With Trend Following – Beta Is Not Just Fine, It Is Preferable

One opportunity this stay-at-home quarantine has afforded us, sad as it may sound to some, is increased time to work through the pile of academic papers on quantitative finance. It is amazing how much great stuff is out there. When you come across one that happens to be right in your wheel house and makes the case in a MUCH smarter sounding way than we ever can, all to the better. Such as it was with this recent piece – When it pays to follow the crowd: Strategy conformity and CTA performance by Nicolas Bollen, Mark Hutchinson and John O’Brien from Vanderbilt University and University College Cork.

The authors find that contrary to other areas of fund management in hedge funds and mutual funds, where being different is a positive trait (research on active share in the equity space is informative – see here), when it comes to CTAs/Managed Futures being a purist is the right approach. The authors analyzed the data using two different methods. First they sort funds into style groupings and calculate a Strategy Distinctiveness Index – funds that have low correlations to the style. They then look at the performance of portfolios of funds based on the SDI score. Second, they empirically check by rebuilding a simple model for standard trend following and regress funds against that model. Closer to pure trend the better.

From the conclusion:

“Prior research has shown that strategy distinctiveness is a key determinant of cross sectional differences in hedge fund and mutual fund performance. It is intuitive that funds with more unique strategies should outperform, as the returns to more well-known strategies are competed away. However, futures markets are characterized by a high level of momentum, leading to the prevalence of trend following strategies. Consequently, trading against the crowd while pursuing an independent strategy may incur a high risk of failure.

We measure the distinctiveness of a CTA’s investment strategy following Sun et al. (2012). We estimate the correlation of a CTA’s return with that of its peers and classify funds with low correlation as high SDI funds. Our key result is that, in complete contrast to prior literature on SDI and hedge funds, SDI is negatively associated with future CTA performance. Funds that are more unique tend to underperform, after controlling for risks and styles, irrespective of holding period. Moreover, our evidence indicates SDI is an informative measure for predicting CTA performance only during times when momentum trading in futures markets yields positive returns. In summary, the best performing CTAs trade largely on momentum, and offer investors exposure to this strategy. Investors can realize a benefit over the full sample, but suffer losses when momentum strategies fail.”

A short interlude for some history on the authors of this blog. Mount Lucas has its roots at Commodities Corp, one of the birthplaces of the hedge fund industry some forty years ago. We spun out as we began to take on public pension plan clients, who subsequently required a benchmark for our performance. Remember, this was the 1980s, before there existed more indices than stocks and an index for absolutely everything. There were few benchmarks, and certainly no proper price based benchmarks for alternative investments. So we built one; the MLM Index. It is not exactly the same as the model used in the paper we are discussing, but its close enough to be representative. Long term trend following in a diversified set of representative markets. Although we have added some markets over the years, and altered the implementation a little, it has stood the test of time and is still running today. It is a great way to access the beta of CTAs and Managed Futures.

To our mind, if an investor’s goal is to obtain a representative, pure trend following return stream (and in our view it should be a component of all portfolios – see here) and being closer to the pack is a positive, then a low cost Index approach is a fine, if not preferable, solution.

Value and Rebalancing

The temptation is strong. The strategy you have used for years has underperformed. Why take the risk? Move back to the benchmark. Like a remake of a classic film, we have seen most of this before. In early 2009, pressure was on value stock managers to change their stripes. We recall a conversation from April 2009 with a foundation client invested in our Large Cap Value strategy. We had recently rolled to a new portfolio, and one of the selections was Wyndham Hotels. They were quite agitated – after the financial crisis it was unlikely that people would be going back to hotels for years. How could we? I took the quant’s way out of the question – “the model made me do it.” Wyndham was the best performing stock in the S&P 500 over the next 12 months.

