Are Structured Products Trash?

oscar_the_grouch

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.

Mental Model: Market Regimes

Markets and economies go through cycles. We’re used to hearing about bull markets and bear markets. We’re used to hearing about economic booms and recessions. But we don’t talk quite as much about market regimes.

A regime is a particular iteration of a particular phase (or phases) of a market cycle. Understanding regimes is important because markets are adaptive systems. Investors respond dynamically to changes in the economic environment, since changes in the economic environment influence their preferences for different cash flow profiles. As I wrote here, these changing preferences are key drivers for asset prices.

What characteristics define a regime? Things like:

  • Economic growth
  • Inflation
  • Interest rates (cost of capital)
  • Credit expansion/contraction
  • Market volatility

Every market regime is a bit different, but regimes tend to influence investor behavior in relatively predictable ways (partly the intuition behind the old saw: “history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes”). In a deflationary regime, investors sell stocks and buy long-dated Treasury bonds. In an an inflationary regime, investors sell long-dated bonds, while bidding up real assets. In a growth regime, investors will bid up stocks at the expense of long-dated bonds.

Of course, this is a massive oversimplification. Identifying and profiting from market regimes is no easy feat. That’s the goal of the top-down global macro investor, and it’s an extraordinarily complex and difficult task.

So what do us mere mortals take away from this?

We want to ensure our financial plans and investment portfolios remain robust to different market regimes. This doesn’t mean we have to become market timers or macro forecasters. It means we should be thoughtful about the bets we’re embedding in our portfolios.

Unintended Bets

Today, the consensus view is that we’re in a “lower for longer” regime. Low growth. Low inflation. Low interest rates. There are big secular drivers behind this. In developed countries, older populations need to save a lot of money to fund future liabilities. Lots of investment capital in need of a home pushes down the cost of capital. Technological advances have kept a lid on inflation in many areas of daily life.

If the regime is “lower for longer,” what you want to bet on is duration.

We can define duration in different ways. Usually we’re talking bond math. In this context, duration is the sensitivity of a bond’s price to changes in interest rates. The longer a bond’s future cash flows extend out into the future, the higher its duration. The higher the duration, the more sensitive the bond will be to changes in interest rates. The archetypical high duration asset is the zero coupon bond.

If the market regime is “lower for longer,” you have an incentive to bet on large cash flows further out into the future. Low rates and low growth mean the opportunity cost for making these bets is also low.

Duration isn’t just a bond thing. Every asset with cash flows also has duration. It’s just harder to quantify for equities and real estate because of the other variables influencing their cash flow profiles.

Your venture capital investments? They’re a duration bet.

Your small cap biotechs? They’re a duration bet.

Your cash burning large cap growth equities? They’re a duration bet.

All these things are attractive in a “lower for longer” world because they offer Growth! But they’re also sensitive to the cost of capital. In a world of cheap capital, it’s easy to convince investors to subsidize losses for the sake of Growth! If and when the regime changes, that may no longer be the case.

As much as we hate to admit it, our portfolios are products of our environment. It’s what people are talking about when they say “don’t fight the market” and “don’t fight the Fed.” They might as well be saying, “don’t fight the market regime.”

As I’ve written many times before, I’m not a fan of “all-in,” “all-out” calls. That doesn’t just go for market timing. It goes for all the unintended bets that seep into our portfolios over time.

Especially those driven by market regimes.

Wunderwaffen

One theme I harp on relentlessly is that there’s no such thing as a magical investment strategy. By “magical strategy” I mean some asset class or system that’s inherently superior to all others. Hedge funds were once sold this way, and we’ve spent the last 10 years or so watching the ridiculous mythology built up around hedge funds die a slow and miserable death.

The unpleasant truth is that all investment strategies involve tradeoffs. In this way, investment strategies are a bit like weapons systems.

Tank design, for example, must balance three fundamental factors:

  • Firepower
  • Protection
  • Mobility

This is a Tiger tank:

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-299-1805-16,_Nordfrankreich,_Panzer_VI_(Tiger_I).2
Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikipedia

You might recognize it from any number of WWII movies and video games. The Tiger is often presented as a kind of superweapon (German: Wunderwaffe)–an awe inspiring feat of German engineering. In many respects, the Tiger was indeed a fearsome weapons system. Its heavy frontal armor rendered it nearly invulnerable to threats approaching head-on. Its gun could knock out an American M4 at distance of over a mile, and a Soviet T-34 at a little under a mile.

The Tiger had its weaknesses, however, and they were almost laughably mundane. It was over-engineered, expensive to produce and difficult to recover when damaged. Early models in particular struggled mightily with reliability. The Tiger was also a gas guzzler–problematic for a German panzer corps chronically short on fuel.

Viewed holistically, the Tiger was hardly a magical weapon. The balance of its strengths and weaknesses favored localized, defensive operations. Not the worst thing in the world for an army largely on the defensive when the Tiger arrived on the battlefield. But it was hardly going to alter the strategic calculus for Germany. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that German industry should have abandoned Tiger production to concentrate on churning out Panzer IV tanks and StuG III assault guns. (Thankfully, for all our sakes, it did not)

Likewise with investment strategies, the tradeoffs between certain fundamental factors must be weighed in determining which strategies to pursue:

  • Alpha Generation
  • Liquidity
  • Capacity

Alpha generation is typically inversely related to liquidity and capacity. The more liquid and higher capacity a strategy, the less likely it is to consistently deliver significant alpha. Smaller, less liquid strategies may be able to generate more alpha, but can’t support large asset bases. Investment allocations, like military doctrine, should be designed to suit the resources and capabilities at hand.

If I’m allocating capital, one of the first things I should do is evaluate my strategy in the context of these three factors.

First, do I even need to pursue alpha?

If so, am I willing and able to accept the liquidity constraints that may be necessary to generate that alpha?

If so, does my strategy for capturing alpha have enough capacity for an allocation to meaningfully impact my overall portfolio?

In many cases, the answer to all three of those questions should be a resounding “no.”

And that’s okay! Not everyone should be concerned with capturing alpha. For many of us, simply harvesting beta(s) through liquid, high-capacity strategies should get the job done over time. Identifying strategies and investment organizations capable of sustainable alpha generation ex ante is extremely difficult. And even if we can correctly identify those strategies and investment organizations, we must have enough faith to stick with them through the inevitable rough patches. These are not trivial challenges.

But even more importantly, in a diversified portfolio it’s unlikely you’ll deploy a single strategy so powerful and reliable, and in such size, that it completely alters your strategic calculus. In general, we ought to spend more time reflecting on the strategic tradeoffs facing our portfolios, and less time scouring the earth for Wunderwaffen.

Mad Scientist Futurists

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke.

In my line of work, I sit in a lot of meetings. I listen to a lot of conference calls. I attend a lot of conferences. Many of these are thinly disguised sales presentations. Sure, we don’t call them sales presentations. We call them “continuing education” or “maintenance due diligence” or “onsite manager visits.”

You sit through enough of these meetings and you begin to recognize different archetypes.

There’s The Brilliant Introvert.

The Streetwise Deal Guy.

The Mad Scientist Futurist.

That last fellow is most often encountered in group settings. Particularly conferences. I’d venture to say the industry conference is the Mad Scientist Futurist’s natural habitat.

Now, the guy doesn’t necessarily predict the future. He might merely describe a possible future. These days, for example, the future seems to involve a lot of e-sports and e-commerce and machine learning. A few years ago it was drones and 3D printers as far as the eye could see.

The Mad Scientist Futurist spends a lot of time on his description of the future. And it’s not just him up there talking, mind you. He’s got sales collateral. He’s got data and charts and renderings. He does Science!, remember? After about fifty slides of this, it all takes on a certain aura of inevitability.

And then, finally, once he’s painted a sufficiently fantastical image of the future, the Mad Scientist Futurist tells you what the future means.

He tells you what it means for society. He tells you what it means for the economy. He tells you what it means for your portfolio.

