as a custom package of risk exposures.

For example, you might buy a note that promises a guaranteed minimum value and potential upside participation in an equity index’s return. This is equivalent to being long a zero coupon bond and a call option on the underlying index.

Or, you might buy a reverse convertible that pays a fat yield in exchange for exposing you to downside equity risk. In this case you are long a bond and short a put (you are shorting volatility).

Here’s my beef with structured products:

  • They’re expensive.
  • Most banks are better than you and me at pricing options. The deck is stacked against us (this is not to be confused with the common misconception that the bank is on the other side of the trade when you buy a structured product–issuers hedge out their exposures).
  • Because structured products are such profitable products for banks, they have fat commissions attached to them and are often foisted on unsuspecting retail investors who have no idea what they own. For example, it’s easy to sell Yield! to unsophisticated clients (and some sophisticated ones, too).
  • Oh, by the way you’re an unsecured creditor of the bank, which is one of those things that doesn’t matter until suddenly it matters, and then it’s the only thing that matters.

Before I wrote this post, I solicited some feedback from folks on Twitter. I wanted to know: do you see any legitimate uses for these products? The responses I received boiled down to the following:

  • It can be difficult for individuals and institutions to replicate their desired exposures directly in the options market for structural reasons or due to governance constraints.
  • At times, banks screw up on pricing, or there’s an opportunity to put a trade on that’s so attractive it justifies getting your face ripped off on pricing (as one individual put it: “an obviously suboptimal implementation [may be] the best available implementation”).

Taking this all into consideration I’ll modify my stance on structured products somewhat. If you are good with options, and are able to decompose these structures to judge whether the embedded options are cheap or expensive, it may make sense to dabble in structured products. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone a clever way to make a buck. In fact, it warms the heart to know clever people have made a few bucks beating Wall Street at its own game.

Likewise, if the design of your portfolio absolutely, positively requires options exposure, and structured products are the only way to access that exposure, perhaps it makes sense.

But I suspect most of us are better off without them.

Mirror, Mirror

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Captain James T. Kirk: What worries me is the easy way his counterpart fit into that other universe. I always thought Spock was a bit of a pirate at heart.

Mr. Spock: Indeed, gentlemen. May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous–in every way splendid examples of homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity. I found them quite refreshing.

Captain James T. Kirk [to McCoy]:  I’m not sure, but I think we’ve been insulted.

Star Trek, “Mirror, Mirror” (1967)

As any sci-fi nerd who reads this can likely attest, “Mirror, Mirror” is one of the best known Star Trek episodes. It’s an Alternate Universe story, with the all-too-common “transporter malfunction” serving as catalyst (aside: if transporter tech is invented in my lifetime I will never, ever use it). In the Mirror Universe, the Federation is instead the Terran Empire. Imagine all the worst impulses of the Roman emperors, applied on a galactic scale.

In Terran society, only the strong survive. Don’t like your boss? Kill him. You simply take what you want through violent force. Women. Resources. Power. It’s pure Social Darwinism.

A fairly horrifying way to organize social and economic activity, when you really stop and think about it. Imagine being tortured in the Agonizer Booth every month you underperform the S&P 500. Many of us would be on intimate terms with the Agonizer Booth by now.

But as Mr. Spock observes at the end of the episode, the Terrans are just an exaggerated expression of basic human nature. The kinder, gentler humans of the Federation share the same basic impulses. They have the same capacity for cruelty and violence.

They’re us. We’re them.

It’s the same in our relationships with our investment managers. Many of their failings, real and imagined, reflect our own weaknesses and failings, both as individuals and allocators.

Why are there so many overly diversified, low tracking error portfolios out there? The dominant methods allocators use to evaluate performance incentivize the construction of overly diversified, low tracking error portfolios.

Why do so many bottom-up managers dabble in macro tourism? Allocators have unrealistic expectations for how true bottom-up portfolios should perform during broad market selloffs.

Why does it feel like so little money is managed with an emphasis on “real world” cash flow generation by “real world” businesses? Because the dominant models for asset allocation are based on abstracted baskets of securities.

Why is does it feel like so much money is managed in a short-term, overfitted fashion? Clients want 200% upside capture and 0% downside capture, and they want it “consistently.”

Our flaws and biases as allocators manifest themselves in our managers’ portfolios. They’re amplified by the intense pressure that comes with managing other people’s money. We end up in a kind of nightmarish feedback loop. The more pressure a manager is under during a period of underperformance, the worse that feedback loop gets. The more exaggerated our flaws and biases become as they’re translated into security selection and portfolio construction.

