The Speed of Change – Buying Puts and Calls

Value investing can be counter-intuitive at times.  Acting against our own intuitions is not an easy thing to do; it’s uncomfortable.  We form our thoughts and reasons based on what we see and experience in the present, and extrapolating our present situation into what the future holds is something we all do.  Predicting the trajectory of long-term trends that have already begun is not rocket science, but investing requires you to be right about the trend, as well as the timing of that trend.

Bill Gates wrote the following a while ago

‘we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.’

It comes to mind as I think about some of the stocks we hold, some of the stocks that are doing really well and the difference between a great company and a great investment. There is a lesson in the drivers of value investing and how it interacts with momentum, and more broadly on real visceral fears that are out there, manifesting themselves in the politics of both the left and the right. One way to think of value vs growth investing is as extrapolations of the current set of worries out to the future. Everyone remembers the Blockbuster video example, killed off by Netflix, and see that story writ large across big chunks of the rest of the economy and stock market. Disrupted businesses are everywhere – just this week Hertz announced a bad set of numbers, sequential declines in revenues and a bigger than expected loss. The stock got hit hard. On the other side? The new ride sharing services, Uber and Lyft, raising money at high valuations as people extrapolate to a future of self-driving on demand cars, and no place for old school Hertz. Amazon making it tough for big box retail is another example. Tech, robots and AI are coming for jobs and business as we know it.

Many instances of these seem perfectly valid, and it’s easy to paint the picture. The likes of Amazon, Netflix and Tesla are amazing businesses that have changed the world and achieved incredible things. The issue we have is that they seem priced for ever greater levels of growth into perpetuity, and don’t seem to take into account what we think is one of the key reasons value investing works – the people running the businesses are scared as well, and where they can, they fight back. Some will be unable to. But not all. Take General Motors and Tesla. General Motors trades around a 5 PE and pays a dividend north of 4%, and the last couple of years has about $9bn in income. The numbers are a bit different for Ford, but the picture about the same. That income is an enormous amount of firepower. The people running these businesses are not stupid, and I’ll bet are more worried about electric vehicles and driverless cars than you or I. The market focuses on Tesla and the incredible way it’s broken into the car market, its Gigafactory, and its solar roof product. They are extrapolating a future whereby Tesla hits the big time with its $35k Model 3 and kills off Ford and GM – at these prices that’s what is implied. Relating it to option buying, by buying Tesla investors are effectively buying calls on this amazing future – things need to get to this new world quicker, and it needs to be more amazing than it seems now. They may be right, but boy are those calls expensive here. With GM and Ford, we see value investing as akin to buying puts on the speed and scale of this societal change, and think that the extrapolation has gone too far – and doesn’t take into account the firepower of the businesses. If the transformation doesn’t happen, takes longer, or investors decide to pull financing from the Tesla project (and they sure will need a lot of funding to build out the scale the stock price is banking on) maybe things looks different and old Detroit transforms itself. That $9bn pays for a huge amount of R&D to fight back – indeed when you look at it, the first few firms to get an electric vehicle to market at a mass market price point have already done so. They Chevy Volt, the electric Ford Focus, the Nissan Leaf. GM is hiring 1000 engineers in Silicon Valley to expand Cruise Automation, the self-driving car unit it spent some $600m on last year. Ford is doing similar, investing $1bn in a self-driving car firm in Pittsburgh.  GM is into the battery game as well, opening battery factory in Shanghai. One can make the same case with Walmart and Amazon – Walmart has some $20bn in operating income, and an e-commerce business growing at 30% a year. At its root, Walmart isn’t too far from being an Amazon warehouse with a door and a checkout – it has a brand name, incredible logistics and supply chains – and won’t go down without a fight.

All of this isn’t to say that Tesla and Amazon aren’t incredible companies pushing the world forward – they certainly are. What they also do though, is to bring others up with them, galvanizing competitors into action. Capitalism in all its glory. We think the markets are extrapolating the future too far in both directions – the new kings Tesla and Amazon and their ilk to the high side and older world names to the low side. Back to the Bill Gates quote, investors are focused on the first part, over estimating the next two years at the expense of how things will look in ten years. The people in Detroit and Bentonville are focused on the second part, and not being lulled into inaction. Buying old Detroit at valuations like this is hard, it goes against the story of change. What you are doing by buying is really selling a put on the speed and scale of the change. We’ve seen a movie like this before at the turn of the century. New world growth expectations were out of hand and the growth premium over that five year period was enormous. The following five years were reversed, as value investing outperformed strongly. The chart below has some details on it. That’s how value investing works, in cycles, and it works because it’s uncomfortable.

