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President & CEO
Masood Vojdani began his career in the financial services industry in 1981. From the outset, he was driven by the vision of a firm that was different from the industry status quo. At the heart... Full Bio
The unseen world is a very strange place. Quantum mechanics, the physics that describes the way things work at the subatomic level, has been validated as a scientific theory again and again since its discovery in the early 20th century. Quantum mechanical laws perfectly describe the workings of literally everything electronic and technology-related in our lives. For all its mainstream applications, though, the implications of quantum mechanics are positively exotic.
Particles exist here, there and everywhere. Pairs of entangled particles instantaneously affect each other across light years of distance. Single photons display wave interference patterns until observed, at which point the wave collapses into a particle with a definitive position in space. This act of observation informs the standard explanation taught to students of quantum physics. Known as the Copenhagen theory, after the home of pioneering scientist Niels Bohr, it posits that all matter exists in a state of superposition (i.e. here, there and everywhere) until observed, at which point it collapses into recognizable forms like trees, cute puppies and Bloomberg workstations. Don’t try to understand the deeper meaning of the Copenhagen theory. Bohr and his fellow pioneers didn’t. “Just shut up and calculate” is how they, and those following, have instructed every new generation of fresh-faced (and confused) physics students.
Don’t Look Now
The subtext of the Copenhagen theory – that observation creates its own reality – resonates in the present day world of stock market volatility. It has come as a painful lesson to investors who came late to the low-volatility party of late 2017 and took bets that the calm seas would carry on. The chart below shows the price trend for the CBOE VIX, the market’s so-called “fear gauge,” over the past twelve months.
When the VIX jumps in price, as it did towards the end of January, it implies a higher risk environment for equities. To look at the above chart is to surmise that something earth-shaking caused risk to jump nearly overnight as the calendar turned from January to February. And, yet, what actually happened? A jobs report showed that hourly wages had ticked up slightly more than expected in the previous month (2.9 percent versus the consensus estimate of 2.6 percent). An “inflation is back!” meme went viral and off to the races went the VIX. Pity the poor punter holding XIV, an exchange-traded note (ETN) designed to profit from a calm VIX. That ill-fated security lost 94 percent – not a typo – of its value in one day, and the ETN’s fund manager announced that the fund would shut down as a result.
Ninety four percent. On account of one lousy wages number. How could this happen? The answer, dear reader, lies in the observer. Risk is a statistical property, a measurement of variance in price. But – as we can see from securities like that poor XIV – it is also an object, a monetized claim. And that has deep implications for equity and other asset markets.
Goodhardt’s Law and the VIX
Charles Goodhardt was an economist who in 1975 made the following observation: “Once a measure becomes a target, it loses the very properties that made it a good gauge to begin with.” Goodhardt’s Law could also be called the Copenhagen Theory of Market Risk. Once you treat risk – volatility – as an object of buying and selling rather than just as a passive statistical measure, you distort what that measure is telling you. Referring back to the chart above, the world did not change in any meaningful way between Friday, February 2 and Monday, February 5. No macroeconomic statistic other than that one random wage number suggested that the economy had changed in any radical way. And yet if you held an asset on Friday morning betting on things staying more or less the same, you were wiped out by the end of the day the next Monday (even though things had more or less stayed the same). Fundamental risk hadn’t changed. But the perception – the observation – of risk created the reality of a 94 percent price drop.
This fact has profound implications for asset markets. The measurement of risk is absolutely fundamental to the models that have informed the construction of portfolios since Harry Markowitz and William Sharpe pioneered the concepts of mean-variance analysis in the 1950s and 1960s. When that measurement ceases to be a “good gauge,” in Goodhardt’s formulation, the ability to arrive at informed valuations for many other assets is itself at risk. Modern Portfolio Theory is the name given to Markowitz’s and Sharpe’s legacy. Increasingly, though, that legacy has to navigate a postmodern financial marketplace.