The current reckoning certainly rhymes with the financial crisis. We must confess that even our conviction was challenged this time, and I promise you, ours runs deeper than most. Last week it was time to roll our value portfolio forward. Put the names back into the hat, take a fresh look, buy what is cheapest based on the models and caveats we employ. To add to the insult, it was also time to rebalance our multi-asset portfolios. What this meant was we had to buy a portfolio of decimated value names, in some cases buy more of them. Alaska Air? Kohl’s? Valero? MGM? Who is going to fly, go to a department store, get gas or gamble? Sure, these stocks have never really been cheaper, but come on. This is wake up in the middle of the night with these ticker symbols swirling in your head stuff. And you want us to buy more!

Take a deep breath. Think for a minute. What works? Buy when others are selling, sell when others are buying. Buy zero coupon bonds in the early 1980’s. Sell tech and buy value in 2000 (value was “broken” then, too). Sell crude at $150 (that’s when people stop buying gas). Value stocks look like that right now. They have discounted the end of air travel, retail, gasoline, and gambling. Never again will there be cash flow or dividends. We aren’t blind, we get that the near term is difficult for these names. But does that justify low single digit PEs? Or should it be mid-single digit PEs? Or can you look forward a few years and imagine a world different than today. For at least part of your portfolio, don’t you need to own the cheapest assets in the world? Rebalancing works best when you have volatile assets with low correlation and positive return – pump that volatility. What you shouldn’t do is sort by near term returns top to bottom and pile into the biggest winners. That’s not a portfolio.

Value stocks at this juncture are incredibly cheap. We aren’t the first people to say this, but it bears repeating nonetheless. The chart below shows the ratio of S&P Growth PE ratios to S&P Value PE ratios. There are bargains galore on offer, right now. Great businesses that are temporarily troubled and are being penalized to extreme degrees. Take advantage of it.

RatioSPGrowthValuePE

Data Source: Bloomberg, Mount Lucas LP

Stresses In The Bond and Funding Markets: Update 2.0

We are now a couple of weeks on from the last update we wrote looking at the actions the Fed had taken to stabilize bond and funding markets. Given last Thursday began with further announcements of expanding efforts to help, it seems a good time to revisit where things stand now. The commercial paper program is now up and running and we should be seeing the first of the “Economic Impact Payments” hitting household accounts right around now.

First, a recap of the most recent actions. April 9th saw the Fed announce actions to provide up to $2.3 trillion in loans to support the economy. They are doing this in a few ways, financing the loans banks are making to small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program. This is the program that gives small businesses a direct incentive to keep workers on the payroll, via loan forgiveness if all employees are kept on the payroll for 8 weeks post the first disbursal. Coupled with the expanded Unemployment Insurance benefits, the goal is to minimize the income shock as much as possible to workers by either increased benefits to laid off workers or aiding companies in paying wages to keep people employed through this period.

FRA-OIS spreads. This is a spread of a forward rate agreement to swap fixed interest payments at some point in the future compared with the overnight index swap rate. Think of it as a measure of the risk or cost for banks to borrow in the future relative to a risk free rate. A forward TED Spread. It reached almost 80bps, and has since settled in around 50bps. Still a bit high, but notably lower.

FRA-OIS update2

Source: Bloomberg

The Fed’s Commercial Paper Funding Facility became operational in the first half of April. This facility was announced earlier in the month – per the NY Fed – “to enhance the liquidity of the commercial paper market by increasing the availability of term commercial paper funding to issuers and by providing greater assurance to both issuers and investors that firms and municipalities will be able to roll over their maturing commercial paper.” The facility is a Special Purpose Vehicle, funded through the Department of the Treasury to hold commercial paper. Eligible issuers also include municipalities, and an issuer is able to repurchase its own outstanding commercial paper and finance it through the SPV. This space took a while longer to show signs of healing, and has a ways to go still, but some positive signs in the rates below.

