Economists have always been envious of the practitioners of the natural and exact sciences. They have thought that introducing the methods of natural sciences such as laboratory where experiments could be conducted could lead to a major break-through in our understanding of the world of economics.
But while a laboratory is a valid way of doing things in the natural sciences, it is not so in economics. Why is that so?
A laboratory is a must in physics, for there a scientist can isolate various factors relating to the object of inquiry.
Although the scientist can isolate various factors he doesn’t, however, know the laws that govern these factors.
All that he can do is hypothesize regarding the “true law” that governs the behaviour of the various particles identified.
He can never be certain regarding the “true” laws of nature. On this Murray Rothbard wrote,
The laws may only be hypothecated. Their validity can only be determined by logically deducing consequents from them, which can be verified by appeal to the laboratory facts. Even if the laws explain the facts, however, and their inferences are consistent with them, the laws of physics can never be absolutely established. For some other law may prove more elegant or capable of explaining a wider range of facts. In physics, therefore, postulated explanations have to be hypothecated in such a way that they or their consequents can be empirically tested. Even then, the laws are only tentatively rather than absolutely valid.1
Contrary to the natural sciences, the factors pertaining to human action cannot be isolated and broken into their simple elements.
However, in economics we have certain knowledge about certain things, which in turn could help us to understand the world of economics.
For instance, we know that an increase in money supply results in an exchange of nothing for something. It leads to a diversion of wealth from wealth generators to non wealth generating activities. This is certain knowledge and doesn’t need to be verified.
We also know that for a given amount of goods an increase in money supply all other things being equal must lead to more money paid for a unit of a good –an increase in the prices of goods. (Remember a price is the amount of money per unit of a good).
We also know that if in the country A money supply grows at a faster pace than money supply in the country B then over time, all other things being equal, the currency of A must depreciate versus the currency of B. This knowledge emanates from the law of scarcity.
Hence for something that is certain knowledge, there is no requirement for any empirical testing.
How this certain knowledge can be applied?
For instance, if we observe an increase in money supply – we can conclude that this resulted in a diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to non-wealth generating activities. It has resulted in the weakening of the wealth generating process.
This knowledge however, cannot tell us about the state of the pool of real wealth and when the so-called economy is going to crumble.
Whilst we can derive certain conclusions from some factors, however, the complex interaction of various factors means that there is no way for us to know the importance of each factor at any given point in time.
Some factors such as money supply – because it operates with a time lag, could provide us with useful information about the future events – such as boom-bust cycles and price inflation.
(Note that a change in money supply doesn’t affect all the markets instantly. It goes from one individual to another individual – from one market to another market. It is this that causes the time lag from changes in money and its effect on various markets).
Contrary to the natural sciences, in economics, by means of the knowledge that every effect must have a cause and by means of the law of scarcity (the more we have of something the less valuable it becomes), we can derive the entire body of economics knowledge.
This knowledge, once derived, is certain and doesn’t need to be verified by some kind of laboratory.
1. Murray N. Rothbard, “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”, On Freedom and Free Enterprise: The Economics of Free Enterprise, May Sennholz, ed. (Princeton, N.J.: D.Van Nostrand, 1956), p3.
“Sir, Adair Turner suggests some version of monetary financing is the only way to break Japan’s deflation and deal with the debt overhang (“Print money to fund the deficit – that is the fastest way to raise rates”, Comment, November 11). This was precisely how Korekiyo Takahashi, Japanese finance minister from 1931 to 1936, broke the deflation of the 1930s. The policy was discredited because of the hyperinflation that followed.”
– Letter to the Financial Times, 11th November 2014. Emphasis ours. Name withheld to protect the innocent.
“Don’t need to read the book – here is the premise. Business dreams are nothing more than greed. And you greedy business people should pay for those who are not cut out to take risk. You did not build your business – you owe everyone for your opportunity – you may have worked harder, taken more risk and even failed and picked yourself up at great personal risk and injury (yes we often lose relationships and loved ones fall out along the way). However, none the less you are not entitled to what you make. Forget the fact that the real reason we have massive wealth today is we can now reach the global consumers – not just local – so the numbers are larger. Nonetheless the fact is that is not fair – and fair is something life now guarantees – social engineers demand that you suspend the laws of nature and reward all things equally. 2 plus 2 = 5 so does 3 plus 3 = 5; everything is now levelled by social engineers. We need to be responsible for those who choose not to take risk, want a 9 to 5 job and health benefits and vacation. The world is entitled to that – it is only right – so you must be taxed to make up for those who are too lazy to compete, simply don’t try, or fail. In short the rich must mop up the gap for the also ran’s. Everyone gets a ribbon. There are exceptions – if you are Google, BAIDU, Apple or someone so cool or cute or a liberal who will tell people they should pay more taxes – you aren’t to be held to the same standard as everyone else.”
– ‘cg12348’ responds to the FT’s announcement that Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ has won the FT / McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, 11th November 2014.
“@cg12348, I think you succeeded in discrediting yourself comprehensively. You didn’t read the book. You do not in fact know what is in it. But you just “know” what is in it. One can only hope that you do a little more work in your business ventures.”
– Martin Wolf responds to ‘cg12348’.
“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it..”
“Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?”
– Thomas Sowell.
Forbes recently published an article suggesting that Google might be poised to enter the fund management sector. The article in question linked to an earlier FT piece by Madison Marriage (‘Google study heightens fund industry fears’, 28.9.2014) reporting that the company had, two years ago, commissioned a specialist research firm for advice about initiating an asset management offering. An unnamed US fund house reportedly told FTfm that Google entering the market was its “biggest fear”. An executive from Schroders was reported to be “concerned” and senior executives at Barclays Wealth & Investment Management were reported to perceive the arrival of the likes of Google and Facebook on their turf as a “real threat”. Campbell Fleming of Threadneedle was quoted in the FT piece as saying,
“Google would find the fund management market more difficult than it thinks. There are significant barriers to entry and it’s not something you could get into overnight.”
Bluntly, faced with backing Google or a large fund management incumbent, we’d be inclined to back Google. Perhaps most surprising, though, were the remarks by Catherine Tillotson of Scorpio Partnership, who said,
“There probably is a subsection of investors who would have confidence in Google, but I think the vast majority of investors want a relationship with an entity which can supply them with high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market. I think it is unlikely they would turn to Google for those qualities.”
We happen to think that many investors would turn precisely to Google for those qualities – assuming they found those qualities remotely relevant to their objective in the first place. So what, precisely, do we think investors really want from their fund manager ? All things equal, it’s quite likely that investment performance consistent with an agreed mandate is likely to be high on the list; “high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market” are, to our way of thinking, almost entirely subjective attributes and largely irrelevant compared to the fundamental premise of delivering decent investment returns.
