The tyranny of models is rampant in almost every aspect of our investment lives, from every central bank in the world to every giant asset manager in the world to the largest hedge funds in the world. There are very good reasons why we live in a model-driven world, and there are very good reasons why model-driven institutions tend to dominate their non-modeling competitors. The use of models is wonderfully comforting to the human animal because it’s what we do in our own minds and our own groups and tribes all the time. We can’t help ourselves from applying simplifying models in our lives because we are evolved and trained to do just that. But models are most useful in normal times, where the inherent informational trade-off between modeling power and modeling comprehensiveness isn’t a big concern and where historical patterns don’t break. Unfortunately we are living in decidedly abnormal times, a time where simplifications can blind us to structural change and where models create a risk that cannot be resolved by more or better modeling! It’s not a matter of using a different model or improving the model that we have. It’s the risk that ALL economic models pose when a bedrock assumption about politics or society shifts.
As happens at the end of every year, sellside analysts and economists, all predicted that this year would be different, and the long overdue capex spending would finally be unleashed. Apparently they had far greater visibility on this matter, than on the topic of snowfall in the winter, and its disastrous impact on a $17 trillion economy, whose Q1 GDP growth forecast has cratered from 3% at the start of the year, to barely half that number currently. One of the firms that preached that the CapEx recovery is imminent is none other than Goldman Sachs, the same firm that also year after year predicts a new golden age for the US, only to see its forecast crash and burn some 4-6 months later, couched in the tried (or is that now trite) and true scapegoatings: snow, unrest in Europe, inflation or deflation in Japan, the usual. However, this time may indeed be different, and the same Goldman has just released a piece wondering "Why no capex recovery?" (despite the firm's own forecasts to the contrary -just recall David Mericle's "Capex: The Fundamentals Remain Strong" which now in retrospect is completely wrong).
Last year we exposed the reasoning for the extremely predictable cyclicality in US macro-economic surprise data. Each year of the last few, the third quarter has exhibited unusual "strength" surprising 'economists' - thanks to government agencies executing their final budgets to use up all their allotments - only to stabilize in Q4 and the fade rapidly in Q1. 2013 was "different" as we had the government shutdown which threw the seasonal pattern off... but once the agencies were re-opened, the spice did flow and we got what is now clearly not a sustainable 'surprise' in growth but a lagged cyclical bounce. However, the lag introduced by the shutdown is now catching up to us - so it is different this time (2mo. lag) but the same...
The stock market. Source of unknown riches - but not necessarily for investors. So-called "professional" investors offer to manage your money. However, their fees are based on the level of assets managed, not performance. Hence their goal is to maximize assets, not performance, and prey for markets to behave. You will never hear a bad word about stocks from a professional money manager. the by-laws of many mutual funds do not allow the manager to have cash levels above 5% of assets. He has to be invested at least 95% at all times. On one hand, it is probably right to force money managers to concentrate on stock picking, not market timing. On the other hand, this puts the onus of market timing onto the inidiviual investors. Lighthouse's Alex Gloy's excellent presentation below proves finance doesn't have to be complex (people make it complex). Gloy goes on to discuss the link between GDP and Profits, performance, valuation, inflation, and war and their effect on all markets.
With just a tad more than three weeks left in the year it is time to start focusing on what 2014 will likely bring. Of course, what really happens over the next twelve months is likely to be far different than what is currently expected but issuing prognostications, making conjectures and telling fortunes has always kept business brisk on Wall Street.
"We're Stuck In An Escher Economy Until The Existing Structure Collapses And Is Rebuilt On Stronger Principles"Submitted by Tyler Durden on 11/09/2013 13:26 -0400
1. Even if the economy returns to full employment under existing policies, it won’t remain there after (and if) interest rates normalize.
2. Based on today’s debt and valuation levels (charts 8-9, for example), rising interest rates will have an even harsher effect than suggested by the 60 year history
3. Contrary to the establishment’s “sustainable recovery” narrative, the most plausible outcomes are: 1) interest rates normalize but this triggers another bust, or 2) interest rates remain abnormally low until we eventually experience the mother of all debt/currency crises.