CommercialPaper update2

Source: Bloomberg

On-the-run/Off-the-run Treasury spreads. Benchmark points on the yield curve – those at the 2y, 5y and 10y point for example – are of particular interest to market participants and are generally the most liquid parts of the curve, and have futures contracts tied to them. The US Treasury curve has many bonds of all maturities, including bonds that have similar characteristics to the benchmark points – like a bond maturing a month before or after the current benchmark point. Being so close in terms of maturity and having the same risk free issuer, these bonds normally trade more or less in lockstep. At the height of the bond market dislocations, they began to move apart. The resumption of very large scale US Treasury purchases from the Fed have worked in reducing the anomalies in this space. The chart shows a measure of the pricing dislocations – a number between -1/+1 is normal, we are now back in that range.

OffTheRun update2

Source: Bloomberg

Cross currency swap rates.The chart below shows Japanese Yen (JPY) funding costs. Roughly speaking this measures the extra cost over unsecured rates to swap JPY for USD at some future point. A Japanese company may swap JPY for USD today, with a 3m term. The cost of this should normally be the difference in relative unsecured lending rates (Libor etc). In periods of funding stress, a premium appears, which is the basis. The Fed eased the terms of its existing major swap lines and broadened the countries that can access the liquidity to include Brazil, Mexico, Australia South Korea and Australia amongst others. The updated chart for Japanese Yen shows the strain reducing substantially.

CrossCurrencySwaps update2

Source: Bloomberg

Credit spreads moved out aggressively in March. The Fed actions to launch two credit facilities backing corporate credit markets, a Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility for new bond and loan issuances and a Secondary Market Corporate Credit Facility to provide liquidity for outstanding corporate bonds has so far worked to narrow spreads and calm nerves.

creditspreads update2

Source: Bloomberg

At pixel time for the last update the Fed was rolling out a plan to lend as much as $500 billion to states and local government to aid them through this period. Spreads continue to stabilize here, and we are starting to see a return to issuance, with about double the number of offerings the next couple of days than last week.

Munis update2

Source: Bloomberg

One other area to keep an eye on as it pertains to credit availability, and also as it acts as something of an accelerant to activity. Mortgage spreads. These have moved wider on credit concerns, plumbing problems with mortgage buyers and refi demand. Part of the goal of lowering rates is to allow for widespread refinancing of mortgages and lower rates to grease the wheels of housing more generally. The more mortgage rates can track government rates down to new lows, the better. The chart below shows the difference between the Bankrate 30Y Mortgage National Average Rate and the US Ten Year Government bond.

mortgagespreads update2

Source: Bloomberg

So what to make of all these actions? Well first, time to update some priors. Even though rates were low, the Fed had room to act. Is it out of room now? We doubt it. If one has learned anything it is that a newly minted, awfully acronym-ed, facility can spring up and get funded fairly quickly. But don’t take our word for it – Fed Chair Powell literally went on the Today Show and told us – ‘We’re not going to run out of ammunition’. It is also worth noting that it is easier politically for programs to be extended in time and buying power now that they are here than it is to get them over the finish line first time round. To our eye, the policy actions from both the Fed and Congress are like using a pole to cross a ravine. It doesn’t matter how deep the ravine is, scary as it is to look down, it matters how wide it is. The real economy beginning to open up in the next couple of months will be welcome relief for all – many more quarters like this and the Fed and Congress will have to go back to the drawing board.

 

 

Stresses In The Bond and Funding Markets: Update

We wanted to post an update to our previous entry on Stresses in the Bond and Funding Markets and the Fed response. Over the last few days we have seen substantial easing in some of these markets as central bank actions have begun to filter through. Not all markets see the plumbing impacts immediately, as it can take some time for money to reach the target. Payments have to settle, loans extended, bond market programs fired up with funding and the like. The charts below are the same ones we showed before, in the eye of the storm (or at least we hope that was the eye).