After roughly 20 years of the Internet slowly achieving almost complete penetration of the investor market across the developed world, fund management feels destined to get ‘Internetted’ (or disintermediated) in the same way that the music and journalism industries have been. The time is ripe, in other words, for a fresh approach; the pickings for incumbents have been easy for far too long, and investors are surely open to the prospect of dealing with new entrants with a fundamentally different approach.
Another thing prospective digital entrants into the fund management marketplace have going for them is that they haven’t spent the last several years routinely cheating their clients, be it in the form of the subprime mortgage debacle, payment protection insurance mis-selling, Libor rigging, foreign exchange rigging, precious metals rigging.. Virtually no subsidiary of a full service banking organisation can say the same.
Sean Park, founder of Anthemis, suggests (quite fairly, in our view) that the demand for a fresh approach to financial services has never been stronger. In part, this is because
“..the global wealth management and asset allocation paradigm is fundamentally broken. Or rather it’s a model that is past its sell-by date and is increasingly failing its ultimate customers. The “conventional wisdom” has disconnected from its “source code” meaning that the industry has forgotten the original reasons why things were initially done in a certain way and these practices have simply taken on quasi-mystical status, above questioning.. which means that the system is unable and unwilling to adapt to fundamentally changed conditions (technological, economic, financial, cultural, demographic..)
“And so opportunities (to take a step back and do things differently) abound..
“Coming back to the.. “broken asset allocation paradigm” – the constraints (real, i.e. regulatory and imagined, i.e. convention) and processes around traditional asset management and allocation (across the spectrum of asset classes) now mean that it is almost impossible to do anything but offer mediocre products and returns if operating from within the mainstream framework. (Indeed the rise and rise of low cost ETF / passive products is testimony to this – if you can’t do anything clever, at least minimise the costs as much as possible..) The real opportunities arise when you have an unconstrained approach – when the only thing driving investment decisions is, well, analysis of investment opportunities – irrespective of what they may be, how they may be structured, and how many boxes in some cover-my-ass due diligence list they may tick (or not)..”
As we have written extensively of late, one of those practices that have taken on “quasi-mystical status” is benchmarking, especially with reference to the bond market. This is an accident waiting to happen given that we coexist with the world’s biggest bond market bubble.
Another problem is that low cost tracking products are fine provided that they’re not flying off the shelf with various asset markets at their all-time highs. But they are, and they are.
We have a great deal of sympathy with the view that the fundamental nature of business became transformed with the widespread adoption of the worldwide web. There is no reason why fund management should be exempt from this trend. What was previously an almost entirely adversarial competition between a limited number of gigantic firms has now become a more collaborational competition between a much more diverse array of boutique managers who also happen to be fighting gigantic incumbents. Here is just one example. Last week we came across a tweet from @FritzValue (blog:http://fritzinvestments.wordpress.com/) that touched on the theme of ‘discipline in an investment process’. With his approval we republish it here:
8am – 10am: Read trade journals and regional newspapers for ideas on companies with 1) new products, 2) new regulation, 3) restructurings, 4) expansions, 5) context for investment ideas
10am – 6pm: Find new ideas. Read 1) company announcements.. 2) annual reports from A-Z or 3) annual reports of companies screened for buybacks / insider buying / dividend omission, etc.
7pm – 10pm: Read books to understand the world / improve forecasts / fine tune investment process
Before each investment:
1) What do you think will happen to the company and by consequence the stock price ?
2) Go through a personal investment checklist
3) Use someone else or yourself as a devil’s advocate to disprove your own investment theses
4) Have we reached “peak negativity” / has narrative played out ?
5) Are fundamentals improving ?
6) Why is it cheap ? Especially if it screens well in the eyes of other investors – i.e. exciting story, other investors, low P/E, etc.
7) Decide what will be needed for you to admit defeat / sell the position
If you lose focus, sell all the positions, take a break and start again.
Only expose yourself to serious and intelligent people on Twitter / investor letters / media and avoid the noise that other investors expose themselves to.”
Fabulous advice, that has the additional advantage of being completely free. While we spend quite a bit of time agonising over the State’s ever more desperate attempts to keep a debt-fuelled Ponzi scheme on the road, we take heart from the fact that – through social media – an alternative community exists that doesn’t just know what’s going on but is perfectly happy to share its informed opinions with that community at no cost to users whatsoever. O brave new world, that has such people in it !
Spring 2010: A gradual recovery
Autumn 2010: A gradual and uneven recovery
Spring 2011: European recovery maintains momentum amid new risks
Autumn 2011: A recovery in distress
Spring 2012: Towards a slow recovery
Autumn 2012: Sailing through rough waters
Winter 2012: Gradually overcoming headwinds
Spring 2013: Adjustment continues
Autumn 2013: Gradual recovery, external risks
Winter 2013: Recovery gaining ground
Spring 2014: Growth becoming broader-based
Autumn 2014: Slow recovery with very low inflation.. ”
European Commission economic headlines, as highlighted by Jason Karaian of Quartz, in ‘How to talk about a European recovery that never arrives’.
“Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere..”
‘Road to nowhere’ by Talking Heads.
In 1975, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates, wrote one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in the history of finance. Simon Ramo had previously studied the strategy of one particular sport in ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis went on to adapt Ramo’s study to describe the practical business of investing. His essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time he wrote it. His thesis runs as follows. Whereas the game of tennis is won by professionals, the game of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches through natural talent honed by long practice, investors tend to lose (in relative, if not necessarily absolute terms) through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reach, in straining to make the winning shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.
Ellis was making another point. As far back as the 1970s, investment managers were not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them. This was a mathematical inevitability given the over-crowded nature of the institutional fund marketplace, the fact that every buyer requires a seller, and the impact of management fees on returns from an index. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece, institutional investors accounted for the ownership of 46.6% of the top 1000 listed companies in the US. By 2009 that figure had risen to 73%. That percentage is itself likely understated because it takes no account of the role of hedge funds. Also by 2009 the US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of whom were not mutual funds in the strict sense of the term, but rather for-profit entities); 7,900 insurance companies; and 6,800 hedge funds.
Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of active fund management is the tendency towards benchmarking (whether closet or overt). Being assessed relative to the performance of an equity or bond benchmark effectively guarantees (post the impact of fees) the institutional manager’s inability to outperform that benchmark – but does ensure that in bear markets, index-benchmarked funds are more or less guaranteed to lose money for their investors. In equity fund management the malign impact of benchmarking is bad enough; in bond fund management the malign impact of ‘market capitalisation’ benchmarking is disastrous from the get-go. Since a capitalisation benchmark assigns the heaviest weightings in a bond index to the largest bond markets by asset size, and since the largest bond markets by asset size represent the most heavily indebted issuers – whether sovereign or corporate – a bond-indexed manager is compelled to have the highest exposure to the most heavily indebted issuers. All things equal, therefore, it is likely that the bond index-tracking manager is by definition heavily exposed to objectively poor quality (because most heavily indebted) credits.
There is now a grave risk that an overzealous commitment to benchmarking is about to lead hundreds of billions of dollars of invested capital off a cliff. Why ? To begin with, trillions of dollars’ worth of equities and bonds now sport prices that can no longer be trusted in any way, having been roundly boosted, squeezed, coaxed and manipulated for the dubious ends of quantitative easing. The most important characteristic of any investment is the price at which it is bought, which will ultimately determine whether that investment falls into the camp of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. At some point, enough elephantine funds will come to appreciate that the assets they have been so blithely accumulating may end up being vulnerable to the last bid – or lack thereof – on an exchange. When a sufficient number of elephants start charging inelegantly towards the door, not all of them will make it through unscathed. Corporate bonds, in particular, thanks to heightened regulatory oversight, are not so much a wonderland of infinite liquidity, but an accident in the secondary market waiting to happen. We recall words we last heard in the dark days of 2008:
“When you’re a distressed seller of an illiquid asset in a market panic, it’s not even like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire. It’s like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire and the only way you can get out is by persuading somebody outside to swap places with you.”
The second reason we may soon see a true bonfire of inanities is that benchmarked government bond investors have chosen collectively to lose their minds (or the capital of their end investors). They have stampeded into an asset class historically and euphemistically referred to as “risk free” which is actually fraught with rising credit risk and systemic inflation risk – inflation, perversely, being the only solution to the debt mountain that will enable the debt culture to persist in any form. (Sufficient economic growth for ongoing debt service we now consider impossible, certainly within the context of the euro zone; any major act of default or debt repudiation, in a debt-based monetary system, is the equivalent of Armageddon.) As Japan has just demonstrated, whatever deflationary tendencies are experienced in the indebted western economies will be met with ever greater inflationary impulses. The beatings will continue until morale improves – and until bondholders have been largely destroyed. When will the elephants start thinking about banking profits and shuffling nervously towards the door ?
Meanwhile, central bankers continue to waltz effetely in the policy vacuum left by politicians. As Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote,
“Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs. The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labour, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.”
And as Singer fairly points out, whether as workers, consumers or investors, we inhabit a world of “fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake stability, fake inflation numbers”.
Top down macro-economic analysis is all well and good, but in an investment world beset by such profound fakery, only bottom-up analysis can offer anything approaching tangible value. In the words of one Asian fund manager,
“The owner of a[n Asian] biscuit company doesn’t sit fretting about Portuguese debt but worries about selling more biscuits than the guy down the road.”
So there is hope of a sort for the survival of true capitalism, albeit from Asian biscuit makers. Perhaps even from the shares of biscuit makers in Europe – at the right price.
“Sir, Your editorial “A Nobel award for work of true economic value” (October 15) cites the witty and memorable line of J M Keynes about wishing that economists could be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, which concludes his provocative 1930 essay on the economic future. You fail to convey, however, the irony and condescension of the original text of the arrogant, intellectual elitist Keynes, who, while superlatively competent, was assuredly not humble. With the passage of 84 years, the irony has changed directions, for modern dentistry is based on real science, and has made huge advances in scientific knowledge, applied technology and practice, to the great benefit of mankind. It is obviously far ahead of economics in these respects, and it is indeed unlikely that economics will ever be able to rise to the level of dentistry.”
Changing people’s minds, apparently, has very little to do with winning the argument. Since people tend to make decisions emotionally, ‘evidence’ is a secondary issue. We are attempting to argue that the policy of QE, quantitative easing, is not just pointless but expensively pointless. Apparently, instead of using cold logic, we will have to reframe our argument as follows:
Agree with our argumentative opponents;
Reframe the problem;
Introduce a new solution;
Provide a way to “save face”.
In terms of argumentative opponents, they don’t come much bigger than the former Fed chairman himself, Ben Bernanke. And it was Bernanke himself who rather pompously declared, shortly before leaving the Fed this year, that
“The problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”
There is, of course, no counter-factual. We will never know what might have happened if, say, the world’s central banks had elected not to throw trillions of dollars at the world’s largest banks and instead let the free market work its magic on an overleveraged financial system. But to suggest credibly that QE has worked, we first have to agree on a definition of what “work” means, and on what problem QE was meant to solve. If the objective of QE was to drive down longer term interest rates, given that short term rates were already at zero, then we would have to concede that in this somewhat narrow context, QE has “worked”. But we doubt whether that objective was front and centre for those people – we could variously call them “savers”, “investors”, “the unemployed” or “honest workers” – who are doubtless wondering when the economy will emerge from its current state of depression. As James Grant recently observed in the FT (“Low rates are jamming the economy’s vital signals”), it’s quite remarkable how, thus far, savers in particular have largely suffered in silence.
So yes, QE has “succeeded” in driving down interest rates. But we should probably reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that interest rates were or are too high. Quite the reverse: interest rates are clearly already too low – at least for savers, and for that matter investors in the euro zone and elsewhere. All the way out to 3 year maturities, investors in German government bonds, for example, are now faced with negative interest rates, and still they’re buying. This isn’t monetary policy success; this is madness. We think the QE debate should be reframed: has QE done anything to reform an economic and monetary system urgently in need of restructuring ? We think the answer, self-evidently, is “No”. The answer is also “No” to the question: “Can you solve a crisis of too much indebtedness by a) adding more debt to the pile and simultaneously b) suppressing interest rates ?” The toxic combination of more credit creation and global financial repression will merely make the ultimate Minsky moment that much more spectacular.
What accentuates the problem is market noise. @Robustcap fairly points out that there are (at least) four groups at play in the markets – and that at least three of them aren’t adding to the sum of human wisdom:
Group 1 comprises newsletter writers, and other dogmatic “End of the world newsletter salesmen” using every outlet to say “I told you so…” (even though some of them have been saying so for the last 1000 S&P handles..).
Group 2 comprises Perma-Bulls and other Wall Street product salesmen, offering “This is a buying opportunity” and other standard from-the-hip statements whenever the Vix index reaches 30 and the market trades 10% off from its high, at any time.
Group 3 includes “any moron with a $1500 E-trade account, twitter, Facebook etc…”, summing to roughly 99% nonsense and noise.
