Tagged: Investing

A Negative Interest Rates Thought Experiment

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore

Dorothy in Wizard of Oz

With a negative yielding investment, the price you pay exceeds the sum that you will get back at maturity plus the income you receive in the interim. If you buy a negative yielding bond you are guaranteed to lose money. If the rate you receive on bank deposits is negative, you are guaranteed to lose money.

Negative interest rates are becoming kind of a big deal:

Most negative yielding debt is government debt, which is ironically considered “safe”, at least in first world countries. With government debt, you know what cash flows you will receive during the holding period, and what face value amount of principal you will receive upon maturity. With everything else, cash flow is uncertain and principal is always at risk. Indeed the yield on government debt functions as a proxy for the “risk free rate” , which is a critical input in financial models investors use to make strategic decisions throughout financial markets.

Conservative investors generally prefer to hold a lot of government debt in order to meet future needs. Pensions, banks, and insurance companies are required to hold a minimum percentage of their assets in government debt so they can safely meet obligations to their stakeholders.

Negative interest rates cause a lot of surprising second order impacts throughout the world impacting how people do business.

Options Pricing

The Black Scholes model is one of the pillars of modern finance. It uses the risk free rate as an input but it cannot compute when the risk free rate is negative. It requires users to calculate a logarithm. Yet the logarithm of a negative number is undefined/meaningless. Here is a paper that explored the implications in more detail. Maybe people can use the old Brownian motion models, but there isn’t going to be universal agreement right away on what to use.

Any switchover will create unintended consequences throughout the investment world . Lots of funds hold over the counter options or swaps which must be valued using models in the time between their initiation and expiration or exercise. This valuation impacts the number that appears on the statement of investors. To the extent that investors have asset allocation targets around what percent of the entity’s assets can be invested in what, this will have secondary impacts in other markets. A lot of large firms have to totally change their valuation policies which is never easy to do because valuation departments are plenty busy with their jobs as it is. Markets aren’t going to close just so they can rewrite their valuation policies.

Also, in cases where a swap or OTC option contract requires collateral to be posted as the pricing changes throughout the life of a contract, both sides of the contract need to agree on valuation methods. When interest rates are positive, Black Scholes is a noncontroversial options I doubt contractual language was written in a way that accommodate for a world where Black Scholes would completely stop working.

Currently, more banks are trading a wide number of options without a reliable price. Each bank could handle this problem by performing its own solution, but the lack of a shared approach could lead to serious legal issues.

Source

This stuff is all theoretical but it has real cash impact throughout the world. What types of risks can be hedged will impact how capital can be allocated. How capital is allocated directly impacts what ideas get funded.

Now lets consider the real world impact on different groups of investors.

Stimulating TINA

In theory, negative rates should stimulate the economy. If investors only invest in safe assets, nothing else will get funded. Retirees need income from investments to live, foundations need to earn enough to safely withdraw funds, etc etc. If the bank charges them to hold their cash, they will invest more in real estate, high yield debt, and venture capital etc. They will have to take no more risk because “there is no alternative”(TINA).

However, when you look at how negative rates will impact pensions, banks and insurance companies, its hard to escape the conclusion that they might have a destructive, rather than stimulative impact on financial markets.

Pensions

People live longer than they can work.  To prevent a social catastrophe, countries have different ways of providing for old people.  Pensions are a big part of the financial markets According to CFA society:   Willis Towers Watson’s 2017 Global Pension Assets Study covers 22 major pension markets, which total USD 36.4 trillion in pension assets and account for 62.0% of the GDP of these economies.

 In the US people pay into Social Security, which provides a bare minimum standard of living to old people. The Social Security Fund is only allowed to invest in US Treasury Securities. If Treasuries yielded negative, the Social Security Fund will erode over time, meaning it won’t be able to meet its bare minimum obligations to retirees.  

Social Security by itself barely provides enough to live on. A lot of people in the US and around the world also have pensions through their jobs as well.  The impacts of negative rates get more nuanced and even weirder when you consider how these work.  

First of all, extremely low interest rates worsen pension deficits.  Future obligations must be discounted backwards. Lower discount rate leads to higher obligations in the present day.   On the other side of their balance sheet, they must make an actuarial assumption about future returns on their investments.    From what I’ve seen they often make aggressive return assumptions. To try to justify higher return assumptions, they put what they can into riskier investments.  To this extent pension funds are partially in the TINA Crowd.

Pensions are generally also obligated to put a certain amount of assets into “safe assets”  which are the first thing to start yielding a negative rate. As a result, this negative rate will create a destructive feedback loop.

Gavekal had this story of a Dutch Pension as an example: 

One day he was called by a pension regulator at the central bank and reminded of a rule that says funds should not hold too much cash because it’s risky; they should instead buy more long-dated bonds. His retort was that most eurozone long bonds had negative yields and so he was sure to lose money. “It doesn’t matter,” came the regulator’s reply: “A rule is a rule, and you must apply it.”

Thus, to “reduce” risk the manager had to buy assets that were 100% sure to lose the pensioners money.

Pension funds get caught in a feedback loop that will erode their capital base. For example say they buy a 5 year zero coupon bond at €103:

The €3 loss will reduce the market value of assets by €3. Holland also has a rule that pension funds must buy more government bonds the closer they get to being underfunded. Yet buying such negative-yielding bonds and keeping them to maturity ensures losses, making it more likely the fund will be underfunded, and so forced to buy more loss-making bonds (spot the feedback loop). Soon the fund will be distributing returns from capital, rather than returns on capital. Hence,it is not inflation that will destroy pension funds, but the mix of negative rates and rules that stop managers from deploying capital as they see fit. These protect governments, not pensioners who are forced to buy bad paper.

So negative rates will exacerbate the global retirement crisis. Oops.

Banks

What about banks?  Negative rates also destroy their capital base, and leave them with less money to actually lend out in the economy.  This hits at the heart of how fractional reserve banking works.

According to Jim Bianco at Bloomberg:

For every dollar that goes into a bank, some set amount (usually about 10%) must go into a reserve account to be overseen by the central bank. The rest is either lent out or used to buy securities.

In other words, the fractional reserve banking system is leveraged to interest rates. This works when rates are positive. Loans are made and securities bought because they will generate income for the bank. In a negative rate environment, the bank must pay to hold loans and securities. In other words, banks would be punished for providing credit, which is the lifeblood of an economy.

Gavekal explains how this leads to an eroding capital base (using the same 5 year zero coupon bond as the pension example above):

As a leveraged player, let’s assume it lends a fairly standard 12 times its capital. This capital has to be invested in “riskless” assets that are always liquid. In the old days, this would have been gold or central bank paper exchangeable into gold. Today, the government bond market plays the role of “riskless” (you have to laugh) asset, which has no reserve requirement. As a result, banks are loaded up with bonds issued by the local state. Now let us assume that a bank has just lost €3 on the zerocoupon bond mentioned above. The bank’s capital base will be reduced by €3. Based on the 12x banking multiplier, the bank will have to reduce its loans by a whopping €36 to keep its leverage ratio at 12. Hence, the effect of managing negative rates while also respecting bank capital adequacy rules means that the capital base can only shrink.

Insurance Companies

One of the main ways that insurance companies make money is by collecting premiums in advance of paying out any claims.  Hey are able to invest these premiums, collecting a float premium. Of course they are limited in how much risk they can take with the money they are holding to pay out any possible claims.  Regulators generally require them to put a certain amount in a “risk free “ asset like government debt, and the rest in riskier assets. If government debt is negative yielding, we again get to a destructive feedback loop that has major second order impacts.

From the Gavekal note:  

The insurance company could raise its premium by the amount of the expected loss from holding the bond (not very commercial), or it could just underwrite less business. Either way, it will have less money to invest in equities and real estate. Simply put, either the insurance company’s clients will pay the negative rates, or the company itself will do so by increasing its risks without raising returns. This means that either the client pays more for insurance, and so becomes less profitable, or the insurance company takes a hit to its bottom line.

People will have to pay more premiums for less insurance coverage.

Long term, negative rates will exacerbate the retirement crisis and basically destroy the business models of banks and insurance companies as we know them. This doesn’t automatically mean negative interest rates can’t persist. Perhaps there are other ways to provide for old people (ie higher taxes on a shrinking economy?) Banks and insurance companies can find other ways to make money. Regulators might respond, by changing rules or creating various incentive programs.

In this post I only covered only a few of the second order impacts of negative interest rates. Negative interest rates make the capital asset pricing model give nonsensical infinite results. I think CAPM is mostly bullshit anyways, but enough people use it that it has a reflexive impact on asset pricing. Unwinding it won’t be easy. I didn’t even touch on how negative rates can screw up the plumbing of financial markets: repo markets, securities settlement , escrow etc. Not enough people have really thought this all through. Many of the assumptions that have historically driven investor behavior will no longer hold if negative rates persist.

Maybe interest rates will normalize again. It will wipe out a few of the most overleveraged players, but the financial system will recover quickly. On the other hand, if negative rate do persist, get ready for a slew of unintended consequences in places you didn’t expect.

See also:

Mysterious by Howard Marks at Oaktree

Empty Spaces on Maps

Prior to the 15th century,  maps generally contained no empty spaces.  Mapmakers simply left out unfamiliar areas, or filled them with imaginary monsters and wonders.  This practice changed in Europe as the great age of exploration began. In Sapiens, Yuval Harari argues that leaving empty spaces on maps reflected a more scientific mindset, and was a key reason that Europeans were able to conquer and colonize other continents, in spite of starting with a technological and military disadvantage.   Conquerors were curious, but the conquered were uninterested in the unknown. Amerigo Vespucci, after whom our home continent was named, was a strong advocate of leaving unknown spaces on maps blank. Explorers used these maps to move beyond the known,  sailing into those empty spaces so they did not stay unmapped for long.

The same phenomenon occurs in business. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen shows why large established ostensibly well-run companies so frequently miss out on major waves of innovation.   A key principle in the book is the difference between sustaining technologies, which merely improve the status quo, and disruptive technologies, which offer a new and unique value proposition.  Large companies will frequently focus on sustaining technologies, and ignore disruptive technologies that serve fringe markets initially. Ultimately its disruptive technologies that define business history. Yet complacent companies don’t figure that out until its too late.

Companies whose investment processes demand quantification of market sizes and financial returns before they can enter a market get paralyzed or make serious mistakes when faced with disruptive technologies.

There are two parts to overcoming the innovator’s dilemma:

  • Acknowledging that the market sizes and potential financial returns of a nascent market are unknowable and cannot be quantified  (drawing the blank spaces on the maps) and;
  • Entering the nascent market in the absence of quantifiable data- (travelling into the empty space) 

Analogous ideas also apply to investing.  In Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable, Richard Zeckhauser distinguishes between situations where the probability of future states is known, and when it is not.     The former is the realm of academic finance and decision theory. The latter is the real world.  

The real world of investing often ratchets the level of non-knowledge into still another dimension, where even the identity and nature of possible future states are not known. This is the world of ignorance. In it, there is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.

Human bias leads us into classic decision traps when confronted with the unknown and unknowable. Overconfidence and recollection bias are especially pernicious. Yet just because we are ignorant doesn’t mean we need to be nihilists.    The essay has some key optimistic conclusions:

The first positive conclusion is that unknowable situations have been and will be associated with remarkably powerful investment returns. The second positive conclusion is that there are systematic ways to think about unknowable situations. If these ways are followed, they can provide a path to extraordinary expected investment returns. To be sure, some substantial losses are inevitable, and some will be blameworthy after the fact. But the net expected results, even after allowing for risk aversion, will be strongly positive.