There are weeks when covering financial markets is interesting and engaging, where all sorts of macroeconomic variables and corporate business models demand analysis and discerning judgment for their potential impact on asset prices. And then there are weeks like this week, when none of those things seem to matter. “OMG Trump’s going to start a trade war and everything is going to be terrible” frets Ms. Market, just before the opening bell at 9:30 am. “No, silly, nothing’s going to happen, it’s just boys being boys, talking tough as always” say Ms. Market’s girlfriends while taking away her double espresso and offering some soothing chamomile tea instead. And so it goes, back and forth, up and down, day after tiresome day.
Soya Bean Farmers for Trump
We continue to believe that an all-out trade war between the US and its major trading partners is an unlikely scenario. But it has now been just shy of two months since the first announcement by the US administration of proposed new tariffs on steel and aluminum. The war of words, at least, shows no sign of fading into the background. Attention must be paid.
Moreover, the contours of the dispute have narrowed and hardened. Recall that the original steel and aluminum tariffs were comprehensive, drawing responses from all major trading partners. This week’s tough trade talk has been a much more bilateral affair between the US and China, starting with the formalization of $50 billion in new tariffs announced by the US on April 2. China promptly responded with its own countermeasures: $50 billion including major US exports like soya beans – a move that would go straight to the wallets of farmers in Trump-friendly rural America. Now here we are, on Friday morning, with the stakes raised to $100 billion after the latest US White House release. $100 billion represents about 20 percent of the total value of US imports from China. It would necessarily include many of the consumer products Americans buy – potentially suggesting a catalyst for higher inflation.
What Are Words For?
The message from the administration’s policy voices, such as they exist, to world markets has been essentially this: ignore our blustery words, they’re just harmless morsels of red meat for our rabid political base. All these tariff proposals, according to this line of thought, are just opening gambits for negotiation. Nobody really wants a trade war. This message was persuasive enough to bring Ms. Market out of her early morning funk on Wednesday. What was shaping up to be another one of those disheartening two percent-plus intraday plunges reversed course and finished north of one percent in the green column. We’ll see if the sweet talk is able to work its magic again today, with the S&P 500 back on the fainting couch during morning trading.
The other reason why markets may be inclined to not read too much into the playground tough talk is that actually executing a trade war would be far more complex than simply reading off lists of products and associated tariffs. The global economy truly is interlocked. What this means in practice is that trade is not anywhere nearly as simple as “China makes X, US makes Y and Germany makes Z.” Companies have invested billions upon billions of dollars in intricate value chains that start with basic raw inputs, go through multiple levels of manufacturing, wholesaling and retailing, and involve many different countries throughout the process. Dismantling these value chains, while theoretically possible, would result in an economy barely recognizable to the employees and consumers who have become used to them.
The earnings season for the first quarter is about to get underway, and it looks to be a barnstormer. FactSet, a research company, estimates that earnings per share for S&P 500 companies will grow around 17 percent year-over-year on average, which would make it the strongest quarter in more than 5 years (and, rationally, provide a nice tailwind for stock price valuations). The vast majority of these companies have absolutely no interest in being conscripted as foot soldiers in a trade war, and they will be sure to make their voices heard through plenty of influential lobbying channels. On the US side, at least, there is nothing remotely like a unified “team” suited up to do trade battle – and if they were to push the envelope further, they would almost certainly encounter more unity and clarity of purpose on the Chinese side.
In the end, the trade hawks in the administration may find a way to make do with a few cosmetic, harmless face-saving “wins” while quietly retreating from the battlefield. Meanwhile, though, we may have to put up with a few more of these irrational weeks in the market. Oh well. At least it’s springtime.
In the stock market, as in life, all is not equal. In the case of the S&P 500, the inequality derives from that simplest of mathematical formulas: share price times number of shares outstanding – i.e., market capitalization. The importance of any industry sector – from the standpoint of its influence on the total market – is simply a function of the market caps of all the companies in that sector added up. Simply put: the larger the market cap of an individual company or industry sector, the more impact their price movements have on the broader index.
