ET Note: The Life Aquatic

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My latest for Epsilon Theory is about surviving and thriving in a highly financialized world. What’s financialization?

Financialization is all about using financial engineering techniques, either securitization or borrowing, to transfer risk. More specifically, financialization is about the systematic engineering of Heads I Win, Tails You Lose (HIWTYL) payoff structures.

In business, and especially in finance, we see this playing out everywhere.

Debt-financed share buybacks? HIWTYL.

Highly-leveraged, dropdown yieldcos? HIWTYL.

Options strategies that systematically sell tail risk for (shudder) “income”? HIWTYL.

Management fee plus carry fee structures? HIWTYL.

Literally every legal doc ever written for a fund? HIWTYL.

There are two ways to effectively handle a counterparty that has engineered a HIWTYL game: 1) refuse to play the game at all, 2) play the game only if you have some ability to retaliate if your counterpaty screws you. Legal action doesn’t count. The docs and disclosures are written to be HIWTYL, remember?

(aside: corporate borrowing can be viewed as management selling put options on a company’s assets. I’ll leave it to you to consider what that might imply about government borrowing)

You need to be in a position to hurt your counterparty for real.

You need to be in a position to hurt your counterparty economically.

A friend (who is not in finance) recently asked me about the relationship between the sell-side and the buy-side. His question was basically this: is the purpose of investment banking just to rip fee revenue out of people by whatever means necessary even if it involves deliberately misleading them to screw them over?

My answer is that the sell-side’s purpose is simply to facilitate transactions. For investment bankers, that means raising capital or advising on M&A deals or whatever. For sell-side research groups it means driving buy and sell transactions.

The sell-side does not exist to make you money.

You can do business with the sell-side. You can even respect the sell-side. But you should never trust the sell-side. The same goes for pretty much all business relationships. Especially transactional relationships.

We poke fun at the sell-side around here, but what we’re poking fun at is just the sell-side’s Buddha nature. The zen master Shunryu Suzuki described Buddha nature thusly:

“If something exists, it has its own true nature, its Buddha nature. In the Parinirvana Sutra Buddha says, “Everything has a Buddha nature,” but Dogen reads it in this way: “Everything is Buddha nature.” There is a difference. If you say, “Everything has Buddha nature,” it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, “Everything is Buddha nature,” it means everything is Buddha nature itself.”

If that’s a bit too inscrutable for your taste, consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog:

A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The scorpion climbs onto the frog’s back and the frog begins to swim, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung the frog, to which the scorpion replies “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

Our World In Meta-Games

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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.

The North Korean Economy Explained

There is an excellent podcast available through the FT Alphachat Series featuring Matt Klein’s interview of Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics who has spent a significant amount of time studying the North Korean economy.

The background information included with the podcast is also worth reading. This section in particular struck a chord with me:

The North Koreans depended on subsidies from the Soviets to survive, particularly the ability to buy oil and refined petroleum products at “friendship” prices. As the Soviet economy creaked under the combined weight of the war in Afghanistan, low oil prices, and the perceived need to match America’s defence buildup, these concessions started to disappear. By the late 1980s the North Koreans were paying more to the Soviets than they were getting.

One of the downsides of the North Korean obsession with self-sufficiency was that the country ended up with the most industrialised agricultural sector in the entire world. The only way the North could hope to feed itself without imports was to bathe the soil in fertiliser and other chemicals. (Of course, that required imports of energy from the Soviets, but apparently that was okay…) The North Koreans also expanded farmland by cutting down trees, which eventually led to soil erosion, silted rivers, mudslides, and floods.

All of this meant that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the North Koreans extremely vulnerable to food shortages. In the mid-1990s these shortages combined with the failures of the North Korean state to efficiently distribute the food they had and secure enough food from abroad through aid and imports. The result was a famine that killed about 3-5 per cent of the North Korean population — around 1mn people. (Regular listeners will think of Cuba’s “special period”, which killed far fewer people but had similar causes.)

Without spoiling the podcast here are a couple of high level takeaways from my POV:

Centrally planned economies do not work. In the cases of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba, central planning, at its best, manged to produce substandard consumer goods. At its worst, central planning actively contributed to the deaths of millions through the misallocation of resources. The misallocation of agricultural resources has proven particularly devastating.

These lines from the 1965 film version Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago are fairly evocative:

Don’t be too impatient, Comrade Engineer. We’ve come very far, very fast […] Do you know what it cost? There were children in those days who lived off human flesh. Did you know that?

Autarky does not work. North Korea is probably the closest thing we have to a true autarky. And yet, even in its much diminished state the North Korean economy is still not a true autarky! Initially it was dependent on the Soviet Union. Now it is dependent on China.