We’re stuck in an Escher economy (see below), thanks to the impossibility of the establishment economic view, and this will remain the case until the existing structure collapses and is rebuilt on stronger policy principles.
The Fed will have to increase QE (not taper it) because systemic debt is compounding faster than production and interest rates are already zero-bound. Lee Quaintance noted many years ago that the Fed was holding a burning match. This remains true today (only it is a bomb with a short fuse). Thirteen years after the over-levered US equity market collapsed, eleven years following Bernanke’s speech, five years after the over-levered housing bubble burst, and four years into the necessary onset of global Zero Interest Rate Policies and Long-Term Refinancing Operations, global monetary authorities seem to have run out of new outlets for credit. In real economic terms, central bank policies have become ineffective. In other words, the US is now producing as much new debt as goods and services.
It appears the market may need to resurrect the implode-o-meter as surging mortgage rates and plunging mortgage applications are (unsurprisingly) taking their toll on the mis-allocated surge in mortgage lenders that 'market' signals encouraged. The latest, as Boston.com reports, is 1-800-East-West Mortgage which has largely suspended operations and laid off its workforce. "As rates rose, a number of people just went to the sidelines," the CEO said. The market, he added, "went into a drought." And yet, homebuilders (again unsurprisingly) remain as 'hopeful' as they have been since 2005 that all will be well.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on asset valuation these days, even commentators who are normally quiet about such matters. Some are seeing asset price bubbles, others are just on the lookout for bubbles, and still others wonder what all the fuss is about. Simply put, our financial markets weren’t (and still aren’t) structured to be efficient, and consistently rational behavior is a pipe dream, history shows over and over that the idea of a stable equilibrium is deeply flawed. Policies focused on the short-term tend to exacerbate that cycle, as we saw when decades of stabilization policies and moral hazard exploded in the Global Financial Crisis. Maybe if macroeconomics were rooted in the reality of a perpetual cycle - where expansions eventually lead to recessions (stability breeds instability) and then back to expansions - we would see more economists and policymakers balancing near-term benefits against long-term costs. Or, another way of saying the same thing is that mainstream economists should pay more attention to Austrians and others who’ve long rejected core assumptions that are consistently proven wrong.
It’s amazing what people can trick themselves into believing and even shout about when you tell them exactly what they want to hear. It was disappointing to see Brad DeLong’s latest defense of Fed policy, which was published this past weekend and trumpeted far and wide by like-minded bloggers. If you take DeLong’s word for it, you would think that the only policy risk that concerns hedge fund managers is a return to full employment. He suggests that these managers criticize existing policy only because they’ve made bad bets that are losing money, while they naively expect the Fed’s “political masters” to bail them out. Well, every one of these claims is blatantly false. DeLong’s story is irresponsible and arrogant, really. And since he flouts the truth in his worst articles and ignores half the picture in much of the rest, we’ll take a stab here at a more balanced summary of the pros and cons of the Fed’s current policies. We’ll try to capture the discussion that’s occurring within the investment community that DeLong ridicules. Firstly, the benefits of existing policies are well understood. Monetary stimulus has certainly contributed to the meager growth of recent years. And jobs that are preserved in the near-term have helped to mitigate the rise in long-term unemployment, which can weigh on the economy for years to come. These are the primary benefits of monetary stimulus, and we don’t recall any hedge fund managers disputing them. But the ultimate success or failure of today’s policies won’t be determined by these benefits alone – there are many delayed effects and unintended consequences. Here are seven long-term risks that aren’t mentioned in DeLong’s article...