Group 4, however, comprises “True investors and traders” asking questions such as, “Is this a good price ?”; “Is this a good level ?”; “What is my risk stepping in here, on either side ?”; “Am I getting better value than I am paying for ?”; “What is the downside / upside ?” etc.
“With the “magnification” of noise by social media and the internet in general, one must shut off the first three groups and try to engage, find, follow, communicate with the fourth group only, those looking at FACTS, none dogmatic, understand value, risk, technicals and fundamentals and most importantly those who have no agenda and nothing to sell.”
To Jim Rickards, simply printing money and gifting it to the banks through the somewhat magical money creation process of QE is like treating cancer with aspirin: the supposed “solution” does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. The West is trapped in a secular depression and “normal” cyclical solutions, such as monetary policy measures, are not just inappropriate, but damnably expensive for the rest of us. Only widespread economic restructuring will do. And that involves hard decisions on the part of politicians. Thus far, politicians have shown themselves predictably not up to the task. Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker,
“We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
And let’s not forget that other notable Junckerism,
“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
No cheers for democracy, then.
So, back to the debate:
Yes, QE has driven down long term interest rates.
But the problem wasn’t the cost of capital. The problem was, and remains, an oversupply of debt, insufficient economic growth, and the risk, now fast becoming realised, of widespread debt deflation. To put it another way, the world appears to be turning Japanese after all, despite the best efforts of central bankers and despite the non-efforts of politicians.
The solution is fundamental economic restructuring along with measures that can sustainedly boost economic growth rather than just enriching the already rich through artificial financial asset price boosterism. Government spending cuts will not be optional, although tax cuts might be. The expansion of credit must end – or it will end in an entirely involuntary market-driven process that will be extraordinarily messy.
How to “save face” ?
This is where we start to view the world, once again, through the prism of investments – not least since we’re not policy makers. For those wondering why a) markets have become that much more volatile recently (and not just stocks – see the recent wild trading in the US 10 year government bond) and b) inflation (other than in financial asset prices) seems weirdly quiescent – the answer has been best expressed by both Jim Rickards and by the good folk at Incrementum. The pertinent metaphor is that of the tug of war. The image below (source: Incrementum) states the case.
The blue team represents the markets. The markets want deflation, and they want the world’s unsustainable debt pile to be reduced. There are three ways to reduce the debt pile. One is to engineer sufficient economic growth (no longer feasible, in our view) to service the debt. The second is to default (which, in a debt-based monetary system, amounts to Armageddon). The third brings us over to the red team: explicit, state-sanctioned inflationism, and financial repression. The reason why markets have become so volatile is that from day to day, the blue and red teams of deflationary and inflationary forces are duking it out, and neither side has yet been convincingly victorious. Who ultimately wins ? We think we know the answer, but the outcome will likely be a function of politics as much as investment forces (“markets”). While we wait for the outcome, we believe the most prudent and pragmatic course of action is to seek shelter in the least overpriced corners of the market. For us, that means explicit, compelling value and deep value equity. Nothing else, and certainly nothing by way of traditional government or corporate debt investments, or any form of equity or bond market index-tracking, makes any sense at all.
Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.
Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.
This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.
The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.
Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.
Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.
A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.
Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.
The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.
When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.
Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.
So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.
Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.
Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.
With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.
It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.
You’d think that the US dollar has suddenly become strong, and the chart below of the other three major currencies confirms it.
The US dollar is the risk-free currency for international accounting, because it is the currency on which all the others are based. And it is clear that three months ago dollar exchange rates against the three currencies shown began to strengthen notably.
However, each of the currencies in the chart has its own specific problems driving it weaker. The yen is the embodiment of financial kamikaze, with the Abe government destroying it through debasement as a cover-up for a budget deficit that is beyond its control. The pound is being poleaxed by a campaign to keep Scotland in the union which has backfired, plus a deferral of interest rate expectations. And the euro sports negative deposit rates in the belief they will cure the Eurozone’s gathering slump, which if it develops unchecked will threaten the stability of Europe’s banks.
So far this has been mainly a race to the bottom, with the dollar on the side-lines. The US economy, which is officially due to recover (as it has been expected to every year from 2008) looks like it’s still going nowhere. Indeed, if you apply a more realistic deflator than the one that is officially calculated, there is a strong argument that the US has never recovered since the Lehman crisis.
This is the context in which we must judge what currencies are doing. And there is an interpretation which is very worrying: we may be seeing the beginnings of a major flight out of other currencies into the dollar. This is a risk because the global currency complex is based on a floating dollar standard and has been since President Nixon ended the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971. It has led to a growing accumulation of currency and credit everywhere that ultimately could become unstable. The relationship between the dollar and other currencies is captured vividly in the illustration below.
The gearing of total world money and credit on today’s monetary base is forty times, but this is after a rapid expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet in recent years. Compared with the Fed’s monetary base before the Lehman crisis, world money is now nearly 180 times geared, which leaves very little room for continuing stability.
It may be too early to say this inverse pyramid is toppling over, because it is not yet fully confirmed by money flows between bond markets. However in the last few days Eurozone government bond yields have started rising. So far it can be argued that they have been over-valued and a correction is overdue. But if this new trend is fuelled by international banks liquidating non-US bond positions we will certainly have a problem.
We can be sure that central bankers are following the situation closely. Nearly all economic and monetary theorists since the 1930s have been preoccupied with preventing self-feeding monetary contractions, which in current times will be signalled by a flight into the dollar. The cure when this happens is obvious to them: just issue more dollars. This can be easily done by extending currency swaps between central banks and by coordinating currency intervention, rather than new rounds of plain old QE.
So far market traders appear to have been assuming the dollar is strong for less defined reasons, marking down key commodities and gold as a result. However, the relationship between the dollar, currencies and bond yields needs watching as they may be beginning to signal something more serious is afoot.
[This article, by Peter St. Onge, first appeared at mises.org]
One of the great economic myths of our time is Japan’s “lost decades.” As Japan doubles-down on inflationary stimulus, it’s worth reviewing the facts.
The truth is that the Japanese and US economies have performed in lock-step since 2000, and their performances have matched each other going as far back as 1980.
Either Japan’s not in crisis, or the US has been in crisis for a good thirty-five years. You can’t have it both ways.
Here’s a chart of per capita real GDP for both Japan and the US from 2000 to 2011. Per capita real GDP is the GDP measure that best answers the question: “is the typical person getting richer?”
The two curves look like they came from the same country:
Next, we can go back to 1980, to see where the myth came from. Japan was just entering its “bubble” decade:
We can see what happened here: Japan had a boom in the 1980s, then Japan busted while the Americans had their turn at a boom. By 2000 the US caught up, and Japan and the US synched up and shadowed each other, reflecting boom followed by the inevitable bust.