Markets do work. The Soviet Union, China and North Korea each developed market-based solutions to the massive inefficiencies created by centralized economic planning. In the early days of the Soviet Union, Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (later abolished by Stalin).  In China, it is the advent of a “socialist market economy” (which, unfortunately, has evolved into a massive kleptocracy). In North Korea, market-based solutions to famine arrived in the form of small scale, informal trading relationships, as well as a black market for food.

There is much more than this in the podcast, however. So do give it a listen.

Extinction

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Remains of a volatility short

Markets are ecosystems. And like any ecology, markets can come to favor organisms with certain traits over arbitrary time periods. In the natural world, dinosaurs flourished when the global climate favored their biology. Then, quite suddenly, that changed. National Geographic tells it like this:

Scientists tend to huddle around one of two hypotheses that may explain the Cretaceous extinction: an extraterrestrial impact, such as an asteroidor comet, or a massive bout of volcanism. Either scenario would have choked the skies with debris that starved the Earth of the sun’s energy, throwing a wrench in photosynthesis and sending destruction up and down the food chain. Once the dust settled, greenhouse gases locked in the atmosphere would have caused the temperature to soar, a swift climate swing to topple much of the life that survived the prolonged darkness.

This is not so much different from those who got wiped out holding large positions in XIV. Short volatility strategies thrived in a market environment that for years has favored long duration assets (long term bonds, high growth stocks, cryptocurrencies) and dip-buying any market decline. When the market environment changed, suddenly and violently, the short volatility trade blew up. Years of gains vaporized in a single day.

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Over the past couple of years I have begun to believe there are tremendous benefits to viewing markets through an evolutionary and/or ecological lens. I think this helps you focus on a range of variables impacting the markets, versus wearing blinders that limit you to valuation, momentum, or whatever it is you consider your “thing.” So when a particular asset class catches a strong bid, here are some things I consider:

If this is a cash flow producing asset, what is the relationship between the intrinsic value of the cash flows and the market price? For stocks it is not especially difficult to use the market price and a simple DCF model to derive a market implied IRR. For bonds just check the yield to maturity, yield to call, yield to worst, etc. This gives you an idea of how investors are pricing risk.

Who is driving flows into or out of a sector or asset class? Mutual funds look at the world differently from hedge funds, which look at the world differently from banks and insurance companies. Each of these players has different objectives and constraints, which will impact their behavior as market conditions change.

Are the players driving flows into the asset weak or strong hands? Retail investors are the weakest hands in the markets. I consider many mutual funds weak hands also (depends on the fund family). Mutual fund flows are driven by retail investors and their financial advisors, who are notorious for chasing performance.

How highly levered are the players driving flows into the asset? Leverage can drive extraordinary returns, but it also creates fragility. When deleveraging events occur, prices can collapse suddenly. Many of the short volatility players who got blown up recently didn’t understand the magnitude of the leverage embedded in their positions.

What exogenous factors are driving flows into this asset class? Is an asset in demand due to expectations for low interest rates, low inflation, or other macroeconomic variables? Macro conditions are fickle, and human beings are notoriously poor forecasters.

The most fragile market ecology is one where weak hands are using leverage to play some exogenous variable with known unstable or mean-reverting properties. From this perspective, systematically shorting volatility was stupendously risky–a form of Russian roulette. A large number of retail investors were trading instruments (volatility linked ETPs) with significant embedded leverage, placing a massive directional bet on low rates, low inflation and market momentum.

A market ecology I believe is extremely fragile, but hasn’t blown up yet, is high yield debt. This is an asset class that is highly leveraged by definition, and has attracted massive flows from yield-starved investors. Strong flows have pushed prices up to the point where future expected returns are dismally low, and protective covenants are the weakest on record. Perhaps worst of all, there is a liquidity mismatch between the ETPs (HYG, JNK, etc.) providing investors with easy access to high yield debt and the underlying high yield bonds. For a preview of what happens when a liquidity mismatch meets a stampede for the exits, refer to Third Avenue Focused Credit.

Next stop: Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo.

Life and Death in the Equity Market

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Deep value investors at work.
In my humble estimation most investors have a limited view of the market ecosystem. This is the fault of the financial advice industry (which emphasizes performance comparisons to sell products and services) and also the financial media (which emphasizes performance comparisons even more than the financial advice industry).

When you look at markets from that point of view, there are “winners” and “losers.” The “winners” are always doing so at someone else’s expense. Usually mom ‘n pop. Or mom ‘n pop’s ineptly managed pension plan.

Make no mistake. Markets are competitive. But they are also vibrant and nuanced. As with any ecosystem, most of the “organisms” in the market contribute to its health in some way.

David Merkel tackles the market ecosystem in two excellent pieces:

http://alephblog.com/2013/04/23/classic-get-to-know-the-holders-hands-part-1/

http://alephblog.com/2013/04/24/classic-get-to-know-the-holders-hands-part-2/

Broadly speaking, he writes about the differences between “balance sheet players” such as banks and insurance companies and “total return players” such as hedge funds and mutual funds. These entities have different investment objectives and constraints and so behave very differently in the markets.

I want to go through a similar exercise. Of course, what is written below involves simplification and generalization. I also focus specifically on equity markets for simplicity. The real world is more complex. But I hope this helps readers think about markets in a more nuanced way.

Traders vs. Investors

At a very high level you can separate the market ecosystem into traders and investors. Traders have short time horizons (sometimes as brief as a few seconds, in the case of high frequency, algorithmic trading). Investors have long time horizons (sometimes as long as decades, in the case of Warren Buffett). Perhaps more importantly, traders and investors make different contributions to the health of the market ecosystem.

Traders’ Contributions To The Market Ecosystem

Traders buy and sell based on anticipated changes in the supply and demand for securities. They contribute to the health of the investment ecosystem by making markets and keeping bid/offer spreads narrow, which reduces the cost of trading for other market participants.

Arbitrageurs are a subset of traders that enforce price relationships among various financial instruments. For example, arbitrageurs ensure that ETF share prices track closely to their net asset values. You can read more about this process at ETF.com.

Many traders are completely unconcerned with the direction of markets. Rather, they attempt to capture small pricing inefficiencies at relatively high frequencies. 

Some traders simply execute transactions for longer term investors and attempt to do so as efficiently as possible. For a large investor that is far from a trivial task. It is one thing to buy $10,000 worth of KO shares and quite another to buy $10,000,000 worth of shares. The latter will move the market.

Investors’ Contributions To The Market Ecosystem

Investors buy and sell securities based on market prices relative to their estimates of “intrinsic value.” Investors contribute to the health of the market ecosystem by ensuring security prices properly reflect underlying economic value. Broadly speaking, there are two subspecies of investors in equity markets: value investors and growth investors.

Some people mistakenly believe value investors seek to buy assets at a discount to intrinsic value while growth investors buy at a premium. This is not true.

Value investors typically demand a much greater “margin of safety” (extra discount from intrinsic value) to buy a security. They tend to gravitate toward businesses that generate profit and excess cash flow, but have modest growth potential. An example of a value stock would be Exxon Mobil or another large integrated oil company. Growth rates are less important to value investors than cash flow and profitability. Value investors tend to focus on what could go wrong in the future versus the potential reward if things go well.

Growth investors gravitate toward businesses where future profits and cash flows are potentially much greater than they are today. These are stocks such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Tesla. Some growth stocks are profitable today (Facebook). Others are kind of profitable (Amazon). Others generate large losses (Netflix, Tesla). The level of profitability today is of less concern to a growth investor than the potential profitability in the future. Growth rates and addressable market size, on the other hand, are of paramount importance to growth investors. Growth investors would prefer to own businesses that will change the world and accept the risk and uncertainty that goes along with that stance.

Popular misconceptions regarding value and growth investors stem from the fact that growth investors tend to own stocks that trade at relatively higher valuations, as measured by ratios such as price to earnings. Regardless, growth investors are always buying at a discount to their estimate of a stock’s intrinsic value.

Life And Death In The Equity Market

When a stock is born (or, rather, goes public), it may start as a high-flying growth company. The business may not be profitable, but as long as it is growing revenue and can capture an increasing share of a large addressable market then growth investors will own the stock. These investors ensure the stock’s price properly reflects the growth potential of the business. The main risk for a growth investor is that a company’s growth rate slows much faster than anticipated.

As a business matures, its growth rate declines and its market share stabilizes. Ownership will transition to value investors who will want to see profitability, cash flow generation and the return of cash to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks. The main risk for a value investor is that growth rates and markets never stabilize, but instead continue to spiral downward. This is called a “value trap” and it is a value investor’s worst nightmare. Another, less prominent risk is that the management will do stupid things like divert free cash flow or take on debt to do silly acquisitions to “buy” growth. A major reason value investors want to see free cash returned to shareholders is to prevent management from doing stupid things with it.

Most businesses will eventually enter terminal decline. There are many reasons for this but the outward signs include falling profitability, sharply declining market share and increasing amounts of debt. Eventually, if a company does not make significant changes, it will become insolvent. When a company reaches this final stage of its life cycle the “deep value” or “distressed” investor steps in to own the stock. The distressed investor evaluates the various securities in the capital structure to identify their value in a restructuring or liquidation. Thus the distressed investor seeks to buy at a discount to liquidation value. The main risk for a distressed investor is an adverse event or legal decision involving the business that unexpectedly changes the liquidation value of the securities in the capital structure.

When a company finally liquidates, its capital may ultimately end up recycled into young companies in the public and private markets.

And so the cycle can begin again.

Fear and loathing in asset management, cont’d

Yesterday I addressed the topic of whether index investing is truly the road to serfdom. This is one of the sillier marketing ploys the financial services industry has trotted out lately, so it’s something I find worth harping on.

David Merkel from The Aleph Blog highlights another issue with this posturing:

There’s been a lot of words thrown around lately saying that indexing has been leading to overvaluation of the US stock market. I’m here to tell you that is wrong. I have two reasons for that:

1) Active managers have been pseudo-indexing for a long time. The moment they get benchmarked to an index they do one of two things:

a) accept it, gain funds for mandates that are like the index, and then they constrain their investing so that they are never too different from the index, and hopefully not in the fourth quartile of performance, so they don’t lose assets. This is the action of the majority.

b) Ignore it, get less fund flows, and don’t let the index affect your investment decisions. The assets should be stickier over time if you explain to clients what you are doing, and why. Only a minority do this.

This has been my opinion since my days of writing for RealMoney. All of the active managers out there add up to something close to a passive benchmark, less fees. It can’t be otherwise.

The one exception of any size would be stocks excluded from indexes because they don’t have enough free float available for non-insiders to own/trade. Even that is not very big — it might be 5% of the total stock market, though this is just a wild guess.

2) If you want to talk about valuation issues, you really want to talk about the trade-off between stocks and bonds, or stocks and cash. Stock valuations are never absolute — it is always a question of the other assets you are measuring the stocks against, and how you desirable those other assets will be in the future, and how sustainable the profitability of stocks will be over time.

There is a straightforward reason that pseudo-indexing (also known as “closet indexing”) is good for business. That reason is that most clients do not really want extraordinary returns.

That is to say, clients think they want extraordinary returns, but are not actually psychologically prepared to do what it takes to earn extraordinary returns. I use the word “earn” very deliberately here. Generating extraordinary returns is hard work, and it usually requires swimming upstream against consensus. Whenever you find a client who understands this (for they do exist) you should treasure that client.

Regardless of what they say, all clients really want is to achieve their financial goals. Inasmuch as portfolio returns are concerned, they are generally loss averse. That is, they dislike losses more than they value gains. This leads to an asymmetrical payoff for the investment manager. As an advisor or portfolio manager, you typically stand to lose much more by losing money when the market is up or flat than you stand to gain from outperforming the market when it is up.

So from a business perspective it is safer to put up middle of the road numbers than look too different from the indices or your competitors. The bottom quartile thing David mentions is a big deal. I have sat in the meetings where these issues are debated. Woe betide you if you find yourself in the bottom quartile of your peer group a couple of years in a row. Fire your sales team and wait for the numbers to turn.

Anyway, here is how you build a portfolio as a closet indexer. You pick something like 75 to 150 stocks, which keeps your largest positions to maybe 3% or 4% of the portfolio (if that). So even if one of those stocks goes to zero (unlikely) you are facing at maximum 3% to 4% of performance detraction from an individual name. This will be offset by some stuff you own that goes up, and it all kind of averages out in the end. Indeed, that is whole point. I cannot help but remark that this looks a hell of a lot like what the index investor is trying to achieve. (Mutual Fund Complex Marketing Person: “Ours goes to 11!”)

Likewise, you keep your sector weights within a couple percent of the benchmark weights, and the same with the individual stock holdings. You won’t own every security in the index. That’s okay. A lot of the securities in the index are crap — too much debt, negative cash flow and earnings, whatever. And anyway omitting some stuff will make you look better on certain measures that institutional research groups use, like active share.

If you are good you will maybe generate 1-3% of annualized outperformance over time, net of fees. If you are really good you might do even better. Unfortunately most closet indexers are not that good. There is plenty of data to support this (see below).

The two main statistics we use to measure the differentiation of an investment manager’s portfolio from a benchmark index (like the S&P 500) are active share and tracking error. Active share specifically looks at the overlap in holdings, while tracking error measures the volatility of the return differential over time (for quanty nerds this is the standard deviation of excess returns).

If you are a stock picker running a concentrated portfolio of your best ideas, you will score high on both measures. If you are a closest indexer, you will score low on both measures. There was a robust, if somewhat dated, exploration of this topic by Antti Petajisto in the Financial Analysts Journal in 2013. If you are interested in this subject you should definitely read the whole paper.

In the meantime, here are the relevant results from his cross-sectional analysis of US equity mutual funds:

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Source: Financial Analysts Journal, Vol. 69, No. 4
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Financial Analysts Journal, Vol. 69, No. 4
According to Petajisto’s data and criteria, about 64% of US equity mutual funds were either moderately active or closet indexers. However, the average assets under management for closet indexers was $2 billion, versus $1 billion for the entire data set.

So like I said, mediocrity sells. So much for efficient capital allocation.