A: If we call things like long-biased equity long/short funds and private equity equities instead of alternatives, it will look to these people like they are 90% invested in equities.
B: But they ARE invested 90% in equities.
One of the more dangerous things you can do in the markets is engage in self-deception. This is particularly true from a risk management perspective. A hill that I will die on is that much of what we call “alternative” investments are just equity investments by another name.
Nowhere is this more obvious than private equity. In what “bucket” of an asset allocation would you put a thinly traded, leveraged microcap stock that is no-bid for an extended period? There is no debate. It is an equity security. The economic risk exposures of the security are equity risks. Now, this is not a particularly liquid equity. But it is an equity security nonetheless.
Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum, a “defined outcome” S&P tracker with an options overlay is an equity strategy, exposed to equity risk. The addition of a mark-to-market volatility mitigating hedge does not transmute this into some kind of alternative strategy. It is just watered-down equity risk (with watered-down equity returns to match).
For most allocators and private investors, I suspect fiddling with phony-alternative, pseudo-equity strategies is akin to the golfer who is afraid to commit to an approach shot because of some windage. He is afraid of the wind so he clubs down. But because that club selection is driven by anxiety, he doesn’t hit as firm a shot as he normally would have. So he misses short and lands in a greenside bunker.
Don’t miss short! Get it past the hole!
There is an insidious thing that happens when you do not call things by their proper names. Things-as-they-are are gradually replaced with abstractions. This is what is happening with obvious absurdities such as private equity being pitched as “higher returns with less volatility.” From an economic risk perspective, the whole idea is nonsense. But as an abstraction bolstered by “statistics,” it is true.
Of course, I can reduce the volatility of my public equity portfolio, too. I will just mark it once a year, to my proprietary fair value estimates. My down capture will look great versus the S&P. My numbers will be audited and everything. Beautiful!
It is in periods of extreme dislocation that things behave as they are. This is when it becomes obvious that your long-biased equity hedge funds actually capture a decent amount of downside; and your high yield bonds behave a lot more like equities than you thought they would; and that bright hedgie who did a really good job of getting his net down at the start of the selloff keeps it flat into a massive rally… sorry… I digress…
The most egregious portfolio failures, in terms of both missed return targets and poor risk management, result from a failure (or even outright refusal) to see things as they are.
You can call your pie chart slices whatever you want. They can display all the colors of the rainbow. It does not change the underlying nature of the things they represent.
(yawn) Not much to report this time. I had an influx of cash to invest prior to this rebalancing check, so these numbers actually reflect a mid-period rebalance, after which the portfolio became more fully invested. Technically, I should be taking a few percent of exposure to cash this time, but trailing volatility is not much above the 12% threshold I use for risk management purposes, and the portfolio is quite well-balanced. So I’m just going to let it ride this month.
Underling exposures, accounting for leverage:
30% S&P 500 Futures
20% Laddered Treasury Futures
12% EM Small Cap
12% ex-US Large Cap
~105% notional exposure
This month’s performance snapshot is quite representative of how the strategy should be expected to perform more generally. It trails equity markets in bull rallies, but makes that up with significantly shallower drawdowns. Over long time periods, you end up with something like a 100% equity return profile, but a 60/40-like drawdown profile in deflationary conditions. Of course, the gold exposure should ensure that the drawdown profile in inflationary conditions is far superior to a 60/40 portfolio. Granted, that’s not a macro regime we’ve had to deal with for some time.
Of course, the definition of “equity markets” is in the eye of the beholder. Below are the returns for ACWI as of 07/31. This is a much more appropriate investable benchmark for a globally diversified equity portfolio. The performance of the leveraged permanent portfolio compares quite favorably. Actually, the leveraged permanent portfolio has annihilated ACWI so far. Performance versus other permutations of the global 60/40 portfolio is similarly strong.
On an unrelated note, I’ve not posted much on here lately, partly because I’ve fully articulated a lot of the ideas around markets and asset allocation that I originally wanted to share on here. By no means do I intend to shut the blog down. But I consider myself in a bit of a “reset” phase in terms of ideas. I hope to be posting with more frequency again sometime soon. In the meantime, at a bare minimum I will continue to post these monthly updates.