Examples in the essay include David Ricardo buying British Sovereign bonds on the eve Battle of Waterloo, venture capital, frontier markets with high political risk, and some of Warren Buffet’s more non-standard insurance deals.  Yet since even the industries that seem simple and steady can be disrupted, its critical to keep these ideas in mind at all times in order to avoid value traps. 

The best returns are available to those willing to acknowledge ignorance, then systematically venture into blank spaces on maps and in markets.

Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable

See also:

A Different Kind of Death Spiral: ETFS, Mutual Funds and Systemic Risk

The rapid growth of ETFs is one of the most significant changes to financial markets in the last decade. Total ETF AUM grew from $0.5 trillion in 2008 to over $3 trillion by the end of 2017. More remarkably, AUM of ETFs invested in illiquid sectors such as global bank loan , emerging market bonds, and global high yield bonds increased 14 fold from $10 billion 2007 to $140 billion at the end of 2017. Prior to the last financial crisis, ETFs were a relatively small niche, but these past few years it seems like every asset manager has launched an ETF. Most investors have a large portion of their retirement assets in ETFs, and many investors exclusively invest in ETFs.

This is a major systemic change from what was in place prior to the last financial crisis. Since markets go through cycles its worth asking: how will the ETF ecosystem hold up next time there is market turmoil?

ETFs have overall been a massive benefit to investors because they lowered costs. Yet as more and investors put more and more money into ETFs, there are growing signs of distortions. Some investors have pointed out how ETFs are creating bizarre valuations that are unlikely to be sustainable. Additionally, there are growing signs that the ETF structure is far more fragile than most market participants realize. These aren’t just doom and gloom conspiracies from Zero Hedge. Organizations such as the IMF, DTCC, G20 Financial Stability Board, and the Congressional Research Service have all pointed out possible risks from the unintended consequences of ETF growth.

How the ETF ecosystem works

The structure and mechanics of ETFs are unique and different from mutual funds.  Unlike mutual funds, ETFs generally don’t have to meet redemptions in cash.  The key difference is the role of Authorized Participants (APs), and the arbitrage mechanism.  The Congressional Research Service provides a handy diagram explaining the structure (Most fund sponsors have similar diagrams in their whitepapers)  :

ETF Liquidity Leveraged Loan ETFs

From the same CRS paper:

In a typical ETF creation process, the ETF sponsor would first publish a list of securities in an ETF share basket. The APs have the option to assemble and deliver the securities basket to the ETF sponsor. Once the sponsor receives the basket of securities, it would deliver new ETF shares to the AP. The AP could then sell the ETF shares on a stock exchange to all investors. The redemption process is in reverse, with the APs transferring ETF shares to sponsors and receiving securities.

ETF shares are created and redeemed by authorized participants in the primary market. The fund sponsors do not sell their ETF shares directly to investors; instead, they issue the shares to APs in large blocks called “creation units” that usually consist of 50,000 or more shares. The APs’ creation and redemption process often involves the purchase of the created units “in-kind” rather than in cash. This means that the shares are exchanged for a basket of securities instead of cash settlements.
The supply of ETF shares is flexible, meaning that the shares can be created or redeemed to offset changes in demand; however, only authorized participants can create or redeem ETF shares from the sponsors. A large ETF may have dozens of APs, whereas smaller ETFs could use fewer of them.

The “arbitrage mechanism” is a key feature of the ETF ecoystem. The market incentivizes APs to correct supply demand imbalances for ETFs because they can always exchange underlying shares for the securities in the portfolio and vice versa. So theoretically ETFs should not end up with discounts or premiums to NAVs like closed end funds.

Additionally, since the ETF Sponsor can redeem in kind, rather than in cash, they don’t need to sell underlying securities to meet redemption requests, like with mutual funds. Additionally, unlike with mutual funds, you get some intraday price transparency. Sometimes media commentary on “illiquid assets in liquid wrappers” mixes these up, but the nuance is important to how the respective ecosystems will react to market turmoil.

The arbitrage mechanism is a huge benefit for ETFs, and it works pretty well for deep liquid markets, like large cap stocks. Yet with less liquid assets such as leveraged loans or high yield bonds, there is reason to worry. ETFs haven’t really solved the liquidity mismatch problem. Closely related, any understanding of market history leads us to conclude that APs are unlikely to function in a falling market.

Liquidity mismatch in ETFs

Theoretically if there is a flood of selling at ETF level, APs can buy from portfolio managers, then exchange for underlying securities. However what happens if there is no bid/ask for some or all of the underlying securities?

There are several large ETFs that consist of leveraged loans and high yield bonds. A retail investor can have instant liquidity in the ETF market, and theoretically if there is an imbalance in the secondary market APs will step in and exchange ETF shares for the underlying bonds and loans. Yet these underlying assets can go days without actually trading(they are “trade by appointment”) . ETFs may be a small percentage of all outstanding bonds/loans, yet there is very little turnover of these assets, and often its difficult to get pricing. Its not clear how the market would respond if there was a macro event that caused loan prices to gap down, and investors to seek redemptions from ETFs en masse. Prior to the last financial crisis, few ETFs held high yield bonds, and no ETFs held leveraged loans.

According to the DTCC:

Some analysts assert that ETFs have become so large in certain markets that the underlying securities may no longer be sufficiently liquid to facilitate ETF creation/redemption activity during periods of stress and could result in price dislocations.