The only way you can get to the “lost decades” story is if you start your chart exactly when Japan was busting and America booming. Unsurprisingly, this is standard practice of the “lost decades” storytellers.
Of course, this would be like timing two runners, and starting the clock when one of them is on break. It’s absurd, but it gives the answer they want.
Things get worse when you include the artificial effects of inflation and population. Higher inflation and population growth both make the economy appear bigger without making people richer. If America annexed Mexico tomorrow, the US economy would grow by 30 percent. But that’s not going to make the average American 30 percent richer.
Adjusting for inflation and population is Macro 101. It’s so basic, in fact, that we might wonder if the “lost decades” macroeconomists are being intentionally forgetful. Why on earth would they do that?
Who Benefits from the “Lost Decades” Myth?
Who promotes the “lost decades” myth? Are the storytellers trying to make Japan look bad, or the US look good?
I suspect it’s a little of both: politicians in Japan need the sense of crisis to push their vote-buying schemes. It’s a lot easier to sell harmful policies if you can just convince the voters that everything’s already fallen apart. They’ve got nothing to lose at that point. In a crisis we are all socialists.
This cynical PR campaign is bearing fruit already, as Japanese voters accept inflationary policies from their new prime minister. In the name of reviving an economy that’s supposedly on its death-bed. Hard-working Japanese are losing their savings through low rates and inflation, but honor demands sacrifice so long as the future of the children supposedly hangs in the balance.
In reality, the re-telling of Japan’s myth reminds one of a doctor who lies to a patient so he can sell a cure that harms the patient.
On the American side, the myth of Japan’s “lost decades” is similarly useful: it makes our economic overlords seem like they actually know what they’re doing. And it serves to warn the naysayers: the “lost decades” myth is a bogeyman waiting to pounce if we ever falter from our bail-outs and vote-buying stimulus.
The truth, hidden in plain view, is that Japan’s not bad enough to be a battering ram for Japan’s Keynesian vote-buyers, and the US economy isn’t good enough for our home-grown vote-buyers to keep their jobs.
“When Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz was asked in Germany this week if the country and its neighbours would suffer a lost decade, his response was unequivocal. “Is Europe going the same way as Japan ? Yes,” Mr Stiglitz said in Lindau at a meeting for Nobel laureates and economics students. “The only way to describe what is going on in some European countries is depression.”
‘Spectre of Japan-style lost decade looms over eurozone’, Claire Jones, The Financial Times, August 22, 2014.
Few films have managed to convey the feeling of approaching menace more effectively than Jeff Nichols’ 2011 drama, ‘Take Shelter’. Its blue collar protagonist, Curtis LaForche, played by the lantern-jawed Michael Shannon – whose sepulchral bass tones make his every utterance sound like someone slowly dragging a coffin over a cello – begins to suffer terrifying dreams and visions; he responds by building a storm shelter in his back yard. It transpires that his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a similar stage in her own life. Are these simply hallucinations ? Or are they portents of darker things to come ?
Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has gone on record as stating that at least part of the film owes something to the financial crisis:
“I think I was a bit ahead of the curve, since I wrote it in 2008, which was also an anxious time, for sure, but, yeah, now it feels even more so. This film deals with two kinds of anxiety. There’s this free-floating anxiety that we generally experience: you wake in bed and maybe worry about what’s happening to the planet, to the state of the economy, to things you have no control over. In 2008, I was particularly struck with this during the beginning of the financial meltdown. Then there’s a personal anxiety. You need to keep your life on track—your health, your finances, your family..”
There’s a degree of pretention in claiming to have a reliable read on the psychology of the marketplace – too many participants, too much intangibility, too much subjectivity. But taking market price index levels at face value, especially in stock markets, there seems to be a general sense that since the near-collapse of the financial system six years ago, the worst has passed. The S&P 500 stock index, for example, has just reached a new all-time high, leaving plenty of financial media commentators to breathlessly anticipate its goal of 2,000 index points. But look at it from an objective perspective, rather than one of simple-minded cheerleading: the market is more expensive than ever – the only people who should be celebrating are those considering selling.
There are at least two other storm clouds massing on the horizon (we ignore the worsening geopolitical outlook altogether). One is the ‘health’ of the bond markets. Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert points out that Germany has just issued €4 billion of two year notes that pay no interest whatsoever until they mature in 2016. The second is the explicitly declining health of the euro zone economy, which is threatening to slide into recession (again), and to which zero interest rates in Germany broadly allude. The reality, which is not a hallucination, is that years of Zero Interest Rate Policy everywhere and trillions of dollars, pounds, euros and yen pumped into a moribund banking system have created a ‘Potemkin village’ market offering the illusion of stability. In their June 2014 letter, Elliott Management wrote as follows:
“..Stock markets around the world are at or near all-time nominal highs, while global interest rates hover near record lows. A flood of newly-printed money has combined with zero percent interest rates to keep all the balls suspended in the air. Nonetheless, growth in the developed world (US, Europe and Japan) has been significantly subpar for the 5 ½ years following the financial crisis. Businesses have been reluctant to invest and hire. The consumer is still “tapped out,” and there are significant suppressive forces from poor policy, including taxes and increased regulation. Governments (which are actually responsible for the feeble growth) are blaming the shortfall on “secular stagnation,” purportedly a long-term trend, which enables them to deny responsibility..
“The orchestra conductors for this remarkable epoch are the central bankers in the US, UK, Europe and Japan. The cost of debt of all maturities issued by every country, corporation and individual in the world (except outliers like Argentina) is in the process of converging at remarkably low rates. In Greece (for goodness sake), long-term government debt is trading with a yield just north of 5%. In France, 10 year bonds are trading at a yield of 1.67%.
“..Sadly, financial market conditions are not the result of the advancement of human knowledge in these matters. Rather, they are the result of policymaker groupthink and a mass delusion. By reducing interest rates to zero and having central banks purchase most of the debt issued by their governments, they think that inflation can be encouraged (but without any risk that it will spin out of control) and that economic activity consequently can be supported and enhanced. We are 5 ½ years into this global experiment, which has never been tried in its current breadth and scope at any other time in history.. the bald fact is that the entire developed world is growing at a sluggish pace, if at all. But governments, media, politicians, central bankers and academics are unwilling to state the obvious conclusion that their policies have failed and need to be revised. Instead, they uniformly state, with the kind of confidence only present among the truly clueless, that in the absence of their current policies, things would be much worse.”