The Mad Scientist Futurist is a modern incarnation of the wizard! meme. We seem hardwired to respond to wizards as symbols, both in stories and in life. Merlin is a wizard. Faust is a wizard. Elon Musk and Satoshi Nakamoto are wizards.

We have an innate weakness for wizards and Mad Scientist Futurists precisely because we’re hungry for meaning and Narrative. When we see magic advanced technology in action, our tiny minds can scarcely comprehend the implications. We want someone to walk us through them. We need someone to walk us through them.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But it can be dangerous.

Because memes and archetypes are so powerful, they’re easily weaponized to sell us stuff. The Mad Scientist Futurist is typically deployed to sell what the style box classifies as “growth” investments–expensive tech stocks and venture capital and such.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with owning expensive tech stocks and venture capital and the like. But you should own it because you’ve made a conscious decision about the role it plays in your portfolio–not because a Mad Scientist Futurist cast a Buy! spell on you.

Mental Model: Value vs. Momentum

We’ve discussed at length how asset prices are driven by changes in investor preferences for different cash flow profiles. I’ve explored this both here and here. In this post, I suggest those preferences are grounded in two psychological profiles: mean reversion (value) and trend (momentum).

The psychology of mean reversion assumes all things revert toward long-run averages over time. Today’s winners will win a little less. Today’s losers will win a little more.

The psychology of trend assumes winners keep on winning, and losers keep on losing.

The more time I spend with investors and savers of varying sophistication levels, the more I believe people are hardwired for one or the other.

Personally, I’m hardwired for mean reversion. It’s extremely difficult for me to extrapolate strong growth, earnings, or profitability into the future. It’s painful–almost physically painful–for me to own popular stuff that’s consistently making new highs. If I happen to be winning in the markets, it invariably feels too good to be true.

A trend guy is just the opposite. Why own stuff that sucks? he asks. Stick with what’s working. It’ll probably get better over time. If anything, you should be shorting the losers.

A popular misconception about value and momentum guys is that value guys buy “cheap” stuff and momentum guys buy “expensive” stuff. I used to think this way. And I was wrong. For a long time I fixated on the headline valuation multiples of the stuff each personality owned, totally ignorant of what was going on under the hood.

The value guy says:

This security is pricing such-and-such a set of expectations, which reflect the naïve extrapolation of present conditions. This, too, shall pass. When expectations re-rate to properly reflect the characteristics of the underlying cash flow stream, I will exit at a profit.

The momentum guy says:

This security is pricing such-and-such a set of expectations, but those expectations aren’t high/low enough. When expectations re-rate to properly reflect the characteristics of the underlying cash flow stream, I will exit at a profit.

Of course, there’s another guy relevant to this discussion. That’s quant guy. Quant guy steps back and thinks, “gee, maybe all these mean reversion guys’ and trend guys’ psychological dispositions impact security prices in relatively predictable ways.” Quant guy decomposes the mechanics of value and momentum and builds systems for trading them. Quant guy catches a lot of flak at times, but I’ll say this for him: he tends to have a pretty clear-eyed view of how and why a given strategy works.

In closing, I want to suggest all fundamentally-oriented investment strategies, whether systematic or discretionary, are rooted in the psychology of value and momentum. Both have been shown to work over long periods of time. However, they don’t always (often?) work at the same time. Arguably, this inconsistency is directly responsible for their persistence.

Put another way: value and momentum tend to operate in regimes.

And regimes deserve a post all their own.

Mental Model: Investment Return Expectations

(This post assumes you’re familiar with the concepts outlined in the preceding mental model post on how to make money investing)

There are no shortage of people in this world selling promises. Financial advisors sell you promises. Banks sell you promises. If you’re an allocator, asset managers, consultants, third party marketers and cap intro groups all line up to sell you promises, too. Such-and-such returns over such-and-such a time period with such-and-such volatility.

Only rarely are these promises derived through anything resembling deductive logic. They’re almost always based on storytelling and data-mining.

When your financial advisor tells you she can get you 8% (god forbid, 10%) annualized on your US-biased public equity portfolio, what is that number based on? It’s almost always just a historical average. Same with your Fancy Consultant pitching private equity or middle market lending or crypto-cannabis venture capital or whatever other magical strategy happens to be selling well at the moment.

He who builds on historical averages, builds on sand.

There’s no natural law requiring US equities to return somewhere between 8% and 10% on average over 20-year rolling periods. Same with your private equity and middle market lending and crypto-cannabis venture funds. As with everything, you should build up your return expectations from first principles.

For bonds, your expected nominal return* over the bond’s tenor is equal to the starting yield.**

For stocks, your expected nominal return is equal to the starting dividend yield, plus expected growth in earnings, plus any change in valuation (price).

For the remainder of this post, we’ll focus on stock returns.

Remember the two ways to make money investing? You’ve got cash distributions and changes in investor preferences. Dividend yields and expected growth in earnings are the fundamentals of your cash distributions. Multiple expansion, as we’ve noted before, is always and everywhere a function of changes in investor preferences for different cash flow profiles.

Where people get themselves into trouble investing is extrapolating too much multiple expansion too far into the future. When you do this, you’re implicitly assuming people will pay more and more and more for a given cash flow stream over time. This kind of naive extrapolation is the foundation of all investment bubbles and manias.

If you want to be as conservative as possible when underwriting an investment strategy, you should exclude multiple expansion from the calculation all together. This is prudent but a bit draconian, even for a curmudgeon like me. I prefer a mean reversion methodology. If assets are especially cheap relative to historical averages, we can move them back up toward the average over a period of, say, 10 years. If assets are especially expensive relative to historical averages, we can do the reverse.***

Below are a couple of stylized examples to illustrate just how impactful changes in valuation can be for realized returns. Each assumes an investment is purchased for an initial price of $500, with starting cash flow of $25, equivalent to a 5% annual yield. Cash flows are assumed to grow at 5% per year, and the investment is assumed sold at the end of Year 5. Only the multiple received at exit changes.

In the Base Case, you simply get your money back at exit.

In the Upside Case, you get 2x your money back at exit.

In the Downside Case, you only get 0.25x your money back at exit.

Despite the exact same cash flow profile, your compound annual return ranges from -12% to 17.9%. I hope this conveys how important your entry price is when you invest. Because price matters. It matters a lot. At the extremes, it’s all that matters.

BASE
Base Case: Constant Multiple
UPSIDE
Upside Case: 2x Exit Multiple
DOWNSIDE
Downside Case: 0.25x Exit Multiple

If you’d like to get more into the weeds on this, Research Affiliates has a fantastic primer on forecasting expected returns. Research Affiliates also offers a free, professional grade interactive asset allocation tool. It covers a wide range of asset classes in both public and private markets.

In the meantime, what I hope you take away from this post is that there are straightforward models you can use to evaluate any investment story you’re being told from a first-principles perspective. Often, you’ll find you’re being sold a bill of goods built on little more than fuzzy logic and a slick looking slide deck.

 

Notes

*Real returns for bonds can vary significantly depending on inflation rates. This is a significant concern for fixed income investors with long investment horizons, but lies beyond the scope of this post. Really, it’s something that needs to be addressed at the level of strategic asset allocation.

**Technically, we need to adjust this with an expected loss rate to account for defaults and recoveries. This doesn’t matter so much for government bonds and investment grade corporate issues, but it’s absolutely critical for high yield investments.

***Why is it okay to use historical averages for valuation multiples while the use of historical averages for return assumptions deserves withering snark? The former is entirely backward looking. The latter at least aspires to be forward looking.

Also, if you can establish return hurdles based on your investment objectives, you can back into the multiple you can afford to pay for a given cash flow stream. That’s a more objective point of comparison. Incidentally, the inputs for that calculation underscore the fact that valuation multiples are behaviorally driven. Mathematically, they’re inversely related to an investor’s return hurdle or assumed discount rate.

Mental Model: How To Make Money Investing

In my line of work, I see a lot of client investment portfolios. Very few of these portfolios are constructed from any kind of first principles-based examination of how financial markets work. Most client portfolios are more a reflection of differences in advisory business models.

