The Haunter of the Dark

581px-the_black_man
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?

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.