From Duke Law’s FinReg Blog:

Consider a crisis scenario where selling pressure causes underlying assets (like fixed income securities) to become illiquid and rapidly lose value prompting ETF holders to quickly sell their shares. Here market makers and APs would likely widen their bid-ask spreads to “compensate for market volatility and pricing errors.” Increased fund redemptions in the primary market could also detrimentally change the composition of the underlying portfolio basket causing APs – who no longer want to redeem ETF shares and receive, in-kind, the plummeting and illiquid securities – to withdraw from the market altogether.

Also notable, post financial crisis regulatory changes caused bond dealers to hold less inventory. This can mean less liquidity in a crisis, as this recent academic paper notes:

When an extreme crisis hits, historically, OTC market liquidity disappears. That is, no one is available to take the other side of the trade. There are simply no bids, no offers, and no trading activity in OTC markets. The recent reduction in dealer inventories means that markets will be even more volatile in the next crisis.

This is unlikely to be a problem for deep liquid markets such as large cap stocks. So any problem with popular stock index funds is likely to be resolve itself quickly But it could take a long time to unwind problems in leveraged loan and high yield bond ETFs.

Won’t the APs fix this?

Its important to emphasize that the APs have no fiduciary duty to provide liquidity. The AP will have an agreement with the fund sponsor, but the fund sponsor does not compensate the AP directly. APs can profit by acting as dealers in the secondary market, or clearing brokers, thus collecting payment for processing and creation/redemption of ETF shares from a wide variety of market participants. APs can stop providing liquidity anytime they want. In the event of a crisis it may be prudent to do so. From Duke Law:

As such, a reliance on discretionary liquidity, in the context of a crisis is inherently “fragile” since dealers and market makers will stop providing it once they start incurring losses, or their balance sheets are negatively impacted from other exposures and they can no longer bear the additional risk from providing the liquidity support

In 2013 some ETFs traded at a steep discount when Citigroup hit its internal risk limits.   That was in the middle of a great bull market.  What will happen if there is a serious macro problem? As a historical precedent, during the financial crisis the auction rate security market collapsed when discretionary liquidity providers exited due to turmoil.

A different kind of death spiral

There are risks for both ETFs and Mutual Funds that hold illiquid assets. However the  reasons are different, and the nuances of a blow up will be different. 

A mutual fund can get exemptive relief from the SEC to suspend cash redemptions in extreme circumstances. Mutual fund investors, who thought they had a daily liquidity vehicle, are left holding an illiquid asset. This happened to the Third Avenue Focused Credit fund a couple years back. This caused a short lived mini-panic in the high yield debt market. When the fund suspended cash redemptions, they paid redemptions in shares of a liquidating trust. An outside party offered to buy the shares at a 61% discount to the NAV, which had already declined sharply.

In the case of an ETF it’s a bit more complicated.  The death spiral could simply take the form of a self reinforcing feedback loop.   Retail investors would be able to exit, albeit at a steep discount.  APs would sell underlying securities that they can sell, causing prices to plummet, causing further retail panic.   Some assets are more illiquid than others, and once once the dust settles, the ETF will be left holding the most illiquid and opaque assets.  

During the past few years we’ve seen a few tremors. There was the short incident in 2013 mentioned above. In May 2010 and August 2015 there were large one day price swings in more liquid parts of the ETF market probably caused by algorithms. In February 2018 there was the great VIX blowup/ “volmageddon”. The VIX example was a bit different because it involved very unique derivatives, but I think the bigger more interesting problems could be in the credit space.    In 2018Q4 there was some volatility in the credit space, and MSCI noted ETFs appeared to have a mild impact on bid/ask spreads. Yet by historical standards what happened in 2018Q4 was very minor.

These examples all occurred during a long bull market. What will happen in the next 2008 type scenario? I Still need to look more into how they might actually unwind.

So what can an investor do?

Most ETFs(and mutual funds) will probably be fine. During a crisis there might be temporary NAV discounts even for large cap index funds and lots of panic selling all around. Mutual fund investors will redeem at the worst possible time, and funds will sell shares into a falling market to meet these requests. Headlines will be full of doom and gloom. The prudent thing for most investors will be to ignore it all. Continue dollar cost averaging across the decades to retirement and beyond.

Nonetheless, investors holding some of the more esoteric, illiquid ETFs and mutual funds could be in for an unpleasant surprise and possible permanent capital impairment. Even though these potentially problematic funds are a small portion of the overall market, there is likely to be systemic contagion, as the IMF noted.

I’ve purchased some cheap puts on more fragile ETFs(mainly high yield bond and leveraged loan) although the lack of an imminent catalyst means that the position size needs to be small. I’ll be looking more closely at the way these different types of structures are unwound, since there are likely to be some major time sensitive opportunities next time it occurs.

Other possible case studies of the unwinding of illiquid assets in liquid wrappers:

  • UK open end commercial property funds during Brexit vote
  • Auction rate securities during financial crisis
  • Interval Funds during the financial crisis.
  • Other mutual fund redemption suspensions and ETF tremors?

See also:

Is Credit Really the Smart Money?

Why all great investors are intellectual cross dressers

A recurring motif in Capital Returns: Investing Through the Capital Cycle, by Edward Chancellor is that growth vs. value is a false dichotomy:

Our belief is that stocks should be viewed not as “growth” or “value” opportunities, but rather from the perspective of whether the market is efficiently valuing their future earning prospects.

Marathon’s approach is to look for investment opportunities among both value and growth stocks, as conventionally defined. They come about because the market frequently mistakes the pace at which profitability reverts to the mean. For a “value” stock, the bet is that profits will rebound more quickly than is expected and for a “growth stock,” that profits will remain elevated for longer than market expectations.

Marathon looks to invest in two phases of an industry’s capital cycle. From what is misleadingly labelled the “growth” universe, we search for businesses whose high returns are believed to be more sustainable than most investors expect. Here, the good company manages to resist becoming a mediocre one.From the low return, or “value” universe, our aim is to find companies whose improvement potential is generally underestimated. In both cases, the rate at which a company reverts to mediocrity (or “fade rate”) is often miscalculated by stock market participants. Marathon’s own experience suggests that the resultant mispricing is often systematic for behavioural reasons.