It certainly wasn’t planned, but I rather like where the portfolio is positioned today. There is still nearly 100% notional exposure due to the leverage, but a 20% cash position. On the surface, this looks like a lot of hassle just to match the Morningstar Large Cap Index (similar to the S&P 500). But the underlying portfolio here is much, much better diversified than that index. Even within the equity bucket, nearly half of the exposure is ex-US. For perspective, ACWI (which is a reasonable investable proxy for market cap weighted global equity exposure) is -5.50% YTD.
Time for the usual monthly rebalance post. No changes this month. Technically, I should add a bit more cash based on trailing 12-month volatility. But the excess volatility versus the target threshold is pretty marginal, so I’m not going to worry about it this month.
Performance YTD and since inception remains solid. The characteristic performance pattern of this strategy is evident in the last few months. Equity returns with less drawdown. You get the downside protection when it counts, but tend to lag in strong equity rallies.
Of course, the real power of this approach is that it provides a source of liquidity for buying into significant market dislocations. For my personal portfolio, I pair this with a sleeve of concentrated individual positions.
I don’t write about that portfolio on here much, for a number of reasons. But pairing it with the leveraged permanent portfolio has allowed for an exceptional year thus far: +14.93% on an IRR basis, and +13.89% since inception about three years ago on an IRR basis. I use the IRR here because I control the cash flows into and out of this sleeve of the portfolio. The TWRs are lower, at +4.47% and +9.10%, respectively. Still nothing to sneer at, though.
The dramatic differences in IRRs compared to TWRs here illustrates the power of having a source of liquidity to buy into major market dislocations. I am increasingly convinced that there is not as much “irrational” panic selling in market dislocations as we might like to think. Most investors know they should be buying into crashes. They just can’t. They don’t have liquidity, either because they run fully invested or because they tend to experience other calls on cash during crisis periods. There is only so much you can do about the latter. Clearly, the former can be addresses through portfolio construction.
The other concept this illustrates is the time dilation we experience in markets. In periods of highly compressed market time, such as March, there are opportunities (risks) to generate outsize gains (losses). I believe it was Lenin who said: “there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen.” March 2020 was one of these times. A few weeks in March both made and shattered investment careers. This had very little to do with financial modeling skills and everything to do with the ability to adapt to the shifting tempo in the financial markets.
There are lots of ways to think about volatility from a conceptual view. Mostly it’s thought of as a risk measure. That’s a bit reductive. Volatility isn’t a measure of risk, per se. But it tends to be correlated with risk. It is better to think of volatility as a measure of time compression in the markets. When volatility is high, market time is compressed, and risks and opportunities are elevated. When volatility is low, market time stretches out, and risks and opportunities diminish. There is not enough written about the concept of tempo in investing. Maybe I will work on changing that.
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
I have not written much since the coronavirus outbreak blew up. Not because I’m not thinking about things. I simply haven’t had much to say. I have no unique perspective to add regarding epidemiology or public health policy. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply hang back and reflect. This post contains some thoughts on where we’ve been, and where we might be headed.
One indisputable consequence of this pandemic is that we have quickly transitioned from a disinflationary or even (I would argue) mildly stagflationary regime to a deflationary economic regime. The duration of this new regime is an open question. Policymakers, particularly on the monetary side, have reacted as expected. They did MOAR. And they will continue to do MOAR to backstop financial markets, so long as they deem it necessary.
Unsurprisingly, this has done wonders for financial assets. Particularly duration-sensitive assets such as long bonds and growth equities.
Some dominant themes/narratives I think we will grapple with as this evolves:
The transformation of financial markets into political utilities is complete. It has always been a mistake to assume markets are a prefect reflection of the real economy. Now, markets are probably less a reflection of the real economy than ever before. A consequence of MOAR is that markets (or at least pockets of them) have seemingly become completely untethered from the real economy. There are sensible reasons for this, of course. Ultra-low discount rates. The fact that solvent businesses with liquidity to draw on should not see long-term impairment of value as a result of the virus, etc. But as with the financial crisis, policy geared toward owners of financial assets has been implemented quickly and decisively. Much more decisively than policy geared toward vulnerable small businesses and their employees. This will likely have social and political consequences.
We are all MMTers now. Government deficits will never matter again. Well, at least not unless/until an inflationary bill is acknowledged as having coming due. Central Banks are explicitly engaged in debt monetization. This is mainstream. It is accepted. Yes, there are a different flavors of it. There is the progressive flavor, with its Green New Deals and job guarantees. Then there is the “fiscally conservative” flavor, with its tax cuts and its endless promises of shrinking government (government is never shrunk in a material way, ‘natch). I’m not interested in arguing over whether this dynamic is right or wrong at this point. All I care about is acknowledging is that it IS. Because it matters. It matters a lot.