 

To a Man With a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

This FT piece by Gavyn Davies is getting some attention. He makes the case that the upturn in growth we are currently seeing is likely not a secular shift from possible stagnation, but a (welcome) cyclical burst. He references San Francisco Fed President Williams recent paper concluding that the equilibrium real interest rate (r*) is likely to remain much lower than in the past. Briefly, r* is derived by reflecting on an ex post realized output gap relative to the Feds policy stance. If the Fed sets policy rates at what they think ex ante are very accommodative real interest rates relative to the estimate of neutral rates at that time, and yet over the forecast horizon growth doesn’t respond, they conclude that they haven’t been as easy as they thought. They then mark down what the neutral rate must have been, and then judge their current policy stance in relation to the new neutral rate. The effect of this is that in the Feds mind, policy rates at 0.5% could go from being thought of as very easy, to not that easy, if growth didn’t respond.  Even though the principal author of secular stagnation Larry Summers is clear that it is a hypothesis, this is lost on the commentariat who treat it as a gospel fact that we are doomed to live out as Japan for the medium to long term.

But is It true? Is it relevant for the future? How much weight should one put on the whole premise? To our eye it’s an exercise in false precision. These are the issues as we see them.

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The Man Who Knew Better

Roger Alcaly wrote the following review of The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan for the February 23, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books.

Alan Greenspan served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the most powerful financial position in the world, for eighteen and a half years, from early August 1987 through the end of January 2006. The second longest­-serving Fed chairman, his tenure largely coincided with a period sometimes called the “great moderation,” when economic growth was relatively steady, inflation low, recessions short and mild, and serious crises defused without debilitating downturns.

Under Greenspan’s leadership the Fed had an important and well­-publicized part in containing threats to the financial system and economy such as the stock market crash of 1987, the junk bond collapse a few years later, the Asian crisis of 1997 with the deep fall in the value of Asian currencies, Russia’s default in 1998, and the bursting of the tech­ stock bubble at the beginning of the new millennium. Although it may have received more credit than it was due, the Fed’s successes earned Greenspan widespread adulation, including the Financial Times anointing him “guardian angel of the financial markets” and Time saying he was chairman of “the Committee to Save the World.”

But despite—or because of—his achievements, Greenspan and the economy were eventually brought down by his continued failure to contain financial bubbles, sharp rises in market prices that were not reflected in underlying values. That a sustained period of stability and success in imiting potential dangers would engender complacency and hubris among both policymakers and investors is hardly surprising. Even so, Greenspan’s overconfidence is deeply troubling, for he, like the economist Hyman Minsky, was well aware of the dangers posed by financial bubbles that develop during periods of great stability. Sebastian Mallaby’s new biography, The Man Who Knew, ultimately aims to assess how seriously this one great failure undermines Greenspan’s legacy. Continue reading

Stability…or a Coiled Spring?

piggybankA while back I read a piece about political stability not being all it seems. It made the case that looks can be deceiving, and illustrated it something like this. Since 1945 Italy has had some 40 changes of prime minister. Saudi Arabia has had 6 rulers in the same period. North Korea has had 3. By that metric, Italy appears pretty unstable, while the other two look like oases of calm. But which keeps you up at night? For all the Machiavellian twists and turns in Italian politics, the political process has a way to reset the compression of the spring, to take out some of the tension every few years to stop it from popping, as the Italians turf out the incumbent and vote for a change. North Korea and Saudi Arabia on the other hand don’t have the mechanism, and need more and more pressure to keep it in place. The force underneath keeps on building though, the eventual reaction getting bigger. But that’s statistics for you – measured that way you get an answer on stability, but it’s probably the wrong one.

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The Bond Black Swan

Everyone knows that bonds are rich. Right thinking people and smart beta types have looked for ways to get fixed income type results without buying bonds. At this point, it feels like bond markets are driving asset prices the world over. Negative interest rates have perversely led to bonds being used for capital gains while equity markets are being used for income. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in the textbooks. Versions of these flows can be seen everywhere. Where bonds go, utility stocks, consumer staples, quality factors follow. Financials are the opposite of this flow, driven by net interest margins and return on equity. As bonds fall these stocks rally.

Here is a little thought experiment. Let’s compare the results of buying a basket of momentum stocks (single factor concentrated basket, price momentum) with the results of a basket tempered by volatility (2 factors, momentum (high is good), and volatility (low is good)). The difference between the two models shown below in blue, compared with the 10yr yield in red.

MomentumVs10Yr

Source: Bloomberg; Momentum results derived from back test using Mount Lucas proprietary models

Hmmmmm… people love low volatility momentum stocks because they look like bonds. But as Minsky made clear, over time the things people buy for stability can become a source of instability. The seeds of the demise are being sown, the price moves have brought forward a lot of future income.

2nd quarter PCE is going to be 4.5% annual rate. Things are looking up. What if rates do go up. The exit door will not be wide enough.