Market Cap Economics 101
Investors have been getting a crash course in market cap economics over the past several weeks as the most dominant sector – and that sector’s most dominant constituents – have battled some unusually strong headwinds. Information technology – one of ten primary industry sectors in the S&P 500 – makes up just under 25 percent of that benchmark index’s total market cap. That is by far the largest single sector: financial institutions, the second largest, make up just 14.3 percent of total market cap at current values. Moreover, the four largest companies in the S&P 500 tech sector – Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft – account for 11.1 percent of the total. Add in Amazon – widely considered a tech company although formally listed in the consumer discretionary sector – and you have five companies with a collective market cap of 14.1 percent of the S&P 500 – nearly as much as the entire financial sector. That explains why the following chart has so many investors on edge today:
The main tale of woe has centered around just one of these behemoths, Facebook, which is caught in the crosshairs of a rapidly evolving controversy over its data privacy policies. The story of Cambridge Analytica, a secretive data firm with an affinity for right wing politics and a 2016 mission to help get Trump elected, has been given thorough coverage in mainstream media outlets and does not need rehashing here. The issue is why this story, which at first glance would appear to be company-specific, has thrown such a wet blanket over the entire sector. As the chart above shows, the decline of the tech powerhouses in late January and early February was more or less in line with the market, while the sector’s decline in March has been relatively far more severe.
The answer is that, while Facebook has one business model, Alphabet (Google) another and Apple another still, issues like data privacy and network effects (which can potentially lock in users and lead to concerns about monopolistic practices) affect all the so-called “major platform companies.” In a sense, these recent developments are the flip side of the very reason for which investors have been in love with these companies for so long. Their platforms have radically changed the way a majority of Americans go about spending their days and nights. Actively managed investment funds, seeking that elusive (and probably illusory) “alpha” to beat the market, have swarmed into the so-called “FAANG” stocks like moths to a flame in the belief that these platforms are nearly impervious to competitive challenge.
Beware the Grim Regulator
If the tech heavies have in the recent past seemed like a free lunch, the recent travails are a reminder that free lunches don’t exist. Readers of US economic history know that the best laid plans of monopolists past have been dashed by regulatory push-back. It is by no means clear that a grim reaping is in store for the platform companies, but neither is it clear that they will continue to be given free reign to operate with no fundamental changes to their business models. As global companies, they are at the mercy not only of regulators at home, but arguably more antagonistic ones in the EU and elsewhere. It may be a stretch to imagine Facebook as a regulated utility (a theory which has surprisingly garnered considerable recent press coverage), but it’s worth remembering that strange things do sometimes happen.
In a practical sense, the uncertainty around tech adds a variable to the volatility equation that has become a constant companion in 2018. The CBOE VIX has not fallen below 15 since the original spike in early February, and currently hovers just around 20, the level considered to be a high-risk threshold. We’re seeing lots of those strange days when stock indexes spike up in morning trading and then plummet in the trading day’s final 30 minutes – signs of a jittery market with knee-jerk algorithms calling the shots.
Amid all of this, there is still little in the way of change to the dominant narrative of steady positive growth, a strong jobs market, solid corporate earnings and inflation kept in check. That may be sufficient to yet hold the downside in check. But those volatility variables, including the fog of uncertainty around that market cap-dominant tech sector, are keeping us very busy with our scenario analytics as the year’s second quarter beckons.
History is simply a collection of the biographies of great people, the charismatic heroes and anti-heroes whose supreme self-confidence, fanatical drive and decisiveness write the chapters of the ages. So believed Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish philosopher and historian who penned works on Napoleon, Frederick II of Prussia and a “Great Man Theory of History” in general.
Or, history is actually not that at all. History enslaves all humankind, great and small alike, to bit-player roles in a complexity of events, near-events and non-events that evolve in ways unfathomable and inaccessible to simplistic storytelling. So believed the great Russian writer Tolstoy, who devoted over 1,000 pages to a novel, War and Peace, to make this point.
