Paul Brodsky: "Only The Court Jester Gets To Speak Truth To Power And Laugh About It"

By Paul Brodsky of Macro Allocation Inc.

“A stock is like a living organism. A sparrow, say. And we are able to create an emergent-based abstraction of that sparrow, which closely approximates the sparrow itself, accounting for migration patterns, wind, weather, and other variables. We can create a similar abstraction of a stock combining the information from the specific ETFs, which represent its underlying dependencies. And if we apply this to the stock we can predict its delta, following the path of its extracted self, because nature follows abstraction.”

      - Taylor from Billions

Surely, You Jest

The writers of Showtime’s Billions are nothing if not funny. The gibberish above captures perfectly the philosophical yearning of hedge fund men and women in their tortured quest for higher meaning. (As it turns out, the show does not limit its characters to men and women. Taylor is played by an actor that self-identifies sexually in real life as “non-binary” and in the show demands the pronouns “its” and “their” instead of he, she, his or her.)

To be sure, “its” description of stocks as create-able and manipulate-able abstractions rings true, especially today when factors exogenous to earnings and commercial prospects seem to influence market prices more than rational demand for equities. Don’t tell anyone but market manipulation is legal when parallel abstractions are created and executed by self-serving political and economic policy makers; not so when they are perpetrated by self-serving financiers. We suspect the show’s US Attorney for the Southern District of New York will eventually inform Taylor that hedge funds don’t get to create and manipulate their own abstractions (and if it wants to do so, then it should work at the Fed).

Another fun second-hand account of the markets was on offer this weekend in an established financial column that criticized how “financial philosopher kings” like to opine on “the meaning of life” and “the nature of happiness” instead of…providing graphs! We were to urged to believe, we suppose, that graphs are more scientific and allow anyone to more accurately extrapolate the future from the past.

The column’s current steward (it has been around for decades) then endorsed an analyst who noticed “booming” trends in US interior cities and millennial labor participation (for which he presumably had many graphs). Awkwardly, the analyst concluded there will be only modest moves in stocks and bonds, and so the column successfully expended a thousand words to inform readers that financial markets still exist. Some of those words were ironically spent informing readers that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so it may have been more efficient (and less ironic) to instead paste a pinup of Warren Buffett, the biggest supporter of buy-and-hold-no matter-what investing, on a graph of the S&P 500:

Buffet is still a forward-looking philosopher king but stays mute when valuations are high. We are more drawn when values are high to those like Paul Tudor Jones, who allegedly told a private meeting at Goldman Sachs that the Fed should be terrified to look at a chart, ironically cited often by Warren Buffet, that shows the stock market woefully out of balance with the broader economy.

Graphs themselves are funny things. Trying to gain insight by identifying trends without ratios, which provided context, is like trying to clap with one hand. Booming cities based on health care revenues is a signal to us how tenuous economic growth is, not how strong or sustainable it may be.

Alas, our personal fate is not to have billions, or to play an asexual financial automaton on the show of the same name, or to be a financial philosopher king. We will have to be satisfied with being invited to Court every now and then, even if it is as a jester. Who else can speak truth to power and laugh about it?

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