FRA-OIS spreads. This is a spread of a forward rate agreement to swap fixed interest payments at some point in the future compared with the overnight index swap rate. Think of it as a measure of the risk or cost for banks to borrow in the future relative to a risk free rate. A forward TED Spread. It reached almost 80bps, and has since settled in around 50bps. Still a bit high, but notably lower.

FRA-OIS update

Source: Bloomberg

Commercial Paper markets continue to be wide. The Feds Commercial Paper Funding Facility becomes operational in the first half of April. This facility was announced earlier in the month – per the NY Fed – “to enhance the liquidity of the commercial paper market by increasing the availability of term commercial paper funding to issuers and by providing greater assurance to both issuers and investors that firms and municipalities will be able to roll over their maturing commercial paper.” The facility is a Special Purpose Vehicle, funded through the Department of the Treasury to hold commercial paper. Eligible issuers also include municipalities, and an issuer is able to repurchase its own outstanding commercial paper and finance it through the SPV. Watch this space.

CommercialPaper update

Source: Bloomberg

On-the-run/Off-the-run Treasury spreads. Benchmark points on the yield curve – those at the 2y, 5y and 10y point for example – are of particular interest to market participants and are generally the most liquid parts of the curve, and have futures contracts tied to them. The US Treasury curve has many bonds of all maturities, including bonds that have similar characteristics to the benchmark points – like a bond maturing a month before or after the current benchmark point. Being so close in terms of maturity and having the same risk free issuer, these bonds normally trade more or less in lockstep. Late last week, they began to move apart. The resumption of very large scale US Treasury purchases from the Fed have worked in reducing the anomalies in this space. The chart shows a measure of the pricing dislocations – a number between -1/+1 is normal, we are now back in that range.

OffTheRun update

Source: Bloomberg

Cross currency swap rates.The chart below shows Japanese Yen (JPY) funding costs. Roughly speaking this measures the extra cost over unsecured rates to swap JPY for USD at some future point. A Japanese company may swap JPY for USD today, with a 3m term. The cost of this should normally be the difference in relative unsecured lending rates (Libor etc). In periods of funding stress, a premium appears, which is the basis. The Fed eased the terms of its existing major swap lines and broadened the countries that can access the liquidity to include Brazil, Mexico, Australia South Korea and Australia among others. The updated chart for Japanese Yen shows the strain reducing substantially.

CrossCurrencySwaps update

Source: Bloomberg

LIBOR spreadsmeasure the spreads in different maturities of LIBOR rates. These can shift with expectations of upcoming monetary policy action, but generally speaking need to be kept orderly for markets to function well. As the market expected and wanted a cut to zero, rates moved considerably, this arguably called for the Fed to pull forward its planned cut. The Fed cut for second time on Sunday March 15th (and then cancelled the regular March meeting).

LiborSpreads update

Source: Bloomberg

The Fed’s goal here is to implement monetary policy – where stresses arise they will try and squash them. The capital ratios that are binding – reduced. Discount window stigma – gone. Overseas dollar costs going up – swap lines. Mortgages rates up a little – $200bn of MBS purchases. Treasury curve one-the-run/off-the-run blowing out, $500bn to fix. FRA-OIS spreads – squashed. Commercial paper blowing out – fire up the program. At times like these one starts to hear that the Fed must now be out of bullets. Rates are zero after all and what more can they do? Well people have said this for a while and here we are. The Fed is immensely powerful in dealing with this type of event, and clearly this time has acted very quickly and in particularly large size. As we write, another story comes up highlighting the impact on a different area where the Fed is now active, in corporate bonds. AAA CLO spreads have halved in two days. Municipal bond spreads were another area shifting out. The chart below shows the AAA muni yield as a percentage of the same duration US Treasury (relevant due to the different tax implications). So what did the Fed do – squashed it.

