Prepare for more frequent and extreme volatility. New and powerful influences, ranging from social media and financial technology to algorithmic trading and esoteric valuation models, will increasingly upset market stability and bring unprecedented rewards and unpredictable disaster.
Predictable market conditions will be upset by sudden unpredictable movements.
Financial markets can be predicted reliably only when the world does not change. Even during periods of stability, judgment based on expectations and assumptions as much as hard facts and economic analysis, form the basis for buying and selling decisions. Market crashes and financial crises are a continuing and breathtaking reminder that markets are irrational and uncertain. Taken to an extreme, the combustible combination disrupts global markets and societies. New analytical tools and technologies appear to make worrying about unforeseen risks obsolete. But this naïve belief in technology’s ability to understand and predict catastrophic risk is a fundamental cause of that very catastrophe.
Stability is illusory because in an uncertain world, unforeseen changes can have seismic effects. The pandemic is only the latest example, but there are always greater risks inherent in markets than is acknowledged, and most investment strategies do not accurately reflect the risk that certain investments are assuming for a given return. Safety can be an illusion if the risks are not well understood, both systemic and undiversified.
As we have seen, oversight, regulation, or any sort of self-imposed moderation will continue to be ineffective or nonexistent, and always trail behind the most dangerous and detrimental market developments. Financial weapons of mass destruction continue to multiply and are now available via smart phone in everyone’s pocket. Expect more and greater turbulence.
Clear and coherent markets, free from political agenda, bad compromises, and ineffective regulation is almost nonexistent. The consequences are usually pyrotechnic. It is not as if the world hadn’t provided ample warnings about the risks associated with irresponsible finance. History has centuries worth of such examples, but even looking at recent events over the last 25 years is illuminating.
In spite of Alan Greenspan acknowledging the “irrational exuberance” of the markets in 1996, stock market valuations continued to rise. The warning signs of unstable economies were believed to be localized and the broader markets decoupled from this turbulence. This was naïve thinking then and outright irresponsible now.
The idea that markets are uncertain, and consistent prediction is essentially impossible, is not new. John Maynard Keynes published a book on probability and uncertainty in 1921, with this concept of uncertain and irrational markets forming the basis of his general theory of financial markets. So, years before the stock market crash of 1929, and almost every 10 to 15 years afterward, the cycle of financial crashes and panics was predicted by a well-publicized thinker, and then, as is typical, ignored. The lesson is simple, and Keynes laid it out 100 years ago: markets seem rational but only during periods of stability. Markets are uncertain. Predictive models work most of the time, and that is their fundamental flaw. They will fail. Investment models that account for uncertainty and failure succeed in the long term.
S&P 500 stock market values are experiencing the same volatility as the first half of 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (based on the 50 largest value movements as a percentage of the index’s total market value).
Heightened volatility has grown more common across the stock market even as major indexes are approaching record highs. The volatility is not limited to specific circumstances of craziness, such as GameStop (rising more than 2,000% and then cratering), or Viacom (losing more than half its value as Achegos imploded). Apple gained $265 billion in market value during only five trading sessions in January – more than the total worth of Coca-Cola. In March, NVIDIA and PayPal each lost over $50 billion in market value in just a couple of days.
These dramatic movements show that market volatility leads to big price movements in stocks, both up and down. There are a couple of factors combining to enhance this turbulence:
The popularity of the momentum trade (buying stocks that are rising quickly and dump the relative losers quickly).
Decreasing liquidity (fewer buyers and sellers for the other side of trades).
Both factors magnify the market’s moves in either direction.
The Archegos implosion teaches the same lessons that apparently need to be taught over and over again. High leverage eventually brings margin calls. Margin calls equal disaster. Margin calls come when too much leverage is attached to securities linked to market volatility. All securities are linked to market volatility. There is no such thing as uncorrelated assets anymore. Investment strategies founded on the belief that the securities held are somehow immune from previously “uncorrelated” volatility are anachronistic. Combine these investments with substantial leverage intended to enhance returns, and this strategy ends in disaster. If it’s zero eventually, great quarterly performance is meaningless. It’s risk-adjusted return, idiot. Diligence matters. Questioning assumptions and decisions constantly are the table stakes for any investor. The too clever, overleveraged, overconfident manager believes work is done before an investment decision. That’s the beginning, not the end, and a failure to be diligent in a market with many more influences, uncertainties, and factors impacting a portfolio ends, well, the way Archegos ended. Watching carefully and acting quickly, getting out of suddenly unattractive positions, and revising thinking is almost as good as a good investment choice in the first place. Building a portfolio the way Archegos did is not investing. It’s gambling. The most important lesson is to know the difference.
Fundamental drivers for pricing valuations in public markets have changed. Now, there is a new interaction among factors unseen just recently. Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence have had a profound impact on the tools available and analysis presented to even the most amateurish investor. Social media, such as Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms, have allowed access to information and influence from media “stars” driving demand in an almost herd-like mentality driving up prices, and causing extreme volatility. Finally, technology has enabled a trading floor to be in everyone’s pocket. That same trading floor allows access to any information on anything from anywhere, and communication with anyone or, via social media, receive communication and information (regardless of how dubious) from anyone about any security or investment strategy.
These factors will cause unprecedented market volatility, along with extreme price movements for well-known (or perhaps more accurately, well-publicized) companies and their securities. While the supply of securities remains somewhat constant, demand for those securities is increasing (sometimes exponentially) because many more investors are now chasing those same securities.
The price of anything cannot escape supply and demand dynamics. Recent IPO activity is an attempt to meet growing demand (and raise capital at attractive prices). The new supply from IPO’s, secondary stock issuances, and most recently and monumentally, SPAC offerings, still do not provide enough supply to quench a growing and overwhelming demand. The valuations, especially those given to the SPAC’s, are entering stratospheric levels that could hardly be justified under normal market conditions. While there is plenty of capital, most assets seem fully priced with an under-estimation of risk. There are alternative investments where higher returns without the same commensurate increase in risk are available. Some return is simply mispricing of securities through lack of attention (those starved from social media can create meaningful opportunities for those savvy enough to look for them) or liquidity.
Successful investors are the ones who understand adding return without corresponding risk is the most critical component of successful investing, especially given the new equation for valuation:
When Everything is Going Great, It Probably Isn’t.
Things can only get better from here… said the turkey the day before Thanksgiving. It’s challenging to know when it’s too late because things go badly gradually, then suddenly.
It might be time to start worrying about tech-stock valuations. Usually, all it takes is a few overly ebullient stock analysts to set off an alarm. When unreasonableness takes over (remember all those analysts’ reports from March 2000? The NASDAQ could only go up and all those internet funds were going to double again in 2001?). In March 2000, the bellwether for this nonsense was Henry Blodget’s recommendation of Amazon with a target price of $400.00 by March 2001 (at the time Amazon was trading for about $60.00 a share). Instead of being $400.00 in March 2001, Amazon’s price was $5.97 per share.
Long Term Value Means Long Term
Of course, Amazon has created an amazing business model and is fundamentally rewriting technology services and customer logistics. Trading at almost 100 times earnings the market believes there is much more growth and profitability to come. Really? Regardless of your perspective about that, Amazon is an example of investments that are either “don’t bother it’s ridiculous” or “never sell it’s ridiculous.”
The market may stay permanently irrational about companies like Amazon, or Amazon may catch up to the market’s irrationality. What should an investor do? The answer is simple – don’t play. By that I mean you either buy the stock and ride the tiger (which means you can never get off – or sell) or stay out of the jungle completely – don’t ever buy. Half measures rarely have good outcomes.
Amazon is exemplary. This tiger has rallied substantially since those woeful days in March 2001 to close above $3,200 per share in February 2021. So, even if you listened to the absurdity belched out in March 2000, and on paper, had substantial losses from your Amazon investment for several years, if you held on, you are brilliant and rich (more like lucky; but it’s smarter to be lucky than lucky to be smart). Don’t listen to the analysts and don’t get off.
Is It Really Different This Time? Well, sort of – and that makes all the difference. Interest rates are at zero, and worldwide markets assume that will change little for some time to come. Global coordinated monetary and fiscal policy are spiraling interest rates to this flattened level with little prospect of upward movement. The combination of monetary, fiscal, and interest-rate policy coordinated in this manner is unprecedented and is being pushed to its limits. A subliminal fear may be permeating the markets, generating extreme movements, causing both substantial profits and losses from massive capital flows magnifying price movements within compressed time frames. How do we explain this, and more importantly, how do we predict and profit from it? Bitcoin Explains Everything – Read That Twice If You Need To
The world economy is an infinitely complicated web of interconnections. We each experience a series of direct economic interrelationships: the stores we buy from, the employer that pays us our salary, the bank that gives us a home loan, etc. But once we are two or three levels degrees separated, it’s impossible to really know with any confidence how the connections are working. That, in turn, shows what is unnerving about the economic calamity potentially accompanying the coronavirus.
In the years ahead we will learn what happens when that web is torn apart when millions of those links are destroyed all at once. It opens the possibility of a global economy quite different from the one that has prevailed in recent decades. Or, as John Kenneth Galbraith has said, “we have two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. “The bottom line is establishing and maintaining an unconventional investment profile requires acceptance of uncomfortably idiosyncratic portfolios, which frequently appear imprudent in the eyes of conventional wisdom. We are entering a new world and must think differently.
Businesses that combine closed-loop, arms dealer and monopoly characteristics represent something fundamental that is shifting in the global economy. They represent automation that is pervasive, smart, and is a layer that sits across the entire economy. Data processing and prediction build these business models. They permeate all services, including supply chains, logistics, mobility, and consumer offerings. Pervasive and innovative, they represent opportunities for increasing investment returns. Incumbents enhance their position, generate increasing value, create challenging barriers, enable more innovation to solidify their position and will sustain their value because of this new competitive dynamic. Innovation is always a threat, and value can be created from a new entrant, but the bar is increasingly higher for both the level of disruption and quality of innovation to an existing or even new market.
To be sure, new opportunities will be created as new technology develops. An example is the wireless data and smart phone market. Essentially, 4G mobile technology enabled the substantial value creation at Facebook, Netflix, Uber and AirBnB. These companies could build their services on top of this technological platform and create not only a new competitive business, but a new market where they could be the dominant player. As 5G develops and we see unimagined high-speed for data, entertainment, communication, and other services, we will have new businesses and opportunities created on this platform – only so much can be imagined today, others which are yet to come. But there will be real-time connection with customers enabling new and innovative products and services, artificial intelligence permeating software and communication enhancing quality and innovation further, enhanced gaming (perhaps even to a professional level), and virtual reality and augmented reality perhaps finally becoming the market opportunity that has been imagined for many years. This list is far from exhaustive, and without doubt, there will be valuable companies created whose business models we can’t quite imagine today.
Investments are typically analyzed singularly, and collection is considered a “portfolio.” This is a mistake because, while each investment has its own risk and return profile, the combination represents one single combined investment. In other words, a portfolio should be thought of as one investment with its own risk-adjusted return profile. That is, an investment with its own risk-adjusted return. It has dynamic components which consist of each investment within the portfolio. But a portfolio should not be viewed as a collection of investments with different risks.In thinking about where to invest, one of the most important components is to first think about the industry or sector where the company competes. It is important to target specific industries that are worth the investment. A great company within a mediocre sector is not worth the time. As an example, GE, once one of the world’s most valuable companies, has lost most of its market value because it competed in sectors, such as large turbines for energy generation, that were no longer attractive. It doesn’t matter if, according to GE’s standards, it was the number one or number two competitor in that sector. The sector is not worth the time. As it has now been shown, that matters more than how successfully one competes.Of course, it does matter how well a company competes once you chosen an attractive sector. An example here is Nvidia, a company that not only participated in an extremely attractive sector – specialized integrated circuits for intense processing, initially focused on gaining and then artificial intelligence – it competed effectively to become an industry sector leader. As a result, its value has increased almost 10 X in the last seven years.Different sectors have different risk components, and different companies competing within the sectors also have different risk profiles. It is appropriate to combine securities with different risk profiles, in both its sector and competitive position. Each of these companies can be thought of as a growth, defensive, cyclical, or stable investment, for example, depending on these different profiles.Fundamentally, a successful investment strategy combines companies competing successfully in attractive sectors offering unique risk-adjusted return when combined into a single portfolio. It is this investment strategy where the risk-adjusted return is superior. What do we mean by risk-adjusted return? A simple way to explain this is through an “S” curve, as demonstrated below. There is a relatively flat bottom increasing in degree and slope. Sometimes, the slope will increase at an increasing rate, a phenomenon known as “convexity.” We will discuss this later, but convexity is one of the key attributes to an attractive investment. But, as we can see, those returns begin to diminish as we approach a changing slope in the curve.There is a relative flattening at the top of the curve. This is true for every investment. The timescale may be different (attractive returns might be earned for a short time or, potentially, for decades, but, returns eventually flattened). There is no escape from this phenomenon.
If asymmetry and convexity exist, this investment will have a much greater risk-adjusted return, and those positive returns will increase at an increasing rate. Obviously, these are the most attractive components to the most successful investments. How do we find them? A dynamic that has emerged globally combining industry disruption, technical innovation, customer loyalty, and a worldwide market is the “closed loop” business. This is where a company provides a product or service that is innovative, useful, and generates significant demand. Customer feedback for that product or service provides a “loop” that enables the company to understand its customer better and the attractiveness or negative aspects of the company’s product or service. The customer feedback now enables the company to provide a better product or service and be a more formidable competitor. There is now a loop connecting the company and the customer. If a company is essentially able to close this loop so that the customer values the company’s product or service so highly that the customer will not look for competing products, this will enable the company to grow at an increasing rate. Essentially, this closed loop is a value-generating competitive weapon that improves the product offered, retains customers gets better feedback to make an even better product, retains and attracts even more customers, etc. It enables more effective capital investment, more efficient operations, and improves decision-making from better customer data and responsiveness. This creates a virtuous cycle that spirals the business upward creating a sustainable competitive advantage generating increasing returns. As a result, a company that creates a closed loop with its customers will create the most attractive returns. Another critical component to identify an attractive investment is when a company provides a product or service essential to all competitors within an attractive market segment. In other words, the “arms dealer” to that industry. Arms dealers typically represent a singularly attractive investment opportunity. While the term speaks to a specific legal standard, essentially, monopolies are constructed within industry sectors constantly. A valuable product or service, while perhaps initially part of a fragmented industry, ultimately consolidates into a few, and sometimes a single source supplier. As you can probably see, the arms dealers and monopolies are essentially closed-loop businesses. Often unmentioned, yet the most important component to an investment’s story is the team managing the business, especially the CEO. We have discussed businesses that build slight competitive advantages and the network effect built monopolistic positions or understood how to play a role as the provider of an essential product to all competitors in a growing industry. But without doubt, the most important component of all of this is the people managing the business. Extraordinary companies are built by extraordinary people.
You cannot escape physics. The value of every investment starts at zero. Entropy is our natural state (thank you to the Second Law of Thermodynamics) meaning that we are constantly fighting the destruction of value. There is always a force, equivalent to gravity, pushing an investment down. Value is created by the efficient use of capital and the created, sustainable competitive advantage. Consistent investment in a thoughtful portfolio will create sustained value, but it is work, and you will always be fighting natural physical forces. One recent example is the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009. 40% of the average equity value was destroyed in this time. However, if one invested consistently at the height of the market and continue to invest through the crash and then ultimate recovery, and investor still earned over 9% annually. Thoughtfulness, consistency, patience, and determination is the most effective way to fight gravity and thermodynamics. The most important way to fight physics and the ultimate effect of gravity is to determine what you are looking for first. Highