Good management teams are first and foremost good storytellers. They’re shapers of reality. I don’t care whether you’re Warren Buffett, Elon Musk or Reed Hastings. If you are the Big Guy (or Big Gal) most of your job is storytelling. You spend most of your time telling stories to your stakeholders. Employees. Customers. Investors.
What’s truly amazing about Reed Hastings’s ability as a CEO/storyteller is how he’s managed to make Netflix’s free cash flow burn irrelevant. Here’s a screenshot directly from the company website:
This is a company burning billions in cash a year, that is utterly dependent on the amity and goodwill of the capital markets (specifically, the high yield debt market) to support its continued existence.
And no one cares.
The reason no one cares is Reed Hastings is a great CEO/storyteller. He’s convinced the market it’s subscriber growth and not free cash flow that matters.
Well, yesterday NFLX (badly) missed expectations for subscriber growth. The result?
Live by the sword, die by the sword, as the saying goes. This is the kind of reaction you get when you train the market on a certain narrative, and then that narrative is called into question. The market freaks out.
This is something short sellers understand deeply and intuitively. If you are a short seller who doesn’t understand this deeply and intuitively, you’re not going to last very long.
A short needs to understand the narrative driving a stock. The time to short a stock is when the narrative breaks. When a narrative breaks, investors start casting around, looking for a new narrative. If the CEO can’t get control of the narrative again, they might start to fixate on things like profitability and cash flows and leverage.
Of course, a good management team will have a new narrative ready to go to replace the old one. In NFLX’s case, they are talking about the limitations of their internal forecasting methods. Short selling is a hard life.
I literally have no opinion on NFLX’s subscriber growth numbers. But I do understand the narrative around them, and the purpose it serves.
Once you start looking for this stuff, you see it everywhere. Tesla is the best example, but it’s a more controversial stock than NFLX. The reason Elon Musk is coming apart at the seams is he’s losing control of TSLA’s narrative. That’s bad for TSLA, which is going to have to pay down or refi about $7 billion worth of debt in the next couple of years.
For these large cap cash incinerators, narrative is a matter of life and death.
The world is a complicated place. A good way of attacking that complexity is to view the world as a nested series of games and meta-games.
Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory wrote an excellent post about meta-games in financial markets a while back, specifically in the context of financial innovation. While I’m going to take a slightly different angle here, his illustration of how a meta-game works is useful as a jumping off point.
It involves the coyotes that “skirmish” with the residents of his town:
What’s the meta-game? It’s the game of games. It’s the larger social game where this little game of aggression and dominance with my wife played out. The meta-game for coyotes is how to stay alive in pockets of dense woods while surrounded by increasingly domesticated humans who are increasingly fearful of anything and everything that is actually untamed and natural. A strategy of Skirmish and scheming feints and counter-feints is something that coyotes are really good at. They will “win” every time they play this individual mini-game with domesticated dogs and domesticated humans shaking coffee cans half-filled with coins. But it is a suicidal strategy for the meta-game. As in literally suicidal. As in you will be killed by the animal control officer who HATES the idea of taking you out but is REQUIRED to do it because there’s an angry posse of families who just moved into town from the city and are AGHAST at the notion that they share these woods with creatures that actually have fangs and claws.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to write about four interrelated layers of “games” that influence financial markets. Imagine we are looking at a set of Russian nesting dolls, like the ones in the image at top, and we are working from the innermost layer out. Each successive layer is more expansive and subsumes all the preceding layers.
The layers/ games are:
1. The Security Selection Game
2. The Asset Allocation Game
3. The Economic Policy Game
4. The Socio-Political Power Game
Each of these games is connected to the others through various linkages and feedback loops.
This is the most straightforward, and, in many ways, the most banal of the games we play involving financial markets. It’s the game stock pickers play, and really the game anyone who is buying and selling assets based on price fluctuations or deviations from estimates of intrinsic value is playing. This is ultimately just an exercise in buying low and selling high, though you can dress it up any way you like.
While it often looks a lot like speculation and gambling, there is a real purpose to all this: price discovery and liquidity provision. The Security Selection Game greases the wheels of the market machine. However, it’s the least consequential of the games we will discuss in this post.
Asset Allocation is the game individuals, institutions and their financial advisors play as they endeavor to preserve and grow wealth over time. People often confuse the Security Selection Game with the Asset Allocation Game. Index funds and ETFs haven’t helped this confusion, since they are more or less securitizations of broad asset classes.
At its core, the Asset Allocation Game is about matching assets and liabilities. This is true whether you are an individual investor or a pension plan or an endowment. Personally, I think individual investors would be better served if they were taught to understand how saving and investing converts their human capital to financial capital, and how financial capital is then allocated to fund future liabilities (retirement, charitable bequests, etc). Unfortunately, no one has the patience for this.
The Asset Allocation Game is incredibly influential because it drives relative valuations across asset classes. As in Ben Hunt’s coyote example, you can simultaneously win at Security Selection and lose at Asset Allocation. For example, you can be overly concentrated in the “best” stock in a sector that crashes, blowing up the asset side of your balance sheet and leaving you with a large underfunded liability.
I sometimes meet people who claim they don’t think about asset allocation at all. They just pick stocks or invest in a couple of private businesses or rental properties or whatever. To which I say: show me a portfolio, or a breakout of your net worth, and I’ll show you an asset allocation.
Like it or not, we’re all playing the Asset Allocation Game.
The Economic Policy Game is played by politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and anyone else with sociopolitical power. The goal of the Economic Policy Game is to engineer what they deem to be favorable economic outcomes. Importantly, these may or may not be “optimal” outcomes for a society as a whole.
If you are lucky, the people in power will do their best to think about optimal outcomes for society as a whole. Plenty of people would disagree with me, but I think generally the United States has been run this way. If you are unlucky, however, you’ll get people in power who are preoccupied with unproductive (yet lucrative) pursuits like looting the economy (see China, Russia, Venezuela).
The Economic Policy Game shapes the starting conditions for the Asset Allocation Game. For example, if central banks hold short-term interest rates near or below zero, that impacts everyone’s risk preferences. What we saw all over the world post-financial crisis was a “reach for yield.” Everyone with liabilities to fund had to invest in progressively riskier assets to earn any kind of return. Cash moved to corporate bonds; corporate bonds moved to high yield; high yield moved to public equity; public equity moved to private equity and venture capital. Turtles all the way down.
A more extreme example would be a country like Zimbabwe. Under Robert Mugabe the folks playing the Economic Policy Game triggered hyperinflation. In a highly inflationary environment, Asset Allocators favor real assets (preferably ones difficult for the state to confiscate). Think gold, Bitcoins and hard commodities.
This is no different than Darwin’s finches evolving in response to their environment.
Do you suppose massive, cash-incinerating companies like Uber and Tesla can somehow exist independent of their environment? No. In fact, they are products of their environment. Where would Tesla and Uber be without all kinds of long duration capital sloshing around in the retirement accounts and pension funds and sovereign wealth funds and Softbank Vision Funds of the world, desperate to eke out a couple hundred basis points of alpha?
Insolvent is where Uber and Tesla would be.
In general, western Economic Policy players want to promote asset price inflation while limiting other forms of inflation. There are both good and selfish reasons for this. The best and simultaneously most selfish reason is that, to a point, these conditions support social, political and economic stability.
However, the compound interest math also means this strategy favors capital over labor. This can create friction in society over real or perceived inequality (it doesn’t really matter which–perception is reality in the end). We’re seeing this now with the rise of populism in the developed world.
The Sociopolitical Power Game
Only the winners of the Sociopolitical Power Game get to play the Economic Policy Game. In that sense it is the most important game of all. If you are American, and naïve, you might think this is about winning elections. Sure, that is part of the game. But it’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Winning this game is really hinges on creating and controlling the narratives that shape individuals’ opinions and identities. If you are lucky as a society, the winners will create narratives that resemble empirical reality, which will lead to “progress.” But narratives aren’t required to even faintly resemble reality to be effective (it took me a long time to understand and come to grips with this).
You could not find a more perfect example of this than President Donald Trump. People who insist on “fact checking” him entirely miss the point. Donald Trump and his political base are impervious to facts, precisely because Trump is a master of creating and controlling narratives.
Ben Hunt, who writes extensively about narrative on Epsilon Theory, calls this “controlling his cartoon.” As long as there are people who find Trump’s narratives attractive, he will have their support. Facts are irrelevant. They bought the cartoon. (“I just like him,” people say)
It’s the same with Anti-Vaxxers. Scientific evidence doesn’t mean a thing to Anti-Vaxxers. If they cared even the slightest bit about scientific evidence, they wouldn’t exist in the first place!
I’m picking on Trump here because he is a particularly prominent example. The same can be said of any politician or influential figure. Barack Obama. Angela Merkel. JFK. MLK. I think MLK in particular is one of the more underrated strategists of the modern era.
Here is Sean McElwee, creator of #AbolishICE, commenting to the FT on effectively crafting and propagating narratives:
“You make maximalist demands that are rooted in a clear moral vision and you continue to make those demands until those demands are met,” said Mr McElwee. “This is an issue where activists have done a very good job of moving the discussion of what has to be done on immigration to the left very quickly.”
If you want to get very good at the Sociopolitical Power Game, you have to be willing to manipulate others at the expense of the Truth. It comes with the territory. Very often the Truth is not politically expedient, because our world is full of unpleasant tradeoffs, and people would prefer not to think about them.
I have been picking on the left a lot lately so I’ll pick on free market fundamentalists here instead. In general it is not a good idea to highlight certain features of the capitalist system to the voting public. Creative destruction, for example. In Truth, creative destruction is vital to economic growth. It ensures capital and labor are reallocated from dying enterprises to flourishing enterprises. Creative destruction performs the same function wildfires perform in nature. Good luck explaining that to the voters whose changing industries and obsolete jobs have been destroyed.
Because of all this, many people who are very good at the Sociopolitical Power Game are not actually “the face” of political movements. These are political operatives like Roger Stone and Lee Atwater, and they are more influential than you might think.
The Most Important Thing
There is a popular movement these days to get back to Enlightenment principles and the pursuit of philosophical Truth. I’m sympathetic to that movement. But I’m not sure it really helps you understand the world as it is.
In the world as it is, people don’t make decisions based on Truth with a capital T. In general, people make decisions based on: 1) how they self-identify; and 2) what will benefit them personally. Rationalization takes care of the rest.
When have you heard an unemployed manufacturing worker say, “yeah, it’s a bummer to be out of a job but in the long run the aggregate gains from trade will outweigh losses like my job”?
In the world as it is, people operate much more like players on competing “teams.” They want their team (a.k.a tribe) to win. They are not particularly concerned with reaching stable equilibria across a number of games.
And that tribal competition game is probably the most important meta-game of all.
This is a pretty amazing image, courtesy of J.P. Morgan Asset Management:
People are really starting to worry the Fed is going to invert the curve. Historically, an inverted curve (short rates above long rates) has been a pretty good recession indicator. I don’t have a particularly strong opinion about the direction of interest rates, especially now that we are above 2% on the 2-Year. But I do think this chart is telling us something.
If the curve is basically flat from 7 years on out to 30 years, that is not exactly a ringing endorsement of long-term growth and inflation prospects. I’ve heard from some fixed income people that it’s demand for long-dated paper from overseas buyers holding the 30-year yield down. I’ll buy that. But it’s still telling us something about supply and demand for capital along various time horizons.
Namely: we’ve got an awful lot of long duration capital out there looking for a home, and not enough opportunities to absorb it all.
Below are my latest factor return charts. I update these on quarterly intervals but the underlying data, from Ken French’s Data Library, lags by a month.
Not much to write home about this quarter. The divergence over the past few years between the Momentum and Market factors and the remaining, more value-oriented factors (Value (Price/Book), Operating Profitability, Conservative Investment) remains striking.
The Size factor has also performed well year-to-date. May was a particularly good month for Size (+4.78%) and Momentum (+4.02%). In traditional “style box” terms, this corresponds to small cap growth stocks.
I’m interested in your thoughts on how you would look at [macroeconomic] fundamentals [for international investing]. Presumably that would involve (among other things) looking at the top industries that drive the national economies?
This question inspired me. Now, I am not a “macro guy” and I am definitely not an academic. I am mostly concerned with understanding the handful of key drivers that might impact a given investment. So if you are a pedant you can quit reading now. You’re not going to find anything to like about this.
Have all the pedants left now?