Algorithm Aversion: On Models and The Donald

Whatever your politics, one can’t help but be fascinated by the Trump phenomenon. One interesting aspect is how pollsters got Trump wrong. We can get insight into that mistake from Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight. To his immense credit, Silver admits he got Trump all wrong, and went back to have a look at the why and the how…. it boils down to a case of algorithmic aversion (see here and here).

Silver’s approach to forecasting, which has been extremely successful across a wide range of subjects, is based on aggregating data from multiple polls to build as big a sample as possible. It is a mechanical, quantitative, model based, statistical method. The model spits out an answer, and that is forecast. But in the Trump case, he over-rode the model. He had a bias, and in this instance he applied it to his forecast, and voila, a bad outcome. Even Silver, a devoted algorithmist if there ever was one, fell into the trap. He did not trust the model, even though it had been right so many times before.

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Bullard, Regime Switching and Trend Following

St Louis Fed President James Bullard has released a paper detailing a revised approach to economic forecasting. It’s a very smart way of looking at the world – read it here. Briefly, he is saying that the current way of viewing the world as converging to a single state is no longer useful and instead should be thought of as a set of possible regimes the economy could visit, with the regimes being generally persistent, requiring different monetary policy responses, and switches between regimes as not being forecastable. In his submission to the FOMCs quarterly economic projections, he declines to provide a forecast for the ‘Long Run’, as it is outside his model projection range. His low projection of the Fed Funds rate over the coming years reflects his view that the present regime has a low neutral real interest rate, a switch to a higher regime is unforecastable. If it were to happen, it would cause a change to many variables – policy would not reflect a gradual shift to a single state, but would have switched regimes.

This approach to forecasting was pioneered by James Hamilton. The math is pretty complex (lots of markov processes, etc.), but here is a simple way to look at it. Suppose we have two possible states in the world, the bull state and the bear state. The variable that determines the state is unobservable, and since you can’t see it, you can’t forecast it. Suppose in the bear state that the daily returns to an asset, like the stock market, are selected from a normal return distribution with a negative mean. Conversely, in the bull state, the mean is positive. If the state variable is pointing at bear, the trend will be down, if bull, the trend will be up. The trendiness of a market is determined by how likely we are to remain in the current state. For example, if the probability of jumping from one state to another is 5%, trends are more likely to persist than if the probability were 20%. What causes the state variable to jump is unknown, as Bullard describes.

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Trend Following in a Low Rate Environment

Can trend following make money in a low rate environment, and is it all bonds?

We often get asked whether trend following strategies can make money in a low interest rate environment, or in a similar vein, if trend following is just a levered long bond position that’s now run its course. In short, we think that higher rates can help some aspects of trend following strategies, but certainly should not be a driver of a long term allocation decision. The portfolio benefit of an allocation to trend following to an investor or plan with more traditional equity and credit market exposures is not solely – or even largely – driven by the fixed income exposure. Using a simple trend following model in commercial markets (commodity, fixed income and currency – we explain here why we think that’s the right approach) below we break down the sources of returns in times of crisis, and suggest an economic rationale as to why it isn’t just about bonds.

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A Macro Classic?

Classic_CokeMacro trades come in two flavors, modern and classic. Modern trades are short term, liquidity driven, mean reverting market dislocations. You stare at the screen, pounce, make or lose your money, and exit. Symmetric risk, big premium for risk management and timing. Classic trades are long term, cyclical shifts in the investment landscape. Classic trades take advantage of the myopic nature markets – extrapolating the present. Classic trades have the potential to make big money, because the risks are asymmetric and the herd is against you.

We think we see a macro classic – inflation. Take a look at this study from the St. Louis Fed… https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2016/february/future-oil-price-consistent-inflation-expectations. Current inflation expectations imply a future crude oil price of $0 under a semi-reasonable set of assumptions. Quibble with the model if you like, but you cannot escape the fact that current market pricing anticipate little future inflation. Am I able to predict what will drive future inflation….No. Like the card counter in blackjack, however, the deck sure looks rich.

Certain funds that Mount Lucas manages may or may not, from time to time, have positions which seek to realize an exposure to future inflation.  There is no guarantee that such positions, if established, will be established timely and exited profitably.

The Fed: Think Local Act Global?

Is the Fed the world’s central bank or a domestic institution? As we see it, this is the key question for the Fed at its next meeting. The economic data since the last meeting, looked at in isolation, should lead them to continue hiking the Fed Funds rate – simply put, the unemployment rate now stands at 4.9%, and inflation has made further progress back to the target with core CPI at 2.2%. The charts below show the progress toward the dual mandate. On the employment side we look at the unemployment rate against the NAIRU measure. On the inflation side we use the sticky and flexible price series.

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