To read War and Peace is to read of the cacophony of random events, missed communications, uninformed decisions and human behavioral traps that ultimately shaped events like the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino – not the genius of Napoleon, nor the resolve of Tsar Alexander I, but those thousands of probable and improbable things that had nothing to do with the supposed destinies of great men. “The tsar” wrote Tolstoy “is but a slave to history.” Outcomes have as much to do with weird supply-line hiccups, melting ice on river crossings and rioting prisoners as they do with those bold commands from the top generals.
Tolstoians Under Fire
Investment markets have been in a decidedly Tolstoian frame of mind for several years now. This view aligns with an understanding of the global economy as its own inscrutable, constantly evolving sea of complexity wherein rulers of nations and titans of industry float and bob like tiny specks on the surface. Geopolitical flare-ups happen; currency crises spring up in the Eurozone, citizens vote in seemingly irrational ways, but the global economy just keeps on keeping on. Real GDP keeps growing, corporate earnings grow even faster, job markets and consumer prices reassure us that there are no nasty recessions lurking around the corner. This mindset reached its high point in 2017, when volatility reached historically low levels no matter how crazy, dire or improbable the news of the day.
But this Tolstoian view has run into some stiff headwinds among investors in early 2018. There seems to be a newfound sense, among many, that humans vested with considerable power can, in fact, make consequential decisions that directly impact the value of portfolios of risk assets. The specific catalyst bringing out investors’ inner Carlyle is the growing threat of a trade war. Thursday’s reversal of 2.5 percent on major benchmark indexes was driven in large part by the latest show of bellicosity by the Trump administration and threats of retaliation by China, currently the primary intended target of a new round of punitive tariffs. Investors who were hoping for a quick V-shaped recovery from the original sell-off a few weeks ago can blame that original announcement of new tariffs on aluminum and steel for cutting off the nascent recovery in share prices.
Great (by which we mean “vested with lots of power,” not to be confused with “good”) leaders making bad decisions: a Carlyle-esque reprise of that ill-fated summer of 1914? Or, ultimately, a brief tempest that sooner or later will fall back into an inconsequential ripple on the ever-expanding sea of the global economy? Your own view of markets in 2018 may well be shaped by whether you are more inclined to agree with Carlyle or with Tolstoy.
The Corporate America Variable
If Trump and his inner circle continue to raise the stakes on a trade war, they will be due for an earful from many corners of Corporate America for whom such an outcome is the very opposite of their business growth models. S&P 500 corporations derive in the aggregate more than half their revenues from outside the US. Almost any major company that produces a good or service with a viable market in China is focused on that market for a considerable amount of its potential future growth. This doesn’t just apply to the obvious names of retailers like Starbucks, Nike and Yum! Brands that have been in that market for years, but to firms in any industry from property & casualty insurance to pediatric nutrition to semiconductors. Sure, steel producers may cheer the prospects for protective tariffs in the short run, but their collective market cap weight is considerably less than that of those who forcefully champion more open trade.
So what will it be? Is the global economy, the creation of millions of random interactions of events and non-events and near-events over the past four decades, destined to simply keep evolving, too massive and too necessary in its current form for a sudden reversal into autarkic nation-states waging economic war on each other? Our general inclination is to take a Tolstoian view of things, and we think it likelier than not that the threat of $60 or even $100 billion in punitive tariffs and associated bellicose posturing will not have the power to topple a global economy worth more, in nominal GDP, than $85 trillion.
That is not to say that we have a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” take on things. Tolstoy never said that history always works out for the best. Sometimes those random, incoherent things that happen or that don’t happen lead to unhappy outcomes – see 1914, 1917 and 1933 as examples of this in the last century. Disciplined investing requires keeping emotions in check, but it also requires us to not rule out improbable, but possible, scenarios.
Readers of a certain age might remember a perennial favorite among the many outstanding skits performed by late-night TV host Johnny Carson (hi, kids! – ask your parents or their parents). Playing a manic movie review host named Art Fern, Carson would suddenly display a spaghetti-like road map and start giving inane directions to somewhere, leading to the gag: “And then you come to – a fork in the road” at which moment he points to a space on the map where an actual, eating utensil-style fork is crudely taped over the incoherent network of roads. Ah, kinder, simpler, Twitter-less times, those were.