Politics is going to get nastier. The United States government is now explicitly in the business of choosing winners and losers in the economy. As usual, owners of financial assets have been selected as winners. As usual, those who do not own financial assets are deemed losers. I expect the long-simmering political conflict between Capital and Labor to further intensify as a result. Political rhetoric will become more extreme. Politicians will become more ridiculous. Congress will become even less effective (difficult to imagine such a thing is possible, I know). Fun times.
Investment-wise, it’s going to be MOAR of the same. Outside of the obligatory post-recession bounce, there will not be mean reversion in value versus growth factor performance. Long duration growth bets will continue to perform well, because there is no opportunity cost to making them. I suspect that long duration bonds will also continue to perform well in the short-term, against all odds. Because I believe we will test negative interest rates here in the US before we test higher interest rates. And convexity is a thing people seem determined to refuse to understand.
But how does it all end? I see a few very different endings to this story. The first, of course, is some kind of inflationary or stagflationary regime triggered, in part, by relentless monetary easing. But people like me have been worried about this for a long time. And it’s never shown up. A second possibility is that some kind of transformational technological innovation on the order of the internet allows us to return to much higher trend growth rates. This would be ideal. Perhaps the darkest scenario is that the political conflict described above spirals completely out of control, and we get to live through a reprise of the 1930s and 1940s.
This is not a very hopeful post. It is not hopeful because I do not have a very positive outlook on the macroeconomic and political trends of the day.
That said, this is also not an argument for bearish positioning in a portfolio. If you follow me on the Twitter, you may recall my exhortation to “dare to be smart enough to be dumb.” Flexibility is key here. I can forgive people (myself included) for not grasping how monetary policy would impact financial market behavior post-2008. That mistake is less forgivable today. In my opinion, it is nigh on impossible to invest today without accounting for the gravitational pull of monetary and fiscal policy.
To be perfectly explicit, as things stand today:
Quantitative value (owning cheap things because they are cheap) is at best a tactical trade.
Economic policy will hamper mean reversion.
Trends are our friends for the foreseeable future. Not all of them are likely to be positive. But forewarned is forearmed.
Despite the strong rally in April the portfolio came in above the 12% volatility guardrail in April (upside volatility counts as much as downside volatility). Each individual asset is above the 12% threshold (though gold not by much). Cash needs to move to a 20% weight. To do this I will trim from everything but gold.
NTSX – 29%
GLD – 25%
VIESX – 13%
JOHIX – 13%
Cash – 20%
Which means the underlying allocation is approximately:
S&P 500 – 27%
Laddered Treasury Bonds – 18%
Gold – 25%
EM Small Cap – 13%
Ex-US Dm Large Cap – 13%
Cash – 20%
(98% notional exposure)
I remain quite pleased with year-to-date performance. The interesting thing about this recent signal is that it is de-risking the portfolio after a strong rally. As mentioned above, volatility as a measure does not discriminate between up and down moves. It is just showing you the sea is choppy. The intuition here is very simple. You de-risk when the seas reach a certain level of roughness, even if the most recent moves happen to have been up.
Despite some tense moments, the leveraged permanent portfolio has held up pretty well through the recent market turmoil. With the announcement of unlimited Fed liquidity support, I added a decent chunk of gold exposure back to the portfolio. This was another discretionary decision. However, the rationale was consistent with the philosophy underlying this strategy. At the time, I believed that the Fed’s policy interventions would do much to end liquidation behavior and, hopefully, reduce correlations across equities, bonds and gold.
Today, the portfolio is:
~29% S&P 500 Futures
~18% ex-US Developed Market Equity
~17% ex-US Emerging Market Small Cap Equity
~19% Laddered Treasury Bond Futures
(~110% notional exposure)
Over the standard 1-year lookback period, this puts me just below the 12% volatility threshold that would trigger adding more cash. So, in the absence of the resumption of indiscriminate liquidation behavior in financial markets, this will be my allocation through the next rebalance check.
Year-to-date, performance is a bit worse than a standard 60/40 allocation. This is consistent with the behavior that a backtest of this type of strategy exhibited during the depths of the financial crisis (another period when “all correlations went to 1”). Note that in the below chart, the Morningstar Large Cap index has replaced the S&P 500. For some reason, S&P 500 returns are slow to pull through this tool now. The differences between the two indexes should be minimal, however.