David Einhorn's Q1 Investor Letter: "Under The Circumstances, It Is Curious That Gold Isn’t Doing Better."Submitted by Tyler Durden on 05/10/2013 14:27 -0400
Sadly, not much in terms of macro observations this quarter or discussions of jelly donuts, but a whole lot on the fund's biggest Q1 underperformer, Apple and the hedge fund's ongoing fight for shareholder friendly capital reallocation as well as proving Modigliani-Miller wrong. And then this cryptic ellipsis: "Under the circumstances, it is curious that gold isn’t doing better." Say no more, David. We get it.
Due to decades of unreserved credit growth that temporarily boosted the appearance of sustainable economic growth and prosperity, rational economic behavior cannot produce real (inflation-adjusted) economic growth from current levels. The nominal sizes of advanced economies have grown far larger than the rational scope of production that would be needed to sustain them. This fundamental problem explains best the current state of affairs: malaise (i.e., bank system de-leveraging and economic stagnation) spreading through the means of production and the need for increasing policy intervention to stabilize goods, service and asset prices (by depressing the first three and inflating the last?). We live and work in a contrived meta-economy that can be managed through narrow channels in financial and state capitals. Given the overwhelming past misallocation of capital cited above, we think the most important realization for investors in the current environment is that price levels of goods, services and assets may be biased to rise but they are not sustainable in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. The crowd is ignoring the obvious, as all signs point towards the next currency reset.
Freight shipment volumes are rather obviously seasonal, but as Bloomberg Brief notes, the Cass Freight index shows shipment volumes have slumped for four consecutive months and are back to their worst levels in two years. This is the first year-over-year contraction since the 2007-2009 Great Recession - and places the reality of the dismal Q4 GDP print in context. If that wasn't enough good news about the real economy, the cyclicality of the shipments are losing momentum (i.e. each seasonal rebound in the last three years has been weaker - just as we saw in the lead up to 2008) and freight expenditures fell in January leading to a 1.6% drop over the last year - compared to a 27.2% rise in January 2011, and 22.2% rise in January 2012. As Cass noted, these volumes will not be enough to "have a significant impact on the unemployment numbers."
Hard assets are gaining momentum once again as market participants digest the potential impact of central bank printing initiatives. After last year's record level of central bank intervention, 2013 is gearing up to be an even more prolific year on the money-printing front. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently unveiled Japan's tenth Quantitative Easing program to follow the country's current $224 billion stimulus announced on January 11th. The US Federal Reserve is steadily printing US$85 billion a month under its QE3 & QE4 programs, and reports indicate that the European Central Bank is close to launching its much-awaited Open Market Transaction (OMT) program to purchase European sovereign debt. It's a money-printing party and everyone's invited. Even the new Bank of England head, Mark Carney, has hinted of plans to launch more monetary stimulus. Professional investors have noticed and are expressing concern over the consequences of concerted currency devaluation and the continuation of zero-percent interest rates. Despite being long-time precious metals enthusiasts and active investors in gold and silver, we did not focus on "the other precious metals", platinum or palladium, until very recently.
We have noted the odd cyclicality in macro data (and its leading effect on the market) and it seems Goldman Sachs has also noticed that something is different this time. For 15 years, the seasonal patterns in Goldman's macro index have been mild to totally negligible; but since 2009, something changed. As the chart below indicates, it really is different this time as the macro cycle has become extremely short and consistent (drop in H1, rise in H2) - and is evident not just top-down but bottom-up in payrolls and ISM for instance. Goldman expounds pages of statistical jiggery-pokery to show what we suspected - that this is not weather or seasonality effects, and is not just US (UK and Europe see same pattern of six month cycles); but appears driven by central-bank policy actions (which have been more concentrated in Q4/Q1). 2013 is playing out exactly as the last three years has - with a downdraft that is set to continue for the next few months - though they note that stability in oil prices this time (and recent expansion of easing efforts - Fed and BoJ) may shift the pattern. For now, it appears the macro cycle is becoming shorter and warrants concern as they are unable to find anything but 'reality' as a driver of this odd cyclical pattern as the real economy fades rapidly after each and every infusion of promises from the Central Banks.