Beware Helpers Bearing Advice

Warren Buffett has this fantastically understated put-down he uses when he wants to needle investment professionals. He calls them “Helpers” (consultants are “Hyper-Helpers”). It’s a fantastic put-down because it’s simultaneously denigrating and dismissive, without being overtly crass or undignified. The way Buffett writes about Helpers he conjures up images of investment professionals as childlike buffoons. When the GOAT paints a picture of you as a childlike buffoon, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Trust me, it drives us nuts.

Some day I will write a long post about Warren Buffett, Master of Narrative. There might even be a book in this. We think of Buffett as the greatest investor of all time but he might also the greatest salesperson of all time. He has, after all, sold thousands upon thousands of self-professed contrarians on making an annual religious pilgrimage to Omaha, Nebraska. I think Buffett knows exactly what he’s doing here. And I think he derives great pleasure from it. But that’s a topic for another day.

Here I want to borrow Buffett’s put-down to talk about another kind of Helper: the transactional financial salesperson.

Early in my career, I worked as a loan rep. Specifically, I sold consumer loans. Home equity loans, auto loans, unsecured personal loans and the like. You may not believe it, but this was actually fantastic experience. It was a very safe sandbox in which to learn how deals are structured, how risks are managed (or not managed), and most importantly, how deals are sold.

I was pretty good at selling loans.

If I’d stayed in the position long enough to build up a wider personal network, I think I would have gotten really good at selling loans.

Partly because I didn’t present myself as a person selling loans. I presented myself as a problem solver. There were many cases where I really did help people solve problems, or finance projects that were important to them. But in many cases I was just restructuring their problems. The best example would be the use of a home equity term loan to consolidate credit card debt. By the numbers, it always made sense to do this. It would save people thousands upon thousands of dollars in interest expense, plus term out the debt. Mathematically, you could prove the transaction made sense.

Behaviorally, things were a bit murkier. Because the math only held if the customer stopped racking up credit card debt. Of course, I would explain that to people. I wasn’t a charlatan.

If someone had racked up credit card debt because he used it to finance some kind of one-off project or business venture that went south, then this type of refinancing transaction was a no-brainer. (This setup was rare)

If someone racked up credit card debt because he was outspending his income, it was can-kicking by another name. If his pattern of reckless spending and debt consolidation were to continue, it could eventually end in bankruptcy and the loss of the home. (This setup was more common)

I have no idea how many of these debt consolidation deals worked out for people over time. As a loan rep, my job wasn’t to distinguish between the underlying causes of different individuals’ debt problems. My job was to sell financing solutions to people in need of financing solutions.

This is really just a long-winded way of describing agency problems and information asymmetry. In finance, these issues come up all the time. There’s this meme out there that anyone who does transactional business in finance is necessarily some kind of snake-oil salesman or charlatan. This simply isn’t true. Not all Helpers are looking to rip your face off. But not all Helpers have a fiduciary responsibility to act in your “best interest”, either. I put “best interest” in quotes because, as my home equity refinance example illustrates, it’s not always as straightforward to identify what’s in someone’s best interest as certain people would have you believe.

Transactional business isn’t inherently evil. I do transactional business with people all the time, both personally and professionally. Transactional business can work out quite well for everyone involved.

Where you run into trouble is when you mistake a TRANSACTIONAL relationship for a FIDUCIARY relationship. (See also: It’s Just Business)

If you are the finance director of a small municipality, or the CEO of a small company, and your banker comes to you with an interest rate swap that will “protect you” from interest rate risk, and you are not well-versed in the mechanics of a swaps, then you need to think long and hard about doing that deal. Because ultimately, your banker isn’t compensated to advise you. Your banker is compensated to transact business with you.

I address the finance directors of small municipalities and the CEOs of small companies specifically here because you are often seen as the suckers at the institutional poker table. There is potentially a lot of money to be made Helping you.

With apologies to The Godfather, Part II: you can respect Helpers, you can do business with a Helpers, but you should never trust a Helper.

The Confidence Meter

If you are anywhere near as strange a person as me, you spend a lot of time thinking. And not only thinking, but thinking about thinking (whether any good ideas actually come out of this process is a discussion for another time). Over the years I’ve become more and more interested in epistemology. Is there a such thing as Truth with a capital T? If so, how would we know if we found it? How can we better manage the Bayesian updating of our priors?

Personally, as far as epistemology is concerned, I come down on the side of fallibism. Whether fallibism is, or should be, applicable to moral questions lies beyond the scope of what I write about here. But when it comes to our beliefs about economics, geopolitics, and investing, I think fallibism is an eminently sensible position.

Now, it’s important to distinguish between fallibism and nihilism.

Nihilism is extreme skepticism in the existence of Truth.

Fallibism is extreme skepticism in the provability of Truth and in the methods we use to arrive at Truth. (See also: The Problem of Induction; The Trouble With Truth)

For a fallibist, acquiring knowledge is a relentless, grinding process of formulating conjectures, challenging them, adjusting them, discarding them, and so on. It never ends. By definition, it can’t end. So if you’re bought-in on fallibism, you need to seek out people and ideas to challenge your priors.

This is not fun. In fact, we as humans pretty much evolved to do the opposite of this. For most of our history, if you were the oddball in the tribe you risked being exiled from the group to make your way in a harsh and unforgiving world, where you would likely die miserable and alone (albeit rather quickly), without the consolation of having passed along your genetic material.

The Confidence Meter is a little mental trick I use to mitigate my evolved distaste for challenging my priors, as well as my evolved distaste for being wrong. It’s something I think about when I want to judge how tightly to grip an idea (such as an investment idea). It also helps interrupt emotional thought patterns around certain ideas. For fans of Kahneman, I use it to interrupt System 1 and activate System 2.

The Confidence Meter (A Stylized Example)

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At 0% confidence, I shouldn’t even be making a conjecture. At 0% confidence, I should just be gathering information, and soaking it all in without an agenda. (Not always easy)

At a toss-up, I could make a conjecture and support it with evidence, but I wouldn’t put anything at risk. 

At 75% confidence and greater, a willingness to bet money on the outcome implies a sound grasp of the theory underlying my idea, as well as the empirical evidence. It also implies I have a sound grasp of the arguments and empirical data challenging my position.

Using this framework, how many of your beliefs do you suppose merit a >=75% confidence level?

For me, it’s a very small number. To the extent I’m >=75% confident of anything I believe, it’s elementary, almost tautological stuff, like how you make money investing.

The empirical data around the impact of the minimum wage on unemployment? Meh.

The relationship between marginal tax rates and economic growth? Meh.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have beliefs about these things. I’m just leaving an allowance for additional dimensions of nuance and complexity. Particularly when we’re inclined to look at relationships in linear, univariate terms for political reasons. The world is a more complex place than that admittedly powerful little regression model, Y = a + B(x) + e, would lead us to believe.

The Confidence Meter helps me keep that in perspective.

The Haunter of the Dark

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Source: Jens Heimdahl via Wikipedia

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

–H.P. Lovecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nyarlathotep_tweet

Indeed. And we see his handiwork everywhere.

It’s the Gaussian Copula.

It’s eugenics and racial pseudioscience.

It’s Soviet collectivized agriculture.

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

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

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

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

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

Are Structured Products Trash?

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I am not a fan of structured products.

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

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

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

Here’s my beef with structured products:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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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.