Great. Before we get in to economic fundamentals it’s worth specifying the high level variables that shape every investment environment:
Economic growth prospects & fundamentals
Rule of law / protection of property rights
The ideal investing environment is one with strong economic fundamentals; where the rule of law is upheld; and where cheap valuations are cheap. The stars will almost never align in this way, if for no other reason that if the first two variables are looking good, you are going to have to pay up for assets. But that’s the dream, anyway.
This post will focus on the first bullet: economic growth prospects and fundamentals.
The Most Important Things
Before we go any further, I need to emphasize that investing is not as simple as saying: “oh GDP growth looks good so it’s a good time to invest.” In fact, there is essentially zero correlation between GDP growth and stock market performance. What macro analysis helps you do is assess the drivers and risks associated with an economy. When you consider those drivers and risks in relation to valuations, you can use them to help formulate and/or evaluate various investment cases.
Seth Klarman said it best: every asset is a buy at one price, a hold at another price, and a sell at another.
Note that all of this is addressed toward folks who are thinking of investing with a fundamental view over a multi-year time horizon. If you are trying to swing trade currencies you will need to look at the world very differently. (And good luck with that, by the way)
Some of you might say, “well I will be a contrarian and just push money into bombed out economies where stocks trade on single-digit PEs and mean reversion will do the heavy lifting.” That’s all well and good. But if you really think this way I would expect to see a not-insignificant exposure to places like Russia, Brazil and Turkey in your portfolio today.
Otherwise quit kidding yourself. You are a phony.
Why Macro Matters
I talk to a lot of investors who say “we’re bottom-up stock pickers” as if the macroeconomic environment somehow has no impact on their portfolios. I am not sure if these people are genuinely delusional or if this is just something they are used to putting in their pitch decks and have come to recite by rote without thinking.
If you genuinely believe this I think you are reckless at best and a complete idiot at worst. Of course the macroeconomic environment matters. At the very least it shapes the opportunity set.
We also do people a huge disservice by teaching them economics as if it’s physics. Not only is it obnoxiously intimidating but it lends economics a false sense of precision. I believe we should really teach economics using an ecological framework. Macro fundamentals define our economic habitat. There is often a feedback loop between macro fundamentals and investor behavior. If you can develop actionable insights into that feedback loop, you can make a lot of money.
So what we’re really doing with macro analysis is trying to understand our habitat. Thinking about it this way de-emphasizes making point estimates of future economic growth, which are notoriously inaccurate.
Is the labor force becoming more or less productive?
How educated and innovative is the labor force?
“Biodiversity” (How Diversified Is The Economy?)
Is economic activity highly concentrated in particular industries? If so, what are their characteristics?
Is there a diverse array of financial market participants providing ample liquidity? Or are markets fragmented and illiquid?
“Energy & Nutrients” (How Is The Economy Financed?)
What does national income look like?
Is there a current account deficit? If so, is the country heavily dependent on external debt?
Where is the economy in the credit cycle?
More Energy & Nutrients
I want to spend a little more time on “Energy & Nutrients” as this is where many of the traditional textbook macro concepts come into play. More importantly, when this area of the ecosystem gets squirrelly, really nasty outcomes tend to result. Financial crises and deep depressions and hyperinflations and such.
Let’s start with the classic GDP identity:
GDP = Government Spending + Consumer Spending + Investments + (Exports – Imports)
More commonly written as:
GDP (or Y) = G + C + I + (X-M)
Most of this is pretty self-explanatory, but the X – M term bears further scrutiny. This term is also called the “current account.” If it is positive you are net exporter (trade surplus) and if it is negative you are a net importer (trade deficit). Negative current account balances must be financed somehow. Countries do this either by selling claims on their assets to foreigners or by drawing down foreign currency reserves.
You can decompose and rearrange this identity in various ways. I’m not going to spend a bunch of time doing that here. You can find plenty of resources online. For now just trust me when I say the current account is equal to the difference between investment and domestic savings.
This is a critical concept because there are three and exactly three ways to finance private investment (a.k.a economic growth): 1) out of consumer savings, 2) with a current account (trade) surplus, 3) debt and equity issuance.
There is a school of thought among certain individuals that trade deficits are always and everywhere evil. That issue lies well beyond the scope of this post. What’s more relevant is the potential for dangerous imbalances to build up inside economies dependent on external financing. Dangerous imbalances are the stuff of financial crises, political revolutions and sovereign defaults.