Munis update

Source: Bloomberg

Managed Futures and the Virus: Update

We posted a blog on March 2nd discussing the initial reaction of managed futures to the market break as a result of COVID-19, including diversification and position sizing issues around volatility targeting at equity market highs. Today, we wanted to give an update on managed futures performance as the crisis has dragged out. We often tell our clients; building diversification into a portfolio and preparing for crisis events takes a multi-pronged approach. If you want instant protection to an equity market sell-off, long duration bonds provide the best bang for your buck. As a crisis extends bond protection is less reliable; this where managed futures (aka systematic trend following) steps in, accepting directional crash flows.

From the chart below (updated from previous blog), we see after a slow start managed futures has performed well, and more importantly, positive! Managed futures is a tough allocation to hold in good times, when volatility is low, when equity markets make new highs year after year. This is why you own it.

ManFutAndTheVirus2

Data Source: Bloomberg LP, Mount Lucas

This chart compares a sampling of largely blue-chip managed futures mutual funds (Fund 1 is a multi-alternative fund that uses managed futures, but clearly has an equity bias) with the MLM Index EV (15V) (which does not vol adjust).

Stresses In The Bond and Funding Markets

The last few days have seen some stresses in the bond and funding markets. The charts below illustrate a few of these, we then detail why the Fed intervened and cut again. The stresses are coming at a time when markets are fearful of the size of the sudden stop in economic activity we are witnessing due to actions being taken to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. Some sections of the economy are seeing large and fast drops in revenues, with a double whammy hit to the oil patch driven by the Saudi/Russia/OPEC actions in the oil price. Businesses are beginning to draw on revolving lines of credit in order to weather the storm. Markets are dropping, also contributing to the disruptions as positions are unwound into illiquid markets. At times like these, disruptions can be seen in different places.

FRA-OIS spreads. This is a spread of a forward rate agreement to swap fixed interest payments at some point in the future compared with the overnight index swap rate. Think of it as a measure of the risk or cost for banks to borrow in the future relative to a risk free rate. A forward TED Spread.

FRA-OIS

Source: Bloomberg

Commercial Paper markets began to show signs of strain. This is a lifeblood market that companies use to borrow short term and fund everyday expenses at terms of under a year. Having rates increase and access to funding drop at a crucial time is a clear threat to the ability of the real economy to weather a storm. Given the impact of states shutting down for short periods, companies need to be able to borrow to cover real economic weakness.

CommercialPaper

Source: Bloomberg

On-the-run/Off-the-run Treasury spreads. Benchmark points on the yield curve – those at the 2y, 5y and 10y points for example – are of particular interest to market participants and are generally the most liquid parts of the curve, and have futures contracts tied to them. The US Treasury curve has many bonds of all maturities, including bonds that have similar characteristics to the benchmark points – like a bond maturing a month before or after the current benchmark point. Being so close in terms of maturity and having the same risk free issuer, these bonds normally trade more or less in lockstep. Late last week, they began to move apart. An example below – the green/red column shows a Z-Score of individual bond spreads of similar maturities roughly 10 years out.

OffTheRun

Source: Bloomberg, 3/16/2020

Cross currency swap rates. The chart below shows Japanese Yen (JPY) funding costs. Roughly speaking this measures the extra cost over unsecured rates to swap JPY for USD at some future point. A Japanese company may swap JPY for USD today, with a 3m term. The cost of this should normally be the difference in relative unsecured lending rates (Libor etc). In periods of funding stress, a premium appears, which is the basis.

CrossCurrencySwaps

Source: Bloomberg

LIBOR spreads measures the spreads in different maturities of LIBOR rates. These can shift with expectations of upcoming monetary policy action, but generally speaking need to be kept orderly for markets to function well. As the market expected and wanted a cut to zero, rates moved considerably, this arguably called for the Fed to pull forward its planned cut. Below is overnight vs 1 month.