Labelling fund managers as “value” or “growth investors risks distorting the investment process

Warren Buffett discussed a similar idea in Berkshire Hathaway’s 1997 Shareholder letter:

…most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: “value” and “growth.” Indeed, many investment professionals see any mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross- dressing.


We view that as fuzzy thinking (in which, it must be confessed, I myself engaged some years ago). In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.
In addition, we think the very term “value investing” is redundant. What is “investing” if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid? Consciously paying more for a stock than its calculated value – in the hope that it can soon be sold for a still-higher price – should be labeled speculation (which is neither illegal, immoral nor – in our view – financially fattening).

Whether appropriate or not, the term “value investing” is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics – a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield – are in no way inconsistent with a “value” purchase.

Similarly, business growth, per se, tells us little about value. It’s true that growth often has a positive impact on value, sometimes one of spectacular proportions. But such an effect is far from certain….

…Growth benefits investors only when the business in point can invest at incremental returns that are enticing – in other words, only when each dollar used to finance the growth creates over a dollar of long-term market value. In the case of a low-return business requiring incremental funds, growth hurts the investor.


Berkshire Hathaway’s 1997 Shareholder letter

False dichotomy, but useful heuristic

Growth vs. value is a false dichotomy, but it might be a useful heuristic for organizing a portfolio. With a “value” investment, you are buying assets, and betting on a reversion to the mean. Generally this means other people are overestimating the bleakness of the future. With a “growth” investment you are buying the future business, betting on change. Generally this means other people are underestimating the brightness of the future.

The key is having an intellectually honest variant view.

Venture capital and value investing

In a similar vein, its easy to see how venture capital and value investing are actually quite similar. Both are mispriced bets on the probability of change.

Tren Griffin wrote about this:

Venture capital and value investing share many different elements but each system is based on a different mispricing. This is a critically important point for an investor to understand. If an asset is not mispriced, market outperformance is not mathematically possible. It is also important to understand that investments can be mispriced for different reasons.


In venture capital the mispricing occurs because very few investors or asset owners understand optionality. This allows a VC to buy what are essentially long-dated, deeply-out-of-the-money call options from companies at prices which are a bargain.

In value investing the mispricing occurs because the market is bipolar (i.e., neither always rational nor always efficient). This allows an investor to sometimes buy assets at a price which reflects a discount to intrinsic value (i.e., a bargain) and to wait for a good result rather than trying to “time” the market.

The fundamental difference between venture capital and value investing

Marc Andreessen, in an interview with Tim Ferriss, expressed a similar idea, noting how much he studies and admires Warren Buffett:


… every time I hear a story like See’s Candies, I want to go find the new scientific superfood candy company that’s going to blow them right out of the water. We’re wired completely opposite in that sense. Basically, he’s betting against change. We’re betting for change. When he makes a mistake, it’s because something changes that he didn’t expect. When we make a mistake, it’s because something doesn’t change that we thought would. We could not be more different in that way. But what both schools have in common is an orientation toward, I would say, original thinking in really being able to view things as they are as opposed to what everybody says about them, or the way they’re believed to be.”

Business Lessons From Marc Andreeseen

A decent portfolio has a combination of mean reversion bets, and underpriced deep out of the money options. It pays to be an intellectual cross dresser

Aggregators by any other name

In the past I have been a knee jerk advocate of disintermediation. However upon closer examination I realized that the reality of middlemen is far more nuanced. Many people believe that modern technology is eliminating middleman, yet in fact their role is changing shape, not disappearing. In the Middleman Economy , Marina Krakovsky examines this aspect of the modern economy. The Private Investment Brief has also produced valuable analyses of middleman business models. Additionally, Michael Munger’s paper puts this all into a historical context with emphasis on the importance of reduced transaction costs.


Conventional wisdom says that middleman take a cut of every deal, so they raise buyer costs and reduce seller profits. In reality by facilitating transactions that would otherwise not happen at all, good middlemen enlarge the size of the pie, making all parties better off. Many people assume that middlemen’s work is easy because they don’t actually create anything. But to create value… good middlemen must cultivate distinct skills and practices, which they deploy in work that until now has been largely hidden from public view…

“Instead of the of the demise of the middlemen, we are seeing the rise of the middleman. In fact , ours is more than ever a middleman economy.”


Marina Krakovsky, Middleman Economy

There seems to be a gap between public perception and market reality. Therein lies the opportunity:

And yet—thousands of years after it first occurred to someone to ask “why don’t they just cut out the middleman?”—middlemen continue to exist and even thrive. Therein lies the opportunity, for if we can learn to appreciate what others dismiss or misunderstand, we might then have an investing green field all to ourselves


-Mystery of the Middleman

Indeed, Michael Munger takes it even further and argues that we are experiencing a profound historical shift that will alter capital allocation incentives across the economy:

The Neolithic revolution made it possible for humans to enter complex relations of more or less voluntary dependence, and to share economies of organization and information. The Industrial revolution created an astonishing burst of productivity, which made ownership of
a bewildering variety of commodities and tools possible for all but the poorest of people, where just 50 years before such items would have denied all but wealthiest. The Middleman revolution, the third revolution whose leading edges we are now crossing, will transform owning
into sharing. The Middleman revolution will make it possible, for the first time, for entrepreneurs to create value almost exclusively by reducing the transactions costs of sharing existing commodities, or by sharing commodities or services made expressly to be shared by the new platforms and new market processes.

Michael Munger: The Third Entrepreneurial Revolution: A Middleman Economy

Aggregators by any other name

In a world where buyers and sellers can just find each other online quickly and easily, middleman must be obsolete, right?