The Example of Egypt
The Egyptian economy is a disaster.
For much of the recent past Egypt was dependent on direct foreign investment and tourism for foreign currency to fund its current account deficit (Egypt imports significant quantities of food and fuel). These sources of financing dried up following the country’s 2010 revolution and ensuing political turmoil, draining foreign currency reserves, driving up government debt levels and ultimately forcing a devaluation of the Egyptian pound (which is pegged to the dollar in a futile valiant effort to maintain price stability).
Essentially, the Egyptian government printed money to finance economic activity. Naturally, this resulted in a dramatic spike in inflation.
Needless to say this is a fragile ecosystem (spoiler: most developing economies are). That doesn’t mean all Egyptian securities are automatically bad investments. However, it has direct implications for the kind of margin of safety you should demand when considering an investment.
I picked the Egypt example above because of the currency component. Currency is an important wrinkle in international investing. There are lots of different approaches to currency valuation but longer term investors should mostly be focus on the idea of purchasing power parity. All else equal, a basket of goods in Country A should cost the same as an identical basket of goods in Country B.
In the real world all else is not equal. Namely: inflation. So if inflation is 2% in Country A and 10% in Country B, we would expect Country B’s currency to depreciate by 8% relative to Country A.
Purchasing power parity tends to hold up pretty well over long time horizons. In the short term, however, divergences can be significant. For our purposes the important thing to recognize is that a country’s national income and balance of payments have a direct impact on the inflation rate. Inflation differentials are important variables to consider when making international investments, because they influence the currency component of the investment return, which can be significant.
I have to give Research Affiliates some serious props for their online interactive (and, yes, free tools). I mentioned the asset allocation tool in a post from earlier this week. If you didn’t check out the tool then, you really should.
I did not realize until this morning that Research Affiliates also has a similar tool for factors, called Smart Beta Interactive. This allows you to slice and dice factor strategies and also the underlying factors themselves. I highly recommend checking this one out out, too.
Anyway, this post isn’t meant to be a Research Affiliates commercial. Instead, this is going to be a post on reflexivity. Behold, factor valuations for the US market:
Regarding their methodology, Research Affiliates states:
Just like stocks, bonds, sectors, countries, or any other financial instrument, equity factors and the strategies based on them can become cheap or expensive. We measure relative valuations of the long vs. short sides to estimate how cheap or expensive a factor is. We find that when relative valuation is low compared to its own history, that factor is positioned to outperform. When valuation is high it is likely to disappoint.
This is reflexivity in action. Briefly, reflexivity is a concept popularized by George Soros. The idea is that by taking advantage of perceived opportunities in the markets, we change the nature of the opportunities. Howard Marks likens this to a golf course where the terrain changes in response to each shot.
Here’s how this happens in practice:
Step 1: Someone figures out something that generates excess returns. That person makes money hand over fist.
Step 2: Other people either figure the “something” out on their own or they copy the person who is making money hand over fist.
Step 3: As people pile into the trade, the “something” becomes more and more expensive.
Step 4: The “something” becomes fairly valued.
Step 5: The “something” becomes overvalued.
Step 6: People realize the “something” has gotten so expensive it cannot possibly generate a reasonable return in the future. If prices have gotten really out of hand (and particularly if leverage is involved) there will be a crash. Otherwise future returns may simply settle down to “meh” levels.
Step 7: As the “something” shows weaker and weaker performance, it gets cheaper and cheaper, until some contrarian sees a high enough expected return and starts buying. The cycle then repeats. Obviously these cycles vary dramatically in their magnitude and length.
I do not consider myself a quant by any means, but I think the two most important things for quants to understand are: 1) why a factor or strategy should work in the first place, and be able to explain it in terms of basic economic or behavioral principles; 2) reflexivity.
Many people believe AI is going to push humans out of the financial markets. There is some truth in this. Big mutual fund companies that have built businesses on the old “style box” approach to portfolio construction are in trouble. The quants can build similar funds with more targeted exposures, in a more tax efficient ETF wrapper, and with lower expenses.