LiborSpreads

Source: Bloomberg

The Fed delivered a second inter-meeting cut on Sunday in response to the coronavirus and to try and alleviate these funding stresses to allow better transmission of monetary policy. The FOMC lowered the federal funds rate by 100bps to a target range of 0 to 0.25 percent, as well as providing forward guidance, noting that they expect “to maintain this target range until it is confident that the economy has weathered recent events and is on track to achieve its maximum employment and price stability goals.”

Alongside this, the FOMC announced a program to purchase assets of $700bn, split $500bn in Treasury securities and $200bn in agency mortgage backed securities. The statement spoke of wanting to ‘support smooth market functioning’. These purchases began yesterday. Note that in QE3 the peak pace was some $85bn per month. Make no mistake – these purchases are huge. The FOMC also made a plethora of changes to other parts of the plumbing aimed at improving the efficacy of market plumbing and conducting policy, including lowering the discount window spread, reducing the rates on OIS on swaps with foreign central banks and eliminated reserve requirements. Today they have announced the establishment of a Commercial Paper Funding Facility.

The Feds goal here is to implement monetary policy – where stresses arise they will try and squash them. The capital ratios that are binding – reduced. Discount window stigma – gone. Overseas dollar costs going up – swap lines. Mortgages rates up a little – $200bn of MBS purchases. Treasury curve on-the-run/off-the-run blowing out – $500bn to fix. FRA-OIS spreads – squashed. Commercial paper blowing out – fire up the program. Did it work? Well it is early, but so far it looks like some of these have eased. They are worth keeping an eye on. By way of example, the easiest one to keep an eye on updated through todays close. FRA-OIS dropped a lot today.

FRA-OIS v2

Source: Bloomberg

Managed Futures and the Virus

Managed futures is supposed to be a “profitable hedge” – long term positive returns with zero or negative correlation to the equity market. The recent coronavirus crisis highlights one of our core beliefs, namely that the construction of most managed futures portfolios diminishes that critical characteristic in two important ways. First, they include equity futures in the portfolio mix, and second, positions are adjusted for volatility. The combination of these two things is particularly deadly. There is nothing wrong with trend following equity futures. But anyone who watches the markets knows that equity vol is lowest at the TOP! That means that managers will have their largest equity positions at the TOP! Furthermore, when the market breaks, the eventual short position they take will be much, much smaller than the long they had at the top. In non-equity markets, the same can be true. In the recent virus break, crude was previously making new highs, then broke very sharply. Vol adjusted short positions will be tiny. Chart below compares a sampling of large blue-chip futures mutual funds with the MLM Index EV (15V) (which does not vol adjust).

Data source: Bloomberg LP, Mount Lucas

It’s a question of conflicting goals. If you want to maximize Sharpe ratio as a standalone investment, then vol adjust. If the rest of your portfolio is full of stocks and credits already, and you want a “profitable hedge” to maximize total portfolio Sharpe ratio, don’t. (See this blog post for more technical detail).

Correlation Is Not Causation

Drummed into applied math students everywhere. It even has its own website, with this gem on how margarine consumption is correlated with divorce rates in Maine.

correlation

Should be true enough in markets as well. But in reality, at least in pockets, it isn’t always true. Stocks have always in part been driven by relative valuations. Stat-arb was a big thing some twenty years ago when computing power was starting to be applied to stocks. Pairs trading based on common risk factors makes some sense, Ford and GM operate in the same business after all, it makes sense they should be broadly be impacted by the same broad industry and economy trends. When computing power jumped later, factor investing came to dominate. Grouping stocks based on different attributes has some merit. At their heart, the old quants had valuation firmly in the mix of parameters. Many of the newer factors and machine learning quants have thrown out what ultimately matters. Price – or rather ‘value’. Low vol investing doesn’t care whether a stock is priced for perfection or not. Quality takes no account of what that pricing implies going forward, just that its metrics are stable. Momentum will push junk yields far below default rates and not even notice. As long as the quants see the property they like, regardless of valuation, away they go. They operate as if they are just observers, quietly taking a look from afar and being able to interact without impact. The Hawthorne effect is the phenomena where the behavior of subjects is altered due to the awareness of being observed. The quants in places are not observing any longer, and their impact is self-fulfilling, for a time anyways. There is plenty to be gained from applying stats and metrics to markets, but it is surely important to not take it too far.

You can see this today (September 9, 2019). ‘Value’ stocks are up a lot, not particularly based on the merits of the underlying businesses, but because other types of stocks are down. When stocks are held for their correlation properties, strange things happen. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings and causes a distant thunderstorm. It’s easier to make a case that at least today, retail stock Gap is up big because Boris Johnson chose to shut down parliament. Not often thought of as a butterfly, but bear with the logic here. Boris shut parliament…which catalyzed votes to stave off ‘no deal’ Brexit…which caused Gilts to fall…which drove global bonds to fall…which pushes growth stocks, utility stocks and REITS down…which makes value stocks jump. Seem strange? It should. But the stock market acts this way more and more. Factor investing and ETF baskets that segment stocks into groups are big drivers of prices, particularly when smaller names get larger weights in factors. We need to get back to a more fundamentally driven world.

Inflation as a Target

Currently the markets are deeply focused on inflation. More specifically…the lack of it as wages have risen, growth has picked up and the labor market has tightened. Core PCE has dropped to 1.55% recently. Is this a sign of underlying weakness in the economy that the Fed should respond to?

In our view, no. This San Francisco Fed Economic Letter from a couple of years ago should be the guidepost.

https://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2017/november/contribution-to-low-pce-inflation-from-healthcare/

They split inflation into procyclical and acyclical components. Procyclical components generally have moved in tandem with the economic cycles, prices rising as the economy booms and falling when it weakens. The acyclical components dance to their own tune. They concluded that procyclical inflation had returned to its pre-recession level, while acyclical inflation had remained low, driven by idiosyncratic factors. The data are updated through March 2019 in the chart below. The white line is procyclical, orange line is acyclical.

image001

Source: Bloomberg

Procyclical inflation is running at 2.5%, up a little over the past 6 months. Acyclical inflation is where the drops are. It has fallen from 1.8% to 0.9% over the past 6 months. As the San Fran Fed says, it is still being driven by drops in health care costs. There is no economic signal for the Fed to worry about here, and easing policy to remedy makes little sense. More broadly, commentators hoping for health care inflation to go back to the levels of a decade ago in order for the Fed to hit a policy goal are out to lunch. The Fed has the granularity of data to see more clearly what is going on, it seems a shame this doesn’t get more air time. Mary Daly, the San Francisco Fed Chair, presented the case in New York recently – it would be good to see the issue at the forefront.

The Wisdom of Crowds and the Anatomy of a Panic

Major asset markets are generally too large to be overly influenced or pushed around by any one participant, and so are characterized as reflecting the wisdom of the crowd. This is thought of as a positive, as individual participants value different things, have different utility functions and approach and weigh the same incoming information in different ways. The net result, through different individual buys, sells and portfolio shifts gives the ‘best’ value at any one point.

We read an interesting exchange from polymath Sam Harris on the wisdom of crowds the other day that got us thinking about how this works in reality over fairly short, but significant, periods in markets. While the wisdom of crowds notion is true over the medium term, over shorter periods, some participants do cause flows that overwhelm. The events of early 2018 are a good example. The exchange is below; Harris had spoken at an event the previous night in New York with psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman.

Frank Villavicencio: Sam. I attended & enjoyed it but didn’t get to ask my question: your take on collective decision making. Given the many identified flaws in our individual cognitive abilities, should we consider humans as more optimized for collective, swarm-like decisioning?

Sam Harris: The crowd is only wise when individual errors are uncorrelated. When correlated—as is the case when specific biases are widely shared—there’s no safety in numbers.

Hits the nail on the head. When the errors are correlated, you don’t have a crowd, you have a mob.

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