Wait a minute…

Often when people talk about cutting out the middleman, they are actually just replacing it with a new middleman. All the aggregator platforms are in fact distinct breeds of middlemen whose businesses are made possible by the internet. Examples include: Airbnb, Lyft and Uber, Taskrabbit, Grubhub, ZocDoc, etc. Instead of a person, buyers and sellers deal with software on a website that is developed and managed by people. As Krakovsky points out:

In many ways, the internet is a middleman’s ally. Thanks to the internet, middlemen who used to do business in person — a position that limited their geographic reach can a attract customers from all over and can share information with them more quickly and easier than ever…

These days, two sided markets (sometimes called two-sided networks or two sided platforms ) are everywhere because many of today’s internet startups are middlemen business of exactly this type


See also:

Aggregation Theory Stratechery
Aggregator Economics-Private Investment Brief
Modern Monopolies

Multidisciplinary thinking

Understanding middleman requires multidisciplinary thinking. There isn’t really one accepted definition, and there are many different angles from which to analyze how this social and economic phenomenon works:

Economic theory has much to say about transaction-cost economics, two sided markets, and intermediaries ability to reduce information asymmetries between buyers and sellers. In particular, game theory informs our understanding of repeated interactions, reputation, shirking and cheating, and third party enforcement. Social psychology and experimental economics show how acting on behalf of others affect people’s behavior and impressions. And sociology offers insights into the way acting on behalf of others affects people’s behavior and impressions. And sociology offers insights into the ways the structures of social networks create opportunities for middlemen

Six kinds of Middlemen

Krakovsky identifies five different roles that middleman can play. These roles define what middleman’s trading partners expect, so its critical for a middleman to know what role they play, and do play it well. They often overlap, so a successful business may fill of these roles at different times in the same supply chain.

Bridge

A bridge promotes trade by reducing distance(either physical, social or temporal). RA Radford’s study on the development of a market in a WWII POW camp is a stark example. An itinerant priest was willing to connect disparate groups who did not interact, facilitating trade along the way.

Another example featured in the New York Times and highlighted by Private Investment Brief involves an Afghanistan based used clothing wholesaler who makes an annual trip to Pakistan to buy bulk clothing. He is able to succeed for many reason, one of which is the fact that he reduces the fixed costs of dealing with travel, customs, logistics, etc.

Certifier

A certifier gives reassurance about underlying quality. This is important anywhere there is need for a trusted third party. Essentially, they help fix information asymmetry in a market. That same clothing wholesaler who facilitated trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan was also known as a trusted counter party to disparate group of buyers and sellers.

Trust is an elusive and intangible quality, so those of us in the more contemplative, analytical corners of the business world tend to underestimate how important it is to people transacting day to day


Mystery of Middlemen

Enforcer

An enforcer makes buyers and sellers cooperate and stay honest. Like certifiers, they are important in situations where there is need for a trusted third party. My favorite example of an enforcer is the role of a pimp at a truck stop in Uganda.

Risk Bearer

A risk bearer reduces fluctuations. Micro VCs play this role, especially now that technology has drastically reduced the cost of starting businesses. “Uber for this or that” business models are an example of a risk bearer business model. Additionally in the Japanese fish markets, risk bearing middleman ensure smooth functioning of trade in a highly perishable commodity.

Concierge

A concierge reduces hassles and helps clients deal with information overload. For example, travel agents, in spite of widespread predictions of their demise, play a critical role in high end business travel as concierge middlemen.

Insulator

An insulator helps clients get what they want without being though of as too greedy, self promotional, or confrontational. Sports agents help defuse tensions between players and teams. Additionally, sometimes an investor will use a broker to build up a position without signalling the market. This may be essential in distressed and illiquid securities, or disputed situations.

Transaction costs

Munger looks at markets in the broad sweep of history. The role of technology, he argues, is in creating a new “entrepreneurial revolution” that makes middleman more important in an an economy based on sharing, not owning.


The third entrepreneurial revolution will be based on innovations that reduce transactions costs, not the costs of the products themselves. An unimaginable number and variety of transactions will be made possible by software platforms that make renting from a middleman, rather than renting from one’s self, cheaper.

A former student of Douglass North, Munger emphasizes the transaction cost angle throughout:

To succeed, a middleman has to reduce three key transactions costs:
• Provide information about options and prices in a way that is searchable, sortable, and immediate
• Outsource trust to assure safety and quality in a way that requires no investigation or
effort by the users
• Consummate the transaction in a way that is reliable, immediate, and does not require negotiation or enforcement on the part of the users

How much due diligence is enough?

“They can’t touch me. I do my homework”
-John Boyd

How much investment due diligence is enough? How much is too much?

The amount of research an investor should do before making an investment depends on three factors: 1) Size of Position 2) Illiquidity of position, and 3) Contrary nature of position.

The Kelly Criterion is a good heuristic, although in real life we never know exact probabilities. Most investments will succeed or fail on one or two factors. The key is to identify those and understand them better then the person selling to us. Anything beyond that is just for fun. Indeed a lot of investors really like to dig. But the 80/20 rule applies. Think jiujitsu not powerlifting.

Position Size


Position sizing is part math and part psychology. The bigger a position, the more a person has to check and double check. This isn’t just a number in a spreadsheet. Conduct a premortem. What is the maximum pain you can take? The only way to survive a large position going against you is to have the confidence in your research.

Its critical not to get causation wrong here. If “concentration” is part of one’s identity as an investor, there is a major risk confirmation bias will takeover and more research will just make them more sure of a false idea. Remember smarter people are actually at greater risk of confirmation bias.

If the facts lineup, it might make sense to “go for the jugular”.

Illiquidity


For most individual investors, illiquidity is a secondary concern. Nonetheless an investor must consider it. An investor can easily sell a widely traded stock or ETF. But for illiquid positions, an investor needs to learn that information ahead of time.