If you work with a younger advisor who positions her value add as financial planning, you’ll get a portfolio of index funds or DFA funds.

If you work with an old-school guy (yes, they are mostly guys) who cut his teeth in the glory days of the A-share business, you’ll get an active mutual fund portfolio covering the Morningstar style box.

No matter who you work with, he or she will cherry-pick stats and white papers to “prove” his or her approach to building a fairly vanilla 60/40 equity and fixed income portfolio is superior to the competition down the street.

My goal with this post, and hopefully a series of others, is to help clarify and more thoughtfully consider the assumptions we embed in our investment decisions.

So, how do I make money investing?

There are two and only two ways to get paid when you invest in an asset. Either you take cash distributions or you sell the asset to someone for a higher price than you paid for it.

Thus, at a high level, two factors drive asset prices: 1) the cash distributions that can reasonably be expected to be paid over time, and 2) investors’ relative preferences for different cash flow profiles.

What about gold? you might wonder. Gold has no cash flows. True enough. But in a highly inflationary environment investors might prefer a non-yielding asset with a perceived stable value to risky cash flows with massively diminished purchasing power. In other words, the price of gold is driven entirely by investors’ relative preferences for different cash flow profiles. Same with Bitcoin.

So, where does risk come from?

You lose money investing when cash distributions end up being far less than you expect; when cash distributions are pushed out much further in time than you expect; or when you badly misjudge how investors’ relative preferences for different cash flow profiles will change over time.

That’s it. That’s the ball game. You lose sight of this at your peril.

There are lots of people out there who have a vested interest in taking your eye off the ball. These are the people Rusty and Ben at Epsilon Theory call Missionaries. They include politicians, central bankers and famous investors. For some of them almost all of them, their ability to influence the way you see the world, and yourself, is a source of edge. It allows them to influence your preferences for different cash flow profiles.

Remember your job!

If you’re in the business of analyzing securities, your job is to compare the fundamental characteristics of risky cash flow streams to market prices, and (to the best of your ability) formulate an understanding of the assumptions and preferences embedded in those prices.

If you’re in the business of buying and selling securities, your job is to take your analysts’ assessments of cash flow streams, as well as the expectations embedded in current market prices, and place bets on how those expectations will change over time.

Ultimately, as the archetypical long-only investor, you’re looking for what the late Marty Whitman called a “cash bailout”:

From the point of view of any security holder, that holder is seeking a “cash bailout,” not a “cash flow.” One really cannot understand securities’ values unless one is also aware of the three sources of cash bailouts.

A security (with the minor exception of hybrids such as convertibles) has to represent either a promise by the issuer to pay a holder cash, sooner or later; or ownership. A legally enforceable promise to pay is a credit instrument. Ownership is mostly represented by common stock.

There are three sources from which a security holder can get a cash bailout. The first mostly involves holding performing loans. The second and third mostly involve owners as well as holders of distressed credits. They are:

  • Payments by the company in the form of interest or dividends, repayment of principal (or share repurchases), or payment of a premium. Insofar as TAVF seeks income exclusively, it restricts its investments to corporate AAA’s, or U.S. Treasuries and other U.S. government guaranteed debt issues.
  • Sale to a market. There are myriad markets, not just the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. There are take-over markets, Merger and Acquisition (M&A) markets, Leveraged Buyout (LBO) markets and reorganization of distressed companies markets. Historically, most of TAVF’s exits from investments have been to these other markets, especially LBO, takeover and M&A markets.
  • Control. TAVF is an outside passive minority investor that does not seek control of companies, even though we try to be highly influential in the reorganization process when dealing with the credit instruments of troubled companies. It is likely that a majority of funds involved in value investing are in the hands of control investors such as Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, the various LBO firms and many venture capitalists. Unlike TAVF, many control investors do not need a market out because they obtain cash bailouts, at least in part, from home office charges, tax treaties, salaries, fees and perks.

