Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Yellen Isn't Yellin' Anymore

During times of liquidation, panic, and revulsion, when authorities are trying to establish a definitive floor under asset prices, and create an atmosphere of greater confidence in order to assuage fears and encourage longer-term capital investment, there is reasonable benefit clearly telegraphing policy intentions. Speculators may (and probably will) use this elevated level of certainty to front-run actual "real" flows. And this is fine and good since desired policy outcomes (at such times) tangibly benefit from the reduction and/or elimination of speculative short positions (or at the very least refraining from disinvestment or erstwhile liquidation). Policy objectives, are further hastened by speculative flows, at least initially, whether by confidence-bolstering or behavioral feedback effects.  While the promise of backstopping is real, the primary effect results from old-fashioned "jawboning" to harness otherwise pro-cyclical flows to stabilizing, counter-cycling effect. At such times, it likely that just credibly stating that one will pursue certain stated policy(s) with defined objectives is often more efficacious than the implementation of the policy itself - the operative word being "credibly".

There comes the point in the inevitably-cyclical process - recent context being QE2 or QE3 or the present (choose your poison) - where fear of the abyss has passed, and when prevailing policy's "certainty", is extrapolated and viewed as providing perennial and asymmetrical risk-reward, or a proverbial "free lunch", irrespective of the extraordinary conditions for which it was originally conjured, and its decidedly-temporary nature when seen in an historical context. This is the moral hazard that policy certainty can wreak in general, and what disturbs me about ZIRP/QE in particular. The macroeconomy, in its aggregate investment decisions, typically overshoots sufficiently well without the further help of leveraged, speculative flows. There is little to done about The People making overenthusiastic coincidental investment and consumption decisions on the basis of the recent past, outside the modulation of traditional fiscal and monetary policy. This IS the business cycle.

Given the size of the financial economy in general, the increasing size of trading-oriented, leveraged investments, and feedback-related trading and risk-management styles, and the general hordes within the momentum-driven electronic herd, much of which is focused upon, and driven-by observing rather arcane nuances in policy, central-bankers in particular should, rightfully, be mindful of aligning the aggregate animal spirits in the general economy with leveraged financial speculation attempting to game perceived policy certainty.  In short, in order to deter leveraged speculative activity at such times, when it is, as Rumsfeld might have termed, "decidedly unhelpful", i.e being pro-cyclical well-after the sell-by date of its usefulness, markets periodically NEED to be spanked. They NEED to understand that policy should, and will be, data-dependant. That might include whipsaw moves in rates and prevailing policies, even if sub-optimal with perfect hindsight. They [markets] need to understand there is no certainty, and no free lunch. And as more and more investment becomes rote, algorithmic, and systematic, these models (and their programmers), too must incorporate uncertainty at levels that incorporate longer-frame regimes than many systematic macro and risk-parity strategies contemplate or integrate, or other endeavors that overweight recent regimes at the expense of the more-distant-but-not-wholly-irrelevant past, or the next. Should one doubt the benefits of such an uncertainty principle,  simply imagine the wild rumpus that would ensue following universal pursuit of the free lunch. Some would argue we're already there (though I am not so stridently convinced despite sympathetic caution).  

Pulling away the milk-teat is never easy. Markets will need to get used to a return to policy uncertainty. There is significant momentum in the real economy, and it is likely it will not be derailed by a bias towards higher rates, or marginally-increased financial market volatility. We should not shed a tear for those Icarii who get run over by it's process.  I've no problem with the authorities acting as "Lender of Last Resort", or the idea of their provision of liquidity as systemic backstop. But precisely "where", and "at what cost" should remain ambiguous to prevent the cleverly rapacious psychopaths amongst us from [trying to] test their boundaries and aggressively game it. In this regard, the fact that Yellen isn't yelling [specific certain forward policy guidance] anymore is highly appropriate.  Get used to it. Embrace it. And remain mindful of charlatans with strategies overly-dependent upon mindless extrapolation and leverage.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

That FANUC Reply to ThirdPoint (in full)

Giving is Easy - Taking is Hard

Despite the occasional satirical joke, I've never had a grave problem with QE. Like many other sober-minded observers, QE, seen in its temporal context, was one of the few available weapons to put a floor under floor asset prices, finance the large counter-cyclical deficits thus preventing the worst of a delveraging-induced revulsion and associated dislocations of unemployment and output gaps, in an otherwise spartan policy armory. The limited policy options were partly due to rates' proximity to the ZLB, partly because of the difficulty in building consensual responses in an acrimoniously-divided polity and, yes, partly because of the moral furore surround culpability four the crisis.

Though my concerns about tin-foil hat hyper-inflationary fears were near-zero, so too were my expectations that QE would be a panacea. QE, was, never going to be a cure-all, but was decidedly positive whatever critics may say - if only for psychological, confidence-boosting affirmation that the authorities would not stand idly by, holding their willies, passively witnessing a liquidationist resolution, however-much Austrian School proponents were hankering for one.

With memories of Japanese premature fiscal withdrawal still fresh, I believe history will see QE2 as a useful example of trying to avoid past policy mistakes, by making sure foundations of recovery were sufficiently strong before modulating countermeasures. In isolation, it will not be judged harshly. QE3, from the start, was seen by many, as more contentious, and I also agree with their reservations. Growth IMO was sufficiently on its way, and would, (again IMO), have continued similarly without further asset purchases. However, seen in the context of Euro jitters, the silly sequester battles, Arab Spring upheavals, QE3 should also be seen as the Fed's attempt to prevent large political uncertainties from systematically undoing the meaningful progress. And while I was, and am, concerned about the embedding of Pavlovian behavior, I believe there was (at least some) merit in their response and we should accordingly throttle our harshest judgements. The alternative outcome will remain hypothetical, but the actual result of continued growth, faster-than-expected fiscal consolidation, straight-line drop in unemployment and emergence of real wage growth is hardly worthy of too-severe recrimination.

Maybe one-day, social scientists will accurately factor-analyze the transmission mechanism. Was it the QE-induced, low rates themselves? the psychological boost of asymmetrical forward-looking asset-price expectations given a newly-communicated floor?; the asset price market values, capital gains and their multipliers resulting from QE?; the multiplier effects of seamlessly funding counter-cyclical government expenditure - both automatic stabilizers and pro-active stimulus?; or was it just the generalized normalization of economic activity by removing fear of A Great Depression and feared Zerohedge-like survivalist dystopia? I invite readers to offer their attributions of choice and associated weight of contribution.

Whatever one's attribution, no one can ignore the obvious cumulative result of QE and its interactions: asset prices far and wide have soared as a result of the policy, creating unimaginably-large "windfalls" to asset-owners through little cause of their own. Attempts should have been to "sterilize" at least a portion of windfalls - through targeted fiscal policy - partly for reasons of fairness and equity, and partly to deter the systemic gaming in speculative leveraged bets upon one-way economic and financial policy.

How quickly investors forget. If you'd asked large asset owners in late 2008, or early 2009: "Would you give up a tranche of the future capital gains in asset prices in exchange for a floor under prevailing prices, and the near-assuredness of significantly higher asset prices in the future?", I am quite sure of the answer, given the widespread systemic fears and paucity of alternatives at the time. Investors, after all, pay 2&20 to HFs and PE for essentially the same (pre-tax) premise. Was not QE effectively the same proposition multiplied across the entire economy? The liquidationist alternative was clearly unpalatable to asset owners, and sub-optimal for nearly everyone else. IF, as the result of a policy directive, you bestow large windfall gains, it would be only fair to harvest a an additional share of those for the Public's Interest, since the goal of QE policy was NOT to further stoke inequality, nor accelerate the growth of fortunes for existing asset owners, but rather to prevent unnecessary liquidation, and deflation so private-sector balance sheet deleveraging could work its course, and to foster stability, so reviving private investment decisions in the real economy. But, as it happens, giving is far easier than taking away - irrespective if you're a welfare deadbeat (not my language) or a leveraged rentier.

Pundits and critics from the right rarely miss an opportunity to point out the inherent difficulty of unwinding government programs and bureaucracy. It is a criticism worth noting. For bureaucracies and organizations often assume lives of their own and wills to survive long-beyond the sell-by date of the problem or policy purpose, defending their mission and rights to exist with intensity and vigor. Once laws are enacted and forces mobilized, introspection is a novelty.

Yet, the same pundits and critics refrain from similarly-inspired criticisms when it comes to the beneficiaries of QE, and the protection of their windfalls. It is baffling. The right, politically, hates QE, and all that it stands for, but surely all of Jim Bunning's or Rand Paul's tirades would have been put to better use to promote some sterilization policy that would ameliorate the less-desirable side-effects, efforts that would not damage their populist dogma (excepting perhaps their relationship with Grover Norqvist)

Asset owners peculiarly act as if such windfalls somehow resulted from their own brilliance. Many, through every over-leveraged fault of their own, were a pubic-hair's breadth away from financial obliteration, saved by US - and I don't mean the United States, but rather you, and I, as representations of the taxpayer, or bag-holder as the ultimate underwriter of newly issued debt. Others - particularly in the tech world and on the left coast - are blind to the benefits wrought by munificence of The People, and the abundant liquidity finding its way into every inane crevice, and spilling over to provide VC's and PE investors exits at multiples unimagined even three years ago. And the "thanks" that all those west-coast libertarians afflicted with self-attribution bias, is to piss on the under-class who serve them, and wish for a Randian offshore tax-haven to insure they share as little as possible with the undeserving multitudes. These gripes are academic, but asset-owners would do well to reflect upon their self-attribution bias.

As a markets person, my concerns with QE (particularly QE3) remain consistent with concerns expressed in the past at one-way CB interventions. That is to say, it likely creates a moral hazard whereby financial institutions and speculators lean on the policy backstop to front-run, lever-up (be it risk-parity; duration, credit), in ways that ultimately create more systemic risk, volatility, sowing the seeds for future dislocation, and likely requirement for public market stabilization [again]. Such hazard is amplified by lack of sterilization. I admit I don't know precisely how it might be implemented, or the optimal boundaries or details, just that fiscal policy deterrents would help diminish some of the negatives to society of one-way unsterilized monetary policy largesse gifted to large asset owners caught in the happenstance of monetary policy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Pulling Out All The Stops"

Journos, observers, commentators, bloggers, traders, analysts, strategies, newscasters, reporters, and so it seems just about everyone else has a view on QE. And the result is overwhelmingly INTENSE. They've PULLED OUT ALL THE STOPS!!!!. No, not the ECB. I mean, anyone writing about the ECB's announced policy actions.

Below is an exhaustive (hyperbole?)list of the terms and associated language casually garnered from almost all the QE headlines and articles over the past few days. One could of course forgive any single instance of excitement, but in surveying the landscape, it's clear something's in the water. Especially in the United Kingdom (the nation with the highest and most pernicious sustained primary deficit, and a grand-canyon-sized CA gap - NB: intentionally exaggerated language) which is the source of most hyper-ventilative language (yes you guessed the Telegraph & Ambrose E.P. wins again). Even the usually-dry FT leapt on the bandwagon (sorry - OTT metaphoring is infectious), and sober BBC "joined the party" (drats!I did it again). Just have a look....

pushes-the-button on
financial bazooka
shock & awe
severe reservations
wrong type
tensions simmer
inevitably fail
deservedly fail
last throw of the dice
won't save
will not solve

Poor Draghi must feel like he's been gang-raped. OK, so it's "momentous", unprecedented" blah blah blah. Really? Euro 1 trillion (including existing programs) over the course of a year across an economy sporting GDP > EUR14 Trillion; Net Assets> (I've no clue but'll stake a stab...EUR 70 Trillion??)....hardly worth losing one's integrity over, considering all the program's practical limitations. As it happens, the Irish, and foreign obserservers writing in ENglish (India, Japan) were the most measured and least hyperbolic, using neutral language and refraining from the gratuitous ummm errr gratuitousness with words tethered to reality like.


Yes, the latter list is short...

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Recursive Crisis of Faith in My Chosen Lack of Faith

Uncountable belief paradoxes, logical flaws and non-sequitirs.
Magical thinking.
Legitimacy of dubious Profits.

One would be forgiven if one's first thoughts turned to the financial industry. Rather, as a sympathetic [amateur] satirist, I am of course referring to religion.

Such is my dismay at the actions of people claiming to speak, and act in the name of God - emphasising that this net is cast wider than Charlie Hedbo's assasins - I am beginning to seriously question my own faith in my chosen lack of faith - The Church of the Apathetic Agnostic. CAA's basic creed is simple: there is little point to arguing about something that neither can be proved nor disproved, though, even if a Supreme Being exists, he/she/it displays little concern for the affairs of humanity, so it's only sensible to requite with similar apathy. However, when the faithful project their inner beliefs outwardly, in a manifestly violent manner, I begin to wonder whether we need to respond with more serious weapons. Dawkins? Perhaps. But hardly as potent as...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Truth Hurts

Yes, I admit that I am surprised, that The People are surprised, that Bank FX Desks routinely (and I emphasize 'routinely') predated customer orders. This is, judging by the long list of things diddled when People have the opportunity(s) and incentive(s) do do so, Standard Operating Procedure, endemic not just to Banks, but, more or less, I am sad to say, most of the human enterprise. Banks undoubtedly are eyebrow-raising, less for their routine seeking of advantage at others' expense (let's term this 'business'), but rather for the breadth and magnitude of their repeated gluttony in a profession where trust is, I daresay, rather crucial to the entire undertaking.

Yet, what I, personally, find most surprising about The Banks, and the cast of characters who run, and inhabit them, is that they are incredulous, and somewhat mystified, to the suggestion that people really do hate them. Take the case of one of the largest American money-center banks where an uncle of mine was engaged to help them understand how to exploit opportunities on their newly-embarked-upon course of "Bancassurance". Specifically, he was asked by their Board to help them understand how to cross-sell insurance services from their newly-acquired insurance arm, into their existing customer base. My uncle, being a pioneer in focus groups, and brand-extension, did what he does best: conductive exhaustive focus-group study of the issue and analysis before presenting his findings to the Board. His results were categorical. He told them, in no uncertain terms, they had almost no chance of selling their subsidiary's insurance to their existing customers. "On what basis?" they asked rather angrily. He said it was obvious: all his research showed that people HATE their bank. It almost didn't matter which one. Most people think the other banks are better than their own, so you actually have a far better chance of selling their subsidiary's insurance to anyone BUT their customers. Awkward silence ensued. Meeting was quickly adjourned. Contract abruptly terminated shortly thereafter. And (unusually for him) no further work from this giant Bank. The truth is painful, yet people in general, and it would seem, bankers in particular, go to great lengths to avoid it.

(NB: The American experiment in Bancassurance, like Mitterand's disastrous nationalization of the French banks was eventually reversed, the ill-informed "guilty" architects, of course, inculpable, and unpunished.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Bear's Anonymous" - Finance's Answer to A.A.

The following is a voyeuristic peek into a meeting of the Stamford, CT branch of "Bears Anonymous", duly held a Rippowam High School….recounted in 2007 and rediscovered, and ever so apt in 2014.

(Camera pans on participants taking their chairs , seated in a circle in a school room (a dozen or so men and women of varying ages. The moderator, a clean-cut optimist, who is always "fully invested" clears his throat and begins...)

Moderator: I'd like to welcome everyone this evening. I understand this is a big step for most of you: but the mere act of admitting you have problem is the first step to overcoming it. We have a number of new faces here tonight and I'd like to welcome all of you, as well as those who are returning. First and foremost, we are here to share our problems, support each other, so we can begin the road to recovery. Remember: there are many faces to our affliction, but the only requirement for 'BA' membership and attendance is that you must refrain from "going Short". In time, you may even learn to appreciate the liberating exhilaration of being long. (Moderator turns to early-thirties man) Let's start with you, Sir. Please Introduce yourself and begin...

Chuck: Hi everybody. My Name is Chuck, and I am a bear. I have had a bearishness problem for a long time. Not just a predilection for the usual contrarian stuff, which when I look back I have had since I've been a child, but a real nagging and pressing fear that the financial sky is about to fall at any moment.

I don't know where it first began. Maybe it was 1987. Yeah, that scarred me. I was naive, I guess, and long, and got slapped 20% that day in Oct 87. I tried to get out, but ended up exiting at levels near where it closed. A couple of years worth of savings just vaporized, that was!! But as things recovered, I was out of the market and then I didn't get back in because it looked to me like the world was really was going to end with thirld world debt, the S&L crisis, and the massive commerical real estate crash that seemed bound to cause a depression. Then, in 1991 when the UAL deal exploded - you know all those Reagan deficits coming home to roost - I thought that we were set for an ever deeper recession, but I was wrong, and again uninvested when the market started rallying. Come 1994, the bond market exploded and it looked like the end again - budget deficits, trade deficits, political gridlock and remember we were still working off the thriftbank and S&L issues, not to mention the near-destruction of the Texas oil patch and US agricultural sectors. Damn! If that wasn't enough to keep me out of the market, I don't know what is, but it did, and I was sure that I'd get a better opportunity to get in later.

Then came large cap cap growth and technology speculation. Germany and Japan were in near-depression, yet investors were paying silliest prices for big-pharma and global large cap growth. Who would thought they could continue to grow like that and justify the high prices? Not me. I missed it again.