Decisions that are easy to reverse can be made quickly. Decisions that are difficult or impossible to reverse require more analysis up front.

Contrarian nature


Markets are usually right. The more out of consensus a view is, the more data and analysis an investor must have to back it up. “Who is on the other side?” is probably the most important question in investing. I’m only comfortable if I understand the contrary position better than people who hold it.

Active investing requires active thinking.


With investment research an hour of active critical thinking is worth more than a week of passive reading

Techniques of due diligence depend on what’s available, and also on an individual personality. Some people are good at plowing through footnotes or analyzing sentiment data, others are highly skilled at interviewing industry experts. Since computers read 10-Ks the minute they come out, its essential to get creative with due diligence, but this does not mean digging for the sake of digging.

Example:

I was researching, a venture capital focused business development company (BDC) liquidation. Its investments holdings consisted of preferred stock in 11 venture stage companies, with most of the value concentrated in the top five holdings.

Although there was limited publicly available information on the financial condition or valuation of each individual holding, the filings disclosed the aggregate range and average of the metrics and assumptions used by the company in the valuation process to arrive at fair value of Level 3 Assets on the financial statements. My interest was piqued when I noticed that other public BDCs that owned some of the same asset were marking them at much higher prices. Nonetheless, I needed to verify the viability, and growth potential of the main underlying businesses.

I approached this issue from multiple angles:

One of the company’s largest assets was preferred stock in a company that operated a dating site. With permission from my wife, I set up a fake profile to see how the interface of the website and app worked, and to verify that there were indeed a large number real people using it in my area, and a few other cities I checked. This helped me corroborate information from user reviews I had read.

The company owned stock in a highly specialized medical testing startup. I reviewed the background of top employees on LinkedIn, university websites, and various scientific journals. Additionally I discussed the business idea with friends in academia. They verified that the idea had a reasonable chance of working, and would require an advanced degree to replicate.

Accounting rules gave management ample discretion on how to report the holdings on the balance sheet. I carefully reviewed everything they had disclosed about their valuation process, and tracked changes in language between different filings over time.

I also contacted the management of the BDC, and was able to reach the people in charge of the valuation process on the whole portfolio. They helped me understand the facts they were using to justify the valuations supplementing my careful reading of the public disclosure. The conversation verified that the BDC was indeed serious about liquidating its portfolio. Further they candidly reminded me how valuing the portfolio conservatively made the tax consequences of converting to a liquidating trust more favorable for investors(the management group was also a large shareholder).

I did a lot of unconventional work, but didn’t mindlessly dig for more info. It wasn’t a huge position but since its going to be locked up in a non transferable liquidiating trust, and it was an idea most people thought too ugly, a bit of extra work was justified.

The company already paid back most of my initial investment after selling one investment and the portfolio still has a lot of value. The true test will be in the final IRR when its all said and done.

See also: The hard thing about finding easy things

Renaissance Technologies Buying Microcaps

Those of us that invest in microcaps are accustomed to high volatility on low trading volume. Sometimes the company will report major news, and nothing happens to the price until a year later. Other days there are 20% swings when somebody places a 100 share market order.

When there is a surge in volume lasting more than a couple days and a definitive trend in price, it’s not uncommon to see Renaissance Technologies file a 13G, indicating a 5%(or higher) position.

What would such a large systematic trading firm be doing in this part of the market? Aren’t microcaps usually owned by fundamental focused investors? Funny thing is sometimes there is sufficient volume and a definitive trend, causing systematic traders to get interested. The market switches from value dominated to momentum activated, even in microcaps.

This is part of a broader phenomenon explained well in Market force, ecology and evolution:

If a substantial mispricing develops by chance, value investors become active. Their trading shrinks the mispricing, with a corresponding change in price. This causes trend followers to become active; first the short term trend followers enter, and then successively longer term trend followers enter, sustaining the trend and causing the mispricing to cross through zero. This continues until the mispricing becomes large, but with the opposite sign, and the process repeats itself. As a result the oscillations in the mispricing are faster than they would be without the trend followers.

In real life, prices are almost never at their equilibrium.

The Paradox of Alternative Data

“My God, they’re purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?” And he said, “Mister, I don’t sell to fish.

Informational edge can drive fantastic alpha while it lasts. This explains the increasing investment industry focus on non-traditional data sources, aka alternative data. If you are the first to acquire a new alternative data set, you might be able to develop insights no one has.

Yet once a lot of people are using it, it is less likely to drive alpha. It might be table stakes to not get screwed, or it might be already be instantaneously reflected in the price of assets.

Furthermore, most opportunities really hinge on a couple factors- more info isn’t always useful. That won’t stop the alternative data industry from doubling to $400 million by 2021, as a widely cited Tabb Group report predicts This is worth considering while one is caught up in an alternative data arms race.

Yet some data sets genuinely will provide an edge.

Perhaps a data set that no one else is looking at provides the edge you need. If a data set isn’t established as useful, the provider of that data will probably offer it cheaper in the early days of their business. There are so many alternative data providers out there, that marketing strategy is important for startups.

Ironically, the provider can charge higher price once word about its value gets out among investors.. So later adopters might pay more for an edge that is already gone.

Of course eventually someone will put all the data online for free and meta data of how investors use that alternative data can also be useful.

Now can I interest you in an alternative data feed that will make all your dreams come true?

See also: https://ockhamsnotebook.com/2016/09/18/the-hard-thing-about-finding-easy-things/

The ecological consequences of hedge fund extinction

Investing goes through fads.  Investing strategies and fund structures(1) go in and out of style.  Nowadays long/short hedge funds are out and infrastructure funds are in.   Within the public equity markets, value is out, growth/momentum is in. Each time this happens, people forget how the cycle repeats.  