I am continually amazed by how little appreciation there is by government authorities in both the U.S. and Japan that non-control ownership of securities which do not pay cash dividends is of little or no value to an owner unless that owner obtains opportunities to sell to a market. Indeed, I have been convinced for many years now that Japan will be unable to solve the problem of bad loans held by banks unless a substantial portion of these loans are converted to ownership, and the banks are given opportunities for cash bailouts by sales of these ownership positions to a market.

For you index fund investors snickering in the back row—guess what? You’re also looking for a cash bailout. Only your ownership of real world cash flow streams is abstracted (securitized) into a fund or ETF share. In fact, it’s a second order securitization. It’s a securitization of securitizations.

I’m not “for” or “against” index funds. I’m “for” the intentional use of index funds to access broad market returns (a.k.a “beta”) in a cheap and tax-efficient manner, particularly for small, unsophisticated investors who would rather get on with their lives than read lengthy meditations on the nature of financial markets. I’m “against” the idea that index funds are always and everywhere the superior choice for a portfolio.

Likewise, I’m not “for” or “against” traditional discretionary management. I’m “for” the intentional use of traditional discretionary (or systematic quant) strategies to access specific sources of investment return that can’t be accessed with low cost index funds. I’m “against” the idea that traditional discretionary (or systematic quant) strategies are always and everywhere the superior choice for a portfolio.

What sources of return are better accessed with discretionary or quant strategies?

That’s a subject for another post.

Two Kinds of People

There are two kinds of people in this world. If you drill down deep enough into someone’s psychology you will find she is hardwired psychologically for either momentum or value (a.k.a trend or mean reversion).

Some Characteristics Of Momentum People

Of the two types of people, momentum people are more sociable. They are innate trend followers. For momentum people, it’s always best to stick with what’s working.

Their business and lifestyle decisions reflect this. “Get while the getting’s good,” is what they think during an economic boom. They prefer to “cut losers and let winners run.”

Momentum people are pro-cyclical. They are fun at parties during boom times. It’s easy to be the life of the party when you are making a lot of money.

Some Characteristics Of Value People

Value people by contrast are a pain in the ass. They are often curmudgeonly and unpopular. This is no accident. Value people are innately contrarian. Mean-reversion underlies a value person’s worldview. For a value person, “things are never as good as you hope, or as bad as they seem.”

A value person’s business and lifestyle decisions reflect this. Value people pare risk and accumulate cash during boom times. They take risk and deploy cash during bear markets.

Value people are counter-cyclical. They are never much fun at parties because they’re always out of phase with the crowd.

Which Are You?

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether you are a momentum or value person. You can succeed in life and business either way (well… assuming you don’t over lever yourself).

What matters is that you recognize whether you are wired as a momentum person or a value person, and that you avoid putting yourself in positions that are a fundamental mismatch for your psychology.

For example, I think I would probably make the world’s worst venture capitalist (spoiler alert: I am a value guy). Not because I would lose money but because it would be hard for me to invest in anything in the first place.

The high base rate for failed venture investments would loom large over every decision. The incessant cash burning would haunt my nightmares.

Our World In Meta-Games

Matryoshka_Russian_politicians
Source: Brandt Luke Zorn via Wikipedia

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.

Security Selection

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

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.

Economic Policy

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.

This game 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.

Monopoly Money

I predict we are going to hear a lot more about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in the next few years. I am not particularly happy about it, but I think it is the way the cookie will crumble.

To the extent the hard left wing of the American political spectrum has coherent economic principles they are grounded in MMT. And it is the hard left and right wings of the political spectrum that have the momentum these days.

Here’s the gist of MMT:

Governments that issue their own currencies are not budget constrained. In other words, government spending is not constrained by tax revenues. As long as a government issues its own currency, it can run perpetual budget deficits of any size. A sovereign currency issuer can’t go bankrupt. The MMT people are actually right about this, and in my view this is what lends MMT a superficial degree of credibility. Because the MMT people can point to deficit hawks and say, “The Rich are lying to you!” which is a message that sells.