Regardless of the context, stock markets at or near all-time highs are things to be sceptical of, rather than to be embraced with both hands. Value investors prefer to buy at the low than at the high. The same holds for bonds, especially when they offer the certainty of a loss in real terms if held to maturity. But as Elliott point out, the job of asset managers is to manage money, and not to “hold up our arms and order the tide to roll back”. (We have written previously about those who seem to believe they can control the tides.) So by a process of logic, selectivity and elimination, we believe the only things remotely worth buying today are high quality stocks trading at levels well below their intrinsic value.
We recently wrote about the sort of metrics to assess stocks that can be reliably used over the long run to generate superior returns. Among them, low price / book is a stand-out characteristic of value stocks that has generated impressive, market-beating returns over any medium term time frame. So which markets currently enjoy some of the most attractive price / book ratios ?
The four tables below, courtesy of Greg Fisher and Samarang Capital, show the relative attractiveness of the Japanese, US, Vietnamese and UK markets, as expressed by the distributions of their price / book ratios. Over 40% of the Japanese market, for example, trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. We would humbly submit that this makes the Japanese market objectively cheap. The comparative percentage for the US market is around 15%.
Various stock markets as expressed in price / book ratios
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Even more strikingly, nearly 60% of the Vietnamese stock market trades on a price / book of between 0.5 and 1. The comparative figure for the UK market is approximately 20%.
Conversely, nearly 60% of the US market trades on a price / book of above 2 times. We would humbly submit that this makes the US market look expensive. There is clearly a world of difference between a frontier market like Vietnam which is limited by way of capital controls, and a developed market like that of the US which isn’t. But the price / book ratio is a comparison of apples with apples, and US stock market apples simply cost more than those in Japan or Vietnam. We’d rather buy cheap apples.
As clients and longstanding readers will appreciate, we split the investible universe into four asset classes: high quality credit; value equity; uncorrelated funds; and real assets, notably precious metals. As a result of the extraordinary monetary accommodation of the past six years or so, both credit markets and stocks have been boosted to probably unsustainable levels, at least in the West. Uncorrelated funds (specifically, trend-following funds) and gold and silver have recently lagged more traditional assets, though we contend that they still offer potential for portfolio insurance when the long-awaited storm of reality (financial gravity) finally strikes. But on any objective analysis, we think the merits of genuine value stocks are now compelling when set against any other type of investment, both on a relative and absolute basis. Increasingly desperate central banks have destroyed the concept of safe havens. There is now only relative safety by way of financial assets. The mood music of the markets is becoming increasingly discordant as investors (outside the euro zone at least) start to prepare for a turn in the interest rate cycle. There is a stark choice when it comes to investment aesthetics. Those favouring value and deep value investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing diamonds. Those favouring growth and momentum investments are, we believe, more likely to end up wearing the Emperor’s new clothes. We do not intend to end up as fashion victims as and when the storm finally hits.
“Anything can happen in stock markets and you ought to conduct your affairs so that if the most extraordinary events happen, you’re still around to play the next day.”
Vice Admiral James Stockdale has a good claim to have been one of the most extraordinary Americans ever to have lived. On September 9th, 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and seized by a mob. Having broken a bone in his back ejecting from his plane he had his leg broken and his arm badly injured. He would spend the next seven years in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. The physical brutality was unspeakable, and the mental torture never stopped. He would be kept in solitary confinement, in total darkness, for four years. He would be kept in heavy leg-irons for two years, on a starvation diet, deprived even of letters from home. Throughout it all, Stockdale was stoic. When told he would be paraded in front of foreign journalists, he slashed his own scalp with a razor and beat himself in the face with a wooden stool so that he would be unrecognisable and useless to the enemy’s press. When he discovered that his fellow prisoners were being tortured to death, he slashed his wrists to show his torturers that he would not submit to them. When his guards finally realised that he would die before cooperating, they relented. The torture of American prisoners ended, and the treatment of all American prisoners of war improved. After being released in 1973, Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honour. He was one of the most decorated officers in US naval history, with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Stars. Jim Collins, author of the influential study of US businesses, ‘Good to Great’, interviewed Stockdale during his research for the book. How had he found the courage to survive those long, dark years ?
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale.
“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins was silent for a few minutes. The two men walked along, Stockdale with a heavy limp, swinging a stiff leg that had never properly recovered from repeated torture. Finally, Collins went on to ask another question. Who didn’t make it out ?
“Oh, that’s easy,” replied Stockdale. “The optimists.”
Collins was confused.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving. And then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
As the two men walked slowly onward, Stockdale turned to Collins.
“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
As Collins’ book came to be published, this observation came to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. For Collins, it was exactly the same sort of behaviour displayed by those company founders who had led their businesses through thick and thin. The alternative was the average managers at also-ran companies that enjoyed average returns at best, or that failed completely.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this is hardly a ‘good news’ market. Ebola. Ukraine. Iraq. Gaza. In a more narrowly financial sphere, the euro zone economy looks to be slowing, with Italy flirting with a triple dip recession, Portugal suffering a renewed banking crisis, and the ECB on the brink of rolling out QE. If government bond yields are a reflection of investor confidence, the fact that two-year German rates have gone below zero is hardly inspiring.
And we have had interest rates held at emergency levels for five years now – gently igniting who knows what form of as yet unseen problems to come. In Europe interest rates seem set to stay low or go even lower. But in the UK and the US, the markets nervously await the first rate hike of a new cycle while central bankers bluster and dither.
What are the implications for global asset allocation and stock selection ?
Both in absolute terms and relative to equities, most bond markets (notably the Anglo-Saxon) are ridiculously overvalued. Since the risk-free rate has now become the return-free risk, cash now looks like the superior asset class diversifier.
As regards stock markets, price is what you pay, and value (or lack thereof) is what you get. On any fair analysis, the US market in particular is a fly in search of a windscreen. Using Professor Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the broad US stock market, shown below, US stocks have only been more expensive than they are today on two occasions in the past 130 years: in 1929, and in 2000. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1929 equated to 89%. The peak-to-trough fall for the Dow from 2000 equated to “just” 38%. Time will tell just how disappointing (both by scale and by duration) the coming years will be for US equity market bulls.
But we’re not interested in markets per se – we’re interested in value opportunities incorporating a margin of safety. If the geographic allocations within Greg Fisher’s Asian Prosperity Fund are any guide, those value opportunities are currently most numerous in Japan and Vietnam. In the fund’s latest report he writes:
“Interestingly, and despite China’s continued underperformance, the Asian markets in aggregate have done better at this stage in 2014 than last year, while other global markets have fared less well. In our view the reason is simple – a combination of more attractive valuations than western markets, especially the US, but also, compared with 12-18 months ago, recognisably poor investor sentiment and consequently under-positioning in Asia, leading to the chance of positive surprises.”