Of course, my implementation of this strategy uses a global equity allocation. A fully-invested US-only variant (50/50 NTSX/GLD) would have finished March down only 7% or so year-to-date.
I’ve written before that there are endless variations of this kind of strategy. Personally, I am (perhaps irrationally) biased toward longer lookback periods and a more globally diversified equity allocation. However, I would not argue that those are necessarily optimal. Indeed, I am leaning more and more toward my friend @breakingthemark‘s compelling case for shorter lookback periods and more frequent rebalancing checks.
Nonetheless, I am pleased with how this strategy has performed since I first implemented it. The balance of upside participation with downside protection has been excellent. In addition to its standalone performance, it was able to serve as a source of liquidity when markets became especially dislocated in March, which I used to add to the aggressive, discretionary sleeve of my overall allocation.
I would never argue that this is a “perfect” investment strategy (there is no such thing). However, I think its recent behavior validates it as a very straightforward, DIY solution that even small investors can easily implement. I have no idea what the future may bring in terms of financial market performance. But I am very excited to see how the leveraged permanent portfolio holds up.
I had never expected the leveraged permanent portfolio concept to be tested so dramatically, so soon after beginning this experiment. The speed of the coronavirus-induced drawdown in financial markets has been absolutely breathtaking. Truly a punch in the face. Through 3/20/20, my leveraged permanent portfolio has drawn down materially, though to a lesser extent than global equities. It has performed much like a 60/40 portfolio in these conditions, though much of this is actually attributable to the inclusion of ex-US equity in the allocation (a US-only variant would be down about 10%).
In the midst of the chaos, I made an important discretionary decision last week. I liquidated the entire GLD position and took it to cash well ahead of the next monthly rebalancing check (due 4/1/20).
Market conditions had deteriorated significantly, and there was a period where essentially all financial assets had become correlated (equities, Treasuries, gold). This increase in correlations is THE existential threat to the permanent portfolio and in my view it MUST be managed. There are basically two ways of doing this: 1) hedge, or 2) take a portion of the portfolio to cash. I opted for #2, and liquidated both the gold and a small residual emerging markets equity position.
Current allocation (based on a full lookthrough of NTSX’s exposures):
There is an argument for reducing exposure further. For example, my Twitter friend @breakingthemark runs a somewhat similar strategy with a weekly rebalancing cadence, which has delivered extremely impressive performance. His strategy is tuned to respond more quickly to crashes, and is currently at 60% cash. I expect at 4/1/20 I will be adding more cash, as well as rebalancing some equity exposure back into gold.
* Differences between the total (time-weighted) and personal (dollar-weighted) returns are attributable to the timing of trades, as well as the fact that I reduced the overall size of this portfolio to opportunistically redeploy capital into my “lottery ticket” portfolio bucket during this period.
The nice thing about big selloffs is that the lower the market goes today, the higher your future returns go for tomorrow. We have 4Q19 Fed Z.1 data now, which means I can try to roundabout ballpark S&P 500 returns for the next 10 years. As of 12/31/19 this estimate was 2.43%. After making some (very) rough adjustments for recent market moves, it has increased to 7.66% today.
With interest rates as low as they are, and the possibility of negative rates looming on the horizon, I think a 700+ bps equity risk premium probably merits some buying, somewhere. DON’T GO ALL-IN. It is very possible things get worse before they get better. My own strategy has been to focus on the shares of companies that seem inordinately dislocated based on poor liquidity conditions. This is particularly evident in small cap stocks. In the US, these stocks had drawn down approximately 50% prior to the last couple days’ bounce.
Pulling the trigger on these things is not a trivial thing to do. It is uncomfortable knowing that you could be catching falling knives. I am not arguing that people are stupid for being cautious here.
I am, however, arguing that if you have liquidity (also far from trivial), and are willing to be a provider of liquidity in a dislocated market, there are spots where you can be compensated quite well for doing so. In small cap land, there are stocks trading at double-digit discounts to announced, all-cash takeout offers. This makes very little economic sense. Is Google going to bail on its FitBit acquisition because of the coronavirus? Probably not.
Admittedly, my truest investing self is “bottom-feeding contrarian.”
Right now, I think it makes sense more than ever to put money to work in a concentrated, “lottery ticket” portfolio alongside a more conservative core.