Since they are not budget constrained, governments can spend whatever is necessary to ensure maximum employment and an arbitrarily high standard of living for the population. To the extent tax revenues fall short of the required spending, the government will simply run a deficit. Under MMT, you really can have your cake and eat it. The government need only decide everyone is entitled to as many cakes as he wants. In fact, the only reason we don’t have MMT today is nasty, greedy Elites perpetuate the myth of balanced budgets the keep the huddled mass of The 99% in check. That’s the MMT view, anyway.

Sure, you can get down into the weeds on any number of operational details. But the above is all you really need to know to get to grips with MMT.

Why MMT Is A Bad Idea

The MMT people are absolutely correct that a sovereign government that issues its own currency cannot go bankrupt. That doesn’t mean MMT “works,” or is a particularly good idea.

Two reasons spring readily to mind:

Even with fiat money, inflation remains a constraint on government spending. A government can spend as much as it wants, as long as someone is willing to hold its liabilities (a government liability is always an asset to someone else). Yes, in theory this amount is still unlimited. The Bank of Japan, for example, has printed an extraordinary amount of money with hardly a whiff of inflation. Ultimately, the amount of money a government can print is limited by its credibility. Fiat money is a faith-based system.

When people lose faith in government liabilities (a.k.a money), they abandon them for stores of value like land, gold, bitcoin, whatever. Hyperinflation results as people try to unload their monopoly money as quickly as possible while it still has some purchasing power. I remember reading stories about Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation in the mid-2000s. Prices would rise so fast people would take the bus to work in the morning but wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket on the way home.

Now, the MMT people will argue the government can use taxation to “mop up” excess liquidity and maintain price stability. Maybe it can. Maybe it can’t. Personally I am skeptical. Regardless…

…MMT would require a massive government apparatus to administer. Let’s call this apparatus Gosplan. Under MMT, Gosplan does the following:

  • Decides on the appropriate standard of living for all citizens
  • Calibrates government spending and money creation to meet that standard of living
  • Allocates labor between the private and public sectors via a job guarantee program
  • Sets tax policy in such a way as to maintain price stability without upsetting the rest of the apple cart

Simple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

I suspect things would ultimately go about as well as they have with every other centrally planned economy in history. (spoiler: not very well)

The Enduring Appeal Of MMT

Sadly, I fear MMT will continue to get traction. It is an easy sell. Under MMT, there needn’t be any scarcity. Gosplan will ensure full employment, price stability and a fantastic standard of living. If you dare to dream, you can make it real. It’s the perfect economic platform for the populist left. If I were a hard left politician, I would be out flogging MMT at every opportunity. “Cake for everyone!” I would tell the euphoric crowds. “One for having and one for eating!”

Like socialism more broadly, MMT appears to offer a convenient “out” from some of the nastiness and brutishness of the human condition. As Will and Ariel Durant wrote in The Lessons of History:

[T]he first biological lesson of history is that life is competition. Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life–peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law.

In theory, MMT is attractive because it eliminates certain economic risks that individuals face, allowing them to live more dignified lives. That’s an admirable goal. But here’s the thing. Risk can never be destroyed. The best you can do is lay it off on someone else. And that’s exactly what MMT would do.

Sure, MMT might nominally eliminate unpleasantness like unemployment and poverty. But the underlying risk of economic imbalances wouldn’t be reduced. Imbalances would just shift around. Most likely they would reappear in the form of supply/demand mismatches, like shortages and surpluses of certain goods, and, eventually, serious inflationary pressure.

Update (09/13/18): In response to some responses I received on this post, and as a reflection of related conversations, I wrote a brief follow-up post. The follow-up makes it clearer my views of MMT have more to do with human behavior, incentives and risk management. This portion is particularly relevant:

Politicians are always and everywhere incentivized to run deficits and print money. Hand politicians a license to run deficits of arbitrary size and they will print and print and print. This isn’t left versus right political thing. This is a human nature thing.

Under MMT, it would be up to self-interested politicians and their appointed bureaucrats to ensure we don’t end up with hyperinflation. Self-interested politicians and appointed bureaucrats hardly have an unblemished track record when it comes to economic management.