Grim Tidings

193Q_est_SP_returns
Sources: Federal Reserve Z.1 Data & Demonetized Calculations

I have updated the (corrected) S&P 500 expected return model for the recent 3Q19 Z.1 data release. The good news: it shows a modest increase in the forward 10-year return estimate, to 4.18%. The bad news: this is almost certainly lower today given how US equities have rallied over the last quarter. (12/19/19 EDIT: I hacked together an estimate as of today and it’s about 3.03%)

Now, I don’t think this model is at all useful as a market timing tool. But it is definitely arguing for lower forward-looking return expectations. This is partly why I’ve implemented the leveraged permanent portfolio with a significant portion of my net personal net worth. Make no mistake: there will come a day to be all-in on equities again. You’ll know it because people will be screaming bloody murder and trumpeting the death of buy-and-hold like they did from 2009 to 2012. (Remember this when your friends and/or financial advisor are pitching you on expensive liquid alternatives some day)

I’ve mentioned before that one of the weaknesses of this model is that it isn’t macro-aware. It doesn’t “know” anything about credit or interest rates. The underlying intuition is simply that as an increasing proportion of assets are “financed” by equity, expected equity returns decrease. In a world of very low or even negative interest rates, it’s possible we’ll see a structural shift in investor preferences for equities. In a regime where interest rates stay very low for a very long time, it makes sense for equity valuations to remain elevated. One should not underestimate the persuasive power of No Good Alternatives (I have been guilty of this, personally). Recall that we tried the whole “normalize interest rates” thing in 2018. We didn’t even get to 3% on Fed funds before the Fed backed off.

There are, of course, many possible futures. The three I think most about:

The Great Jihad. This is a situation where the transition back to a multi-polar world order, combined with domestic political divisions, results in wars and violent revolutions. Scary, but not worth thinking about all that much from an investment POV. In this future just focus on staying alive. Don’t sweat the markets. In fact, you might as well go all-in, because you’ll be scooping up assets at steep discounts.

Muddle Through. Here everything just kind of works out. Rates and returns stay low, but policymakers effect a “soft landing” and everything works out. In a world where economies can be run with mechanical precision, this can probably be engineered just fine. That’s not the world we live in, however. We live in a world where economic reality must be made politically palatable. Politically, we seem to be headed to a world that is more hostile toward trade, and where there is strong pushback against policymaking elites. I therefore assign a relatively low probability to muddling through.

Stagflation. This is a situation where we have lower economic growth but higher inflation. This is quite frightening from a financial perspective as you have to invest very differently from what is now conventional wisdom to come through stagflation okay. Avoid bonds and cash, as well as equities without pricing power. Real assets are pretty much the only game in town here. Maybe some alts. Personally, I believe we are close to stagflation today. I am one of those loony Inflation Truthers who believes “real” inflation (as experienced by real people in their daily lives) is higher than the CPI numbers trumpeted in the news, because CPI is restrained by things like hedonic adjustments for the improving quality of goods. But I’ll leave the details for macro wonks to fight over.

You will note that I have omitted an inflationary boom from the list. The reason for this is that developed world demographics do not appear to support much of an inflationary boom. What could change this? Well, obviously population growth could suddenly increase. Or, we could start encouraging lots of immigration (not going to happen in the current political climate–and this can’t work for every country in the world simultaneously, anyway). I don’t think either of those things is particularly likely. But, there is always technology. Historically, it has not been great positioning to be short human ingenuity. Maybe Elon gets us to Mars or somewhere else in the solar system and we start colonizing other planets. Who knows.

So anyway, what’s an investor to do?

Adapt.

I am more and more convinced that the average person or institution’s asset allocation should be managed with a trend following and/or volatility targeting overlay (note that this stuff can also work as a risk management tool in more idiosyncratic portfolios). The point here is not to market time (that is impossible to do profitably as far as I’m concerned). The point is to detect regime changes, and to make sure you end up more or less on the right side of them.

Do not be the guy who is short equities for 10 years into a bull market.

Do not be the gal who goes all-in on equities at the top.

Do not be a permabear, or a permabull.

Be biased toward being long, and biased toward bullishness, but with some sense of proportionality and a framework for risk management. As a saver, or an institution that is more or less a saver, you don’t have to catch every market move to make money. You just have to be roundabout, directionally correct about the relationships between economic growth, inflation and valuations.

Identify the regime you’re in. Then make sure you own the right stuff.

Don’t overthink it.

ET Note: Hyakujo’s Fox

hyakujo-fox

(Disclosure: This is another one of those philosophical posts that (optically, at least) has nothing to do with finance or investing. If you’re just here for the finance stuff you’ll probably be happier skipping it)

I’ve been slow to post on the blog lately. Partly because I moved houses recently, and partly because any remaining creative bandwidth had been eaten up by the idea for my most recent Epsilon Theory note.

Teaser:

Recently, a friend and I were texting about the meaning of life. (what? you and your friends don’t text regularly about the meaning of life?) My friend wrote that in the end, all you can really do is carry your cross to the finish line. I quite like this. It cuts right to the heart of the issue. There are no Answers. There is only Process. I did suggest adding an inscrutable Zen twist, however. My version:

In the end, all you can really do is carry your cross to the finish line. Except there is no finish line, there is no cross, and there is no you.  

Read the whole thing at Epsilon Theory.

Must be something in the water lately as I discovered (only after my ET note was written) this Ribbonfarm post by Jacob Falkovich dealing with the “self” and cognition. The money shot:

When the part of your brain that monitors itself notices repeated patterns of thought it creates a high-level model called “self” that it can use for prediction. “I” am interpreting the sound as a stick hitting a woodblock. “I” suffer when in pain. “I” think of everything in terms of predictive processing. And “I” will likely continue to do so in the future.

But when a thought or interpretation arises that can’t be predicted from the habits of my mind, there is no reason to assign it to a consistent thinking “self”. The thoughts I’m used to thinking are mine, but the novel ones could be anyone’s or no one’s.

Have you ever had a random transgressive thought (or even a transgressive dream) that disturbed you? I certainly have. What’s disturbing about the experience is that some horrible idea originated within you. Some horrible idea that’s destabilizing to your conception of self. A “residual” in the predictive model for thought patterns.

Every religious tradition acknowledges the existence of these residuals. Broadly speaking, they’re sins. What differs across religions is how you treat them. In the Catholic tradition I was raised in, there is a whole guilt complex built up around our inherently sinful nature (it’s a bit less apparent in the kinder, gentler, post-Vatican II Catholicism I was raised with than the hellfire and brimstone Catholicism of my parents’ generation). Residuals represent corruption. To cleanse yourself of their taint, you seek absolution through confession and penance.

Zen takes a different view of the residuals. Among other things, it teaches you to see them for what they really are: random noise in your thought patterns. The Zen response to transgressive thought is simply to acknowledge it. Observe it the way you might observe a passing cloud. It will pass.

This is not at all to argue that the Zen tradition is “superior” to the Catholic tradition. It is, however, why I think Zen philosophy resonates more with me than the Catholic doctrine of my youth.

What I’ve found to be most challenging about Zen is squaring it with morality. Indeed, one of the most common reactions to my ET note was: I liked this but isn’t the message still that ‘nothing really matters’?

A true Zen master (which I am most definitely not) would whack us over the head with a stick for asking that question. Not only is it the wrong question, it is an irrelevant question. It is a question only a “deluded” mind stuck in a dualistic thought pattern would ask.

There is no good. There is no evil. The enlightened mind is beyond good and evil.

But doesn’t that mean you can justify anything?

Again, it’s the wrong question. Only a deluded mind requires an intellectual basis for moral action. Likewise, only a deluded mind would interpret “beyond good and evil” as “license to burn, rape and pillage.”

Put another way: even in religious traditions where a framework for determining “right” from “wrong” is made explicit, people still sin. Literally all the time. Hell, the Catholic Church I was raised in pretty much institutionalized the protection of child rapists. That fact doesn’t invalidate Catholic religious doctrine by any means. All religious institutions are flawed and corrupt to one degree or another, precisely because they are run by fallible humans. But it goes to show that a clear framework for moral behavior isn’t The Answer. To my eye, it’s not even half The Answer.

I conclude with a Zen story that addresses these “substance versus form” issues related to morality and moral action. It is one of my favorites.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”