Cylically adjusted price / earnings ratio for the S&P 500 Index
The Asian Prosperity Fund is practically a poster child for the opportunity inherent in global, unconstrained, Ben Graham-style value investing. Its average price / earnings ratio stands at 9x (versus 18x for the FTSE 100 and 17x for the S&P 500); its price / book ratio stands at just one; historic return on equity is an attractive 15%; average dividend yield stands at 4.2%. And this from a region where long-term economic growth seems entirely plausible rather than a delusional fantasy.
Vice Admiral Stockdale was unequivocal: while we need to confront the “brutal facts” of the marketplace, we also need to keep faith that we will prevail. To us, that boils down to avoiding conspicuous overvaluation (in most bond markets, for example, and a significant portion of the developed equity markets) and embracing equally conspicuous value – where poor sentiment is likely to intensify subsequent returns. In this uniquely oppressive financial environment, with the skies darkening with the prospect of a turn in the interest rate cycle, we think optimism could be fatal. Or as Warren Buffett once observed,
“You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.”
Editor’s Note: This article was previously published in The Amphora Report, Vol 5, 09 May 2014.
“Capitalism is not chiefly an incentive system but an information system.” -George Gilder
“Don’t shoot the messenger” is an old aphorism taken primarily to mean that it is unjust to take out the frustrations of bad news on he who provides it. But there is another reason not to shoot the messenger: News, good or bad, is information, and in a complex economy information, in particular prices, has tremendous value. To suppress or distort the information industry by impeding the ability of messengers to do their jobs would severely damage the economy. As it happens, messengers in the price signals industry are normally referred to as ‘speculators’ and the importance of their economic role increases exponentially with complexity. So don’t shoot the speculator. Embrace them. And if you feel up to it, consider becoming one yourself. How? Read on.
IN ADMIRATION OF SPECULATION
Back in high school my sister had a boyfriend who was quite practical by nature and, by working odd jobs, saved up enough money for the down payment on a 4WD pickup truck before his 18th birthday. It was a powerful truck and as a result he was able to generate additional business doing landscaping and other work requiring off-road equipment transport.
His truck also had a winch, which was of particular use one night in 1982. A severe storm hit, flooding the primary commuting routes north of San Francisco. Hundreds of motorists got stranded in water on roads stretching all the way to the Sonoma County borders. The emergency services did their best but the gridlock severely curtailed their ability to reach many commuters, who ended up spending the night in the cars. Fortunately, it was not particularly cold, and the conditions, while unpleasant, were hardly life-threatening.
As word got round just how bad the situation was, among others, my sister’s boyfriend headed out in his truck and sought out stranded commuters to winch out of the water. Sure, he wanted to help. But he also had payments to make on his truck. And he needed money generally, not being from a wealthy family. So naturally he expected to get paid for his services. What he didn’t expect, at least not at first, was just how much he could get paid.
As he told the story the next day, at first he was charging $10 to winch a car to safety. But as it dawned on him just how much demand there was and how few motorists he could assist-attaching a winch to a car and pulling it to safety could take as long as 20mins-he began to raise his prices in response. $10 became $20. $20 became $50. By midnight, stranded drivers were willing to pay as much as $100 for his assistance (Marin County is a wealthy county so some drivers were not just willing but also able to pay this amount.)
I forget exactly, but I believe he earned nearly $3,000 that night, enough money to pay off the lease on the truck! He was thrilled, my sister was thrilled and my parents were duly impressed. Yet the next day the local papers contained stories disparaging of ‘price-gouging’ by those helping to rescue the stranded commuters, who also noted and complained about the lack of official emergency services.
This struck me as a bit odd. The way my sister’s boyfriend told the story, he thought he was providing a valuable service. At first he was charging very little but as people were obviously willing to pay more, he raised his prices in return. The price discovery went on into the wee hours and reached $100 in the end. Did he plan things that way? Of course he had no idea he would be in the right place, at the right time, to make nearly $3,000 and pay off the lease in one go. But to hear some of the stranded commuters talk as if he was a borderline criminal just didn’t fit.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but as I began the study of economics some years later and learned of the role that speculators play in a market-based economy, I recalled this episode as one that fit the definition rather well. Speculators provide essential price information. Yet their most important role, where they really provide economic value, is not when market conditions are simply ‘normal’-when supply and demand are in line with history-but rather when they help to determine prices for contingent or extreme events, such as capacity constraints. Without sufficient capacity for a rainy day-or a VERY rainy day such as that in 1982-consumers will find at critical times that they can’t get access to essential services at ANY price.
In that rare moment, when prices soar, it might be tempting to shoot the messenger-blame the speculator-but this is unfair. Sometimes they take big risks. Sometimes they take huge losses or reap huge rewards. But regardless, they provide essential price discovery signals that allow capacity to be built that otherwise might not exist.
Consider those who speculate in electricity prices as another example. Electricity demand naturally fluctuates. But electricity providers are normally contractually required to meet even unusually large surges in peak demand. Occasionally, due to weather or other factors, there are extreme spikes in demand and capacity approaches its limit. If there is a tradable market, the price then soars. At the limit of capacity, the last kw/hr goes to the highest bidder, much as at the end of an auction for a unique painting. Such is the process of price discovery.
Absent the unattractive option of inefficient and possibly corrupt central planning, how best to determine how much capacity should be made available? Who is going to finance the infrastructure? Who will assume the risks? Well, as long as there is a speculative market in the future price of electricity, the implied forward price curve provides a reference for determining whether or not it is economically attractive to add to available capacity or not, with capacity being an option, rather than the obligation, to produce power at a given price and point in time.
My sister’s boyfriend’s truck thus represented an undervalued ‘option’ with which to winch cars to safety. Under normal conditions this option had little perceived value. But on the occasion of the flood, it had tremendous value and the option was ‘exercised’ at great profit. Valuing the truck without speculating on the possibility of such a windfall would thus be incorrect. And failing to appreciate the essential role that speculators play in building and maintaining economic capacity generally, for all goods and services, can result in a temptation to shoot the messenger, rather than to get the message.(1)
HOW DO SPECULATORS SURVIVE?
If speculators are the ‘messengers’ of market economies, how are they compensated? Obviously, those who are consistently right generate trading profits. But what of those on the other side who are consistently wrong? How can speculators as a group, right and wrong, make money? And if they can’t, how can they exist at all? (Of course, if they are too big to fail, they can count on getting bailed out. But I’ve already flogged that dead horse in many a report.)