The fork in the road was a key theme of our annual outlook a couple months ago (no match for Art Fern in wit or delivery, but still…). Are we heading down one path towards above-trend growth powered by an inflationary catalyst, or another one characterized by the kind of below-trend, muted growth to which we have become accustomed in this recovery cycle thus far? For now, the data continue to point to the latter.
No Seventies Show, This
Carson’s heyday as host of the Tonight Show was in the 1970s, that era of cringe-worthy hairstyles, mirror balls and chronic stagflation. When the Bretton Woods framework of fixed currencies and a gold exchange standard fell apart in the early years of the decade it freed countries from their exchange rate constraints and encouraged massive monetary stimulation. The money supply in Britain, to cite one example, grew by 70 percent in 1972-73 alone. More money chasing the same amount of goods is the classic recipe for inflation, which is exactly what happened. OPEC poured flames on the fire when, as a geopolitical show of strength, it raised crude oil prices by a magnitude of five times in late 1973. A crushing global recession soon followed as industrial output and then employment went sharply into reverse, with countries unable to stimulate their way out of the mess caused by inflation.
A popular delusion in the immediate wake of the 2016 US presidential election was that some modern day variation of that early-70s stimulus bonanza was about to flood the economy with hyper-stimulated growth. Interest rates and consumer prices would soar as the new administration tossed out regulations, slashed taxes, lit a fire under massive public infrastructure and induced companies to kick their production facilities into high gear. The “reflation-infrastructure trade” flamed out a couple months into 2017 (though CNBC news hosts never got tired of hopefully invoking the shopworn “Trump trade is back!” mantra for months afterwards, every time financial or materials shares had a good day).
Herd-like investor tendencies aside, though, there was – and to an extent there continues to be – a case to make for the return of higher levels of inflation. Economies around the world are growing more or less in sync, which should push both output and prices higher. Taxes were indeed slashed – the one piece of the reflation trade puzzle that actually transpired – and as a result the consensus estimates for US corporate earnings have moved sharply higher. And yet, the numbers keep telling us something different.
Secular Stagnation Then, and Now
When we say “numbers” we refer generally to the flow of macroeconomic data about growth, production, consumption, labor, prices et al, but we’ve been paying particular attention to inflation. The core (excluding food and energy) Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) index, which is how the Fed gauges inflation, has been stuck around 1.5 percent for seemingly forever. This past Tuesday gave us a fresh reading on the core Consumer Price Index (CPI), the one more familiar to households, holding steady at 1.8 percent. We also got another lackluster reading on retail sales this week, suggesting that consumption (the largest driver of GDP growth) is not proceeding at red-hot levels. And last week’s jobs report showed only a modest pace of hourly wage gains despite a much larger than expected increase in payrolls. These numbers all seem to point, at least for now, towards the path of below-trend growth. Perhaps the bond market agrees with this assessment: the yield on the 10-year Treasury has been cooling its heels in a tight range between 2.8 – 2.9 percent for the past several weeks.
The economist Alvin Hansen coined the phrase “secular stagnation” back in the late 1930s, at a time when it seemed that long term growth lacked any catalyst to kick it in to a higher gear. We know what happened next. The war came along and rekindled productive output, followed by the three decades of Pax Americana when we ruled the roost while the rest of the world rebuilt itself from the ashes of destruction. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers brought the term “secular stagnation” back into popular use earlier in this recovery cycle. The numbers seem to tell us that this remains the default hypothesis.
But the story of the late 1930s reminds us that all a hypothesis needs to knock it off the “most likely” perch is the introduction of new variables and resulting new data. Foremost among those variables would be productivity (hopefully productivity from benign sources, and not from hot geopolitical conflict). It may well be that we have not yet arrived at that “fork in the road” but are still somewhere else on Art Fern’s indecipherable road map – and that a new productivity wave will pull us off the path of secular stagnation. The data, though, aren’t helping much in signaling when, where, and how that might happen.