What I think people underweight is the impact of reflexivity. If the AIs aren’t trained to understand reflexivity, they will cause some nasty losses at some point. Personally, I think there will be an AI-driven financial crisis some day, and that it will have its roots in AI herding behavior. We are probably a ways away from that. But technology moves pretty fast. So maybe it will come sooner than I think.
Anyway, back to factor valuations.
What stands out to me is Momentum and Illiquidity at the upper ends of their historical valuation ranges. On the Momentum side this is stuff like FANG or FAANMG or whatever the acronym happens to be this week. On the Illiquidity side it’s private equity and venture capital. If you have read past posts of mine you know I believe most private equity investors these days are lambs headed to slaughter.
There tends to be a lot of antipathy between quant and fundamental people. Even (perhaps especially) if they are co-workers. The fundamental people are afraid of the quants. Partly because they are afraid of the math (a less valid fear), and partly because they see the quants as a threat (a more valid fear). Quants, meanwhile, tend to believe the fundamental people are just winging it.
In reality I think this is more an issue of language barrier and professional rivalry than true disagreement over how markets work or what is happening in the markets at a given point in time. In my experience, the best fundamental investors employ quant-like pattern recognition in filtering and processing ideas. Many quants, meanwhile, are using the same variables the fundamental people look at to build their models.
Personally, I think anyone who wants to survive in the investment profession over the next twenty years is going to have to be something of a cyborg.
Though, come to think of it, that probably applies to every industry.
From The McKinsey Global Private Markets Review 2018 (subtitle: “The rise and rise of private markets”):
Your eyes do not deceive you. That is literally a rocket ship with stabilizer fins made of dollar bills, blasting off into the stratosphere. I like to imagine it’s headed off to join the crypto people and their lambos on the moon.
A few highlights from the introduction:
“Private asset managers raised a record sum of nearly $750 billion globally, extending the cycle that began eight years ago.”
“Within this tide of capital, one trend stands out: the surge of megafunds (of more than $5 billion), especially in the United States, and particularly in buyouts.”
“What was interesting in 2017, however, was how an already powerful trend accelerated, with raises for all buyout megafunds up over 90 percent year on year.”
“Investors’ motives for allocating to private markets remain the same, more or less: the potential for alpha, and for consistency at scale.”
This is what you see when an asset class gets frothy. And private equity is an asset class I have had my eye on for a while now. As I have written before, and as McKinsey says somewhat obliquely in their report, institutional investors have come to view private equity as a magical asset class.
We have seen this movie before. It happened with hedge funds in the early 2000s (spoiler alert: it ends with capital flooding into the space and diminished future returns). There are no magical assets. People ought to know better by now. I guess the allure is too powerful. Particularly for return-starved pension systems.
Anyway, when this thing turns there are going to be knock-on effects in a couple of other areas: namely high yield debt and leveraged loans. The gears of the private equity machine are greased with high yield debt. These days there is a strong bid for crappy paper. Especially crappy paper with floating rates.
The yield on the S&P/LSTA US Leveraged Loan 100 Index is something like 5%. Meanwhile, 2-year Treasuries yield 2.5%. And loan covenants suck, which means when defaults inevitably tick up recoveries are going to suck. Buyers are so fixated on interest rate risk they’re overlooking the credit component. You can keep your 250 bps of spread, thanks. Doesn’t seem like a great risk/reward proposition to me.
If I were a big institution, I would be swimming damn hard upstream against consensus on private equity.
If I were a financial advisor, I would steer clear of floating rate paper, rather than reach for a bit of yield so I can tell my clients they’re insulated from interest rate risk.
If I were a distressed debt investor I would make damn sure I had access to liquidity for when these deals start to explode (indeed, many distressed funds are out seeking commitments for exactly this purpose).
The institutional investors will screw it up, because they’re organizationally incapable of swimming upstream. Most of the financial advisors will screw it up, too, because they don’t really understand what they own in a bank loan fund and they tend to fixate on past performance data, which isn’t as relevant to the current environment. The distressed debt guys and gals will make a bunch of money for a few years picking through the shattered ruins of these deals. That, I admit, warms my heart. The distressed folks have had a rough go of it lately.
This whole dynamic is a great example of how investor psychology drives market cycles. To play off that tired old hockey analogy: investors don’t skate to where the puck is going, they skate toward the player who last handled the puck.
Here the puck is going to stressed/distressed debt.