All the while, I told myself: "It's ok. It's good to be prudent. The reckless will suffer like the Okies of the 30s. And, after all, it's only opportunity cost. Better one in hand than none in the bush". And I probably had a hundred other justifications and rationalizations for my bearishness, just in case I gnawed through these.

1998 came along and finally, finally, I was proven right with the unraveling of LTCM and bitch-slapping of Russia! Now we would witness the frightful reckoning, the deleveraging-yielding-to-parsimony that was needed to return assets to Graham & Dodd value and redeem America's sense of thrift! So I sat on the sidelines, waiting for the real blood in the streets that was imminent. But the Fed cut rates for fear of Y2K, the tech bulls ploughed ever-more money into the market. Some said don't fight the Fed, but I rationalized my bearishness that the Fed was "pushing on a string" and their efforts would have no effect.

The market did crash in 2000 - the tech and dotcom market anyway - and the broader market stood at 5 year lows, but I looked back to the financial history of the 30s and thought that when it hit its lows in 2002 that this could continue for a decade, especially with the Gulf War imminent and, with near-zero rates, it really looked like the Fed was pushing on the proverbial string. So I sat tight, waiting for a better entry point that was certainly around the corner.

Then weak dollar, credit bubbles, twin deficits, foreign accumulation of US reserves, muddling war in Iraq, incessantly rising energy prices and peak oil, and on each occasion - Aug 04, Mar and Nov 05, May and Nov 06, Feb 07 the market swooned, corrected, only to rally even more strongly out of the trough as if it were teasing me, taunting me, seducing me then mocking my now increasingly irrational fears and bearishness. And they were irrational, they must have been irrational right? for the market continued its inexorable rise on each occasion, laying waste to the rationalization or justification of the day for NOT being long long long.

In 2008, I felt vindicated. All my fears were realized. The world WAS going to on. It was so bad, I took all my money out of the bank, for fear of their collapse, and put it under my mattress. But be careful what you wish for. Things became so bad, I was afraid even money wouldn't have value, so I went out and bought gold (coins). Even the Fed rescue looked like it might not work. And then, there were new bank regulations which made it impossible to get a loan, all that shitty foreclosed housing to work through, and of course the EURO - oh my god - the EURO was bound to cause the biggest upheaval since the Panic of 1907, and Japan was imploding with deflation, while the Chinese were creating the largest bubble the world had ever seen. Would YOU have invested"??

It's taken nearly twenty-five years - almost the entire length of this grand new experiment in seemingly unlimited and unrestricted credit - for me to realize that this really and truly is MY problem. The world is just the world, and it's not going to end tomorrow, and that its better to suffer with the fools in the event the system unravels, than sit idly by and watch alone, a big pile of savings become a small pile of savings. Where o' where is joy in THAT?

In turning over a new leaf, and recognizing that I have a perpetual bearishness problem, I have terminated my newsletter subscriptions and vowed never again to watch or read Marc Faber, David Tice, Dr. Hussman and Fred Hickey. I will not read ZeroHedge, Peter Schiff, Max Keiser, anyone named "Rickards" and especially anyone like Mike Shedlock who wraps their politics so deeply into their strategy vision, they cannot possibly provide objective counsel. And I will make Investors Business Daily my read of choice in the financial markets. I will personally go and apologize to Abby Cohen, Vic Niederhoffer and Charles Gave for all those less-than-nice things I said about them. Further, I have vowed to place 50% of my money into a Vanguard global equity Index Fund, and also have vowed not to look at its asset value more than once a quarter. I have taken 25% of my funds and placed in them in a global balanced fund, and earmarked the balance for disciplined allocation on any subsequent drops, to momentum strategies. I have also asked my doctor to prescribe some little blue pills that will help me see the bright side of life, and stop being so pessimistic. And I have told my secretary NOT to hang up on salesmen that cold call for you never know when a good idea might fall on one's lap through a seemingly altruistic phone call. And I am going to stop all that stupid exercising and dieting in a bid to be "fat and happy", enroute to my ultimate goal of being fat, happy, AND lucky!!

My name is Chuck. And I have a bearishness problem. But I have now acknowledged my problem in hope that such recognition is the first step towards getting better. Thank you.

(applause of other members, camera pans on circle and focuses in on upon late twenties girl with tears in her eyes; Camera fades out, other members get up and give Chuck a group hug - but not a 'Bear-Hug'.)

(NB: While the author neither admits nor denies having a bearishness problem, the above account is entire (well, mostly anyways) fictional.