In fact, one CIO contended that if he brought a hedge fund that paid him to invest to his board, the board would dismiss it without consideration — simply because it’s called a hedge fund, and hedge funds are bad.  

Institutional Investor

Hedge funds may have to do a name change if they want to raise capital.

Remember last time?

And yet people forget:

Allocators woke up craving the next rising hedge fund star and couldn’t invest enough at high and increasing management fees after the widespread success of long-short funds in the weak equity markets of 2000-2002. Board rooms back then castigated CIOs for not having long-short equity hedge funds in their portfolios.

This isn’t the first time:

People forget that 40 years ago, officials such as Paul Volcker of the Federal reserve wanted an active hedge fund industry to absorb the risk that was not well managed by state-insured banks.

Financial Times

Each investment strategy picks up a certain type of risk(and potentially earns a profit in doing so)- if a strategy disappears that particular risk can become a systemic issue.  Fortunately, around this time it also becomes more lucrative to bear the risk others are unwilling to bear. Eventually the risk reward tradeoff starts to make sense again.

Different, different, yet same

In the 1960’s Warren Buffett put up ridiculous returns, and Alfred Winslow Jones proteges profitably exploited anomalies in markets.  By the mid 1970’s of there were many articles about hedge funds shutting down though. Industry AUM declined ~70% peak to trough. Nifty fifty boom and bust followed by the long nasty bear market.  But as the institutional architecture of international trade and currency shifted we entered glory years of global macro/commodities traders. Then the 80’s were great for Graham deep value and Icahn style activist investing after the 70’s bear market left a huge portion of the market selling below liquidation value.

Likewise late 90’s again saw the death of hedge funds as day traders in pajamas earned easy returns from the latest dot-com- until the crash. Yet out of the rubble of the tech bubble rose a new generation of great hedge fund managers. There was rich pickings for surviving value hunters- and those with the guts and skills to execute became household names a few years later.   Many value managers that nearly went out of business during the tech bubble put up ridiculous numbers 2000-2002 and through the next financial crisis. (See: The arb remains the same)

The greatly exaggerated death of a style gives rise to an environment where there is a plethora of opportunities for something similar to that style to work.   Each time the narrative in the greater investment community favors some type of uniform strategy, and LPs give less capital to other strategies- causing them to nearly die off.  But then the lack of people pursuing the out of fashion strategy makes its return potential more lucrative. Eventually someone finds a new method to pick up those dollar bills on the ground that shouldn’t exist.

Economics emphasizes rational actors and equilibrium.   Yet the messy reality is far more complicated. Ecology is a far more useful  mental model.

A giant self over-correcting ecosystem

There is in ecological function to speculative capital and over time there should be some excess returns to those willing to take mark-to-market losses

Financial Times

Like biological species, financial strategies can have competitive, symbiotic, or predator-prey relationships. The tendency of a market to become more efficient can be understood in terms of an evolutionary progression toward a richer and more complex set of financial strategies.

Market force, ecology and evolution

Ecology emphasizes interrrelationships between different individuals and groups within a changing environment, and indentifies second order impacts.  

Thinking like a biologist

One can develop a useful framework by replacing species with strategy, population with capital, etc

Flows and valuation interact, self correct, and overshoot.  

….capital varies as profits are reinvested, strategies change in popularity,and new strategies are discovered. Adjustments in capital alter the financial ecology and change its dynamics, causing the market to evolve. At any point in time there is a finite set of strategies that have positive capital; innovation occurs when new strategies acquire positive capital and enter this set. Market evolution is driven by capital allocation.

Market evolution occurs on a longer timescale than day-to-day price changes. There is feedback between the two timescales: The day-to-day dynamics determine profits, which affect capital allocations, which in turn alter the day-to-day dynamics. As the market evolves under static conditions it becomes more efficient. Strategies exploit profit-making opportunities and accumulate capital, which increases market impact and diminishes returns. The market learns to be more efficient.

Evolution

When an ecoystem is overpopulated with a certain species, it eventually overshoots and results in mass starvation. Populations fluctuate wildly across decades, and sometimes species go extinct or evolve into something that seems new.  

New conditions give rise to new dominant species.

See also:

George Soros on disequilibrium analysis
The arb remains the same

Book:
Investing: The Last Liberal Art
Hedgehogging
More Money than God


(1) Although I am frequently pedantic about the differences between structure, strategy, and sector, many in the media seem to use these interchangeably when discussing reversion to mean situations.  Fortunately they all exhibit the same boom/bust phenomenon, so I am using them interchangeably here.

The arb remains the same

Imagine if Warren Buffett of 1960 puts down the deadtree 10-K he got in the mail and time travels forward to 2019. Then he looks over the shoulder of an analyst at present day O’Shaughnessy Asset Management. He would find the scene unrecognizable.

Or, if the original Jesse Livermore time traveled from the 1920s stock exchange to the present day trading floor of DE Shaw or Renaissance. Again, completely unrecognizable.

Back in the day people went to the SEC office in the Washington DC to access annual reports faster. That was how one got a fundamental edge.  Now people scrape filings the minute they come out. Or use satellites and credit card data to get an edge on information before it hits regulatory filings. People used to gauge momentum by looking at the facial expressions of other traders, now they use complex computer models. People mine market and fundamental data around the globe looking for a bit of an edge.  New techniques, same thing.

Over time there is the change in the physical activities, and words we use to describe the process of identifying and exploiting market inefficiencies.  Nonetheless the ecological function is the same. Investors are just looking for mispriced risk, and exploiting it till its no longer mispriced.

Around the world there are unfair coins waiting for someone to flip them. Arbitrageurs will need to use weirder and weirder methods to find and exploit them. Methods change, but the arb remains the same.

See also:

The hard thing about finding easy things
Riches among the ruins