I sometimes often laugh at the silly conversations I have with capital intro people and third party marketers. They’ll say things like: “Fund X was actually up in December 2018! You should really take a look.” As if that, on its own, is somehow a meaningful data point.

But I shouldn’t laugh.

I shouldn’t laugh because I made them this way. Me, and others in seats like mine. Ultimate responsibility for the pervasive absurdity in the investment management business lies with us. We not only tolerate it, but actively encourage it. We encourage it with our peer group rankings and tracking error parameters and quarterly performance evaluations, not to mention our fear and greed.

I’ve always loved Wes Gray’s take on this, using a poker metaphor:

On the other side of the table is an institutional poker player, hired by wealthy investors, to play poker as best as possible. This poker player is a pure genius, mathematically calculates all probabilities in her head, and knows her odds better than anyone. Now imagine that our super player, as a hired gun, has a few limits. “We need you to maintain good diversification across low numbers and high numbers. We also want to see a sector rotation between spades, aces, and clubs. Don’t take on too much risk with straights and flushes, stick to pairs like the market does…” No one would ever play poker like this. But in finance, this is how people play.

They’re us. We’re them.

Mirror, mirror.

We’re All Selling Something

I received a couple questions on my last post from a commenter, and I felt they had enough heft to them that they could form the basis for a follow-up post. Note that I’ve paraphrased a bit for brevity. Since all this leans heavily on Ben and Rusty’s work over at Epsilon Theory, I want to make sure to give them a shout-out up front.

But with all that said, let’s jump in!

Where in this same environment do you place Narrative?

It’s all Narrative. No, seriously. There are multiple layers of narrative abstraction operating in that last post.

The post itself is Narrative–an allegory likening a period of medieval history to a challenging market environment for many asset management businesses.

Active Management! as referenced in the post is also an abstraction. There’s wide dispersion of performance across fundamental active managers–particularly for what we call “hedge funds.” Some funds were up well over 20% in 2018. Some were down more than 30%. Likewise, not every discretionary active shop is at death’s door. Active Management! carries negative connotations around fees and performance. But I could point to plenty of funds in the real world that bear little resemblance to Active Management! as debated in the media and with clients.

Risk Parity! Algos! and Indexers! as commonly referenced by struggling investment managers are similar abstractions of real things.

Finally, the film The Seventh Seal is an abstraction of a real historical period.

How these abstractions function in a semiotic sense is perhaps best explained in this Epsilon Theory post. To quote Rusty directly: “[m]ost symbols we encounter are powerful shorthands, and their meaning differs based on our unique and shared experiences.”

Active Management! has a different symbolic meaning to me as an allocator than it does to a hedge fund manager who returned 25% in 2018 and has been closed to new capital for a couple years on the back of an enviable track record. However, that manager and I both have a shared understanding of what active discretionary management means in a literal sense.

This is all just a long winded way of illustrating that Narrative is everywhere. You can no more escape Narrative as a human being than you can escape oxygen. At best you can be aware of Narrative, and how we all use narrative abstraction and symbolic representation to model the world around us.

Which brings me to the next question.

What do you think of the idea that as you build a company/organization/following you inevitably become a powerful missionary for that tribe?

I do believe it’s inevitable that anyone who builds any kind of substantial following or customer base will become a missionary to his tribe. Particularly if he’s someone who uses mass communication tools to reach an audience (for example by blogging). As I explored above, effective mass communication more or less demands a certain level of abstraction. Otherwise it’s difficult to effectively convey shared meaning across a wide audience.

In that sense, we’re all selling something.

Though it may be dangerous to start throwing around terms like “good missionary” and “evil missionary” in this post, here’s how I think about distinguishing between them.

A “good missionary” acts and communicates in good faith. To lean on Rusty’s framing from the ET note linked above, the good missionary treats others as principals. The good missionary respects our autonomy of mind.

An “evil missionary” is an instrumentalist. The evil missionary neither acts nor communicates in good faith. Rather, the evil missionary weaponizes Narrative to transform others into agents. The evil missionary does not respect our autonomy of mind.

The most important thing is for us to think critically about the information we consume. Look for narrative abstractions. Look for symbols. Be mindful of how they’re being used.

This stuff is everywhere. Ultimately, we’re all selling something.

Including me.