This was once one of the great mysteries of economics, but David Ricardo, Ludwig von Mises and others eventually figured it out. Speculators do more than just speculate, although from their perspective that is what they see. Speculators also provide liquidity for hedgers, that is, those who wish NOT to speculate. And they charge a small implied fee for doing so, in the form of a ‘risk premium’. This risk premium is what keeps them going through the inevitable ups and downs of markets. They assume risks others don’t want to take and are compensated for doing so. In practice, it is impossible to determine precisely what this implied fee is, although economists do have ways to approximate the ‘liquidity risk premium’ that exists in a market.
Hedgers can be those who have a natural exposure to the underlying economic good. Take wheat for example. A highly competent farmer running an efficient farm might want to concentrate full-time on his operations and leave the price risk of wheat to someone else. He can do so by selling his estimated production forward in the futures markets. On the other side, a baked goods business might prefer to focus on their operations too. In principle, the farmer and the baker could deal directly with one another, but this arrangement would give them little flexibility to dynamically adjust hedging positions as estimated wheat production or the demand for bread shifted, for example. With speculators sitting in the middle, the farmer and the baker needn’t waste valuable time seeking out the best counterparty and can easily hedge their risk dynamically. Yes, they will pay a small liquidity risk premium to the speculators by doing so, but advanced economies require a high degree of specialisation and thus the professional speculator is an essential component.
While it is nice to receive a small risk premium in exchange for providing essential price information and liquidity, what speculators most want is to be right. Sadly, pure speculation (ie between speculators themselves, not vis-à-vis hedgers) is a zero sum game. For every ‘right’ speculator there is a ‘wrong’ speculator. While there is an extensive literature regarding why some traders are more successful than others, I will offer a few thoughts.
THE UNWRITTEN ‘RULES’ OF SUCCESSFUL SPECULATION
There are several unwritten rules in speculation, and I would confirm these through my own experience. The first is that it is the rare trader who is right more than 60% of the time, so most successful traders are right within the narrow range of 51-60%. Then there is the second rule, that 20% of traders capture 80% of the available profits. Combining these two rules, what you have is that 20% of traders are correct 51-60% of the time: So 0.2 * 0.5 or 0.6 = 0.10 to 0.12 or 10-12% of all trades initiated are winning trades for winning traders. The remaining 88% are either losing trades or they are winning trades spread thinly amongst the less successful traders.
These numbers should make it clear that successful traders are largely just risk managers: Yes, they succeed in identifying the 10-12% of trades that really matter for profits but they are also wrong 40%+ of the time so they must know how to manage their losses as well as when to prudently take profits on the 10-12% of winning trades.
Internalising this negative skew in trading returns is an essential first step toward becoming a good trader. Just accept that something on the order of 50% of trades are going to go against you, possibly even more. Accept also that only 10-12% of your trades are going to drive your profits. Focus on finding these but keep equal focus on minimising exposure to the other 88-90% of trades that either don’t matter, or that could overwhelm the 10-12%.
At Amphora, we have an investment process that we believe is particularly good at identifying and isolating the most attractive trades in the commodities markets. Sure, we make mistakes, but our investment and risk management processes are designed to keep these mistakes to a minimum. Indeed, we miss out on many potentially winning trades because we are highly selective. So while speculation may have a cavalier reputation of bravado trading, day in and day out, the Amphora process is more patient; an opportunistic tortoise rather than a greedy, rushed hare.
CURRENT OPPORTUNITIES IN THE EQUITIES AND COMMODITIES MARKETS
In my last Report discussing the financial and commodities markets outlook, 2014: A YEAR OF INVESTING DANGEROUSLY, I took the view that the equity market correction (or crash) that I anticipated from spring 2013 was highly likely to occur in 2014, for a variety of reasons (2). While I did not anticipate that the Ukraine crisis would escalate as much as it did, as quickly as it did, thereby causing some concern, I did expect that corporate revenues and profits would increasingly disappoint, as they most certainly have done year to date. This is due in part to weaker-than-expected economic growth, with the drag from excessive inventory growth plainly visible in the Q1 US GDP data. But the news is in fact much worse than that, because labour productivity growth has gone sharply negative due to soaring costs. These costs may or may not be specifically associated with the ‘(Un?)Affordable Care Act’ depending on who you ask, but the fact that productivity has plunged is terrible news for business fixed investment, which is the single most important driver of economic growth over the long-term. While a recession may or may not be getting underway, the outlook is for poor growth regardless, far below what would be required to justify current corporate earnings expectations, as implied by P/Es, CAPEs and other standard valuation measures. For those who must hold an exposure to equities, my key recommendation from that previous Report holds:
[I]t is time to rotate into defensive, deep-value, income-generating shares. These could include, for example, infrastructure, consumer non-discretionary and well-capitalised mining shares, including gold miners. That may seem an odd combination, but it so happens that even well-capitalised miners are trading at distressed levels at present, offering unusually good value.
Turning to the commodities markets, I expressed a preference for ‘defensive’ commodities in the Report (Although I did recommend taking initial profits in coffee). Indeed, basic foodstuffs, in particular grains, have outperformed strongly of late, continuing their rise from the depressed levels reached last year. However, the large degree of such outperformance now warrants some rotation out of grains and into industrial metals, including copper, aluminium, iron and nickel. Yes, these are exposed to the business cycle, which does appear to be rolling over in the US, China, Japan, Australia and most of Asia, but the extreme speculative short positioning and relative cheapness of industrial metals at present makes them an attractive contrarian play.
Precious metals have not underperformed to the same degree and they are normally less volatile in any case, but given the nearly three-year bear market, attractive relative valuations and the potential for a surge in risk-aversion, I would add to precious metals. Silver in particular looks cheap, although gold is highly likely to be the better performer in a risk-off environment. My recommendation would be to favour gold until the equity markets suffer at least a 15-20% correction. At that point, incremental rotation into silver would be sensible, with a more aggressive response should equity markets suffer a substantial 30%+ decline.
Turning to the platinum group metals, palladium is unusually expensive due to Russian supply concerns. While this is entirely reasonable due to the Ukraine crisis, the fact is that near-substitute platinum is much cheaper. And the on-again, off-again strikes at the large platinum mines in South Africa could escalate in a heartbeat, providing ample justification for platinum prices to catch up to palladium. Alternatively, should the Ukraine crisis de-escalate meaningfully, palladium is highly exposed to a sharp downward correction, and I would recommend a strong underweight/short position at present.
(1) Perhaps one reason why many fail to appreciate the essential role that speculators play in a market economy is that mainstream, neo-Keynesian economics treats speculation as mere ‘animal spirits’, to borrow their classic depiction by Keynes himself.
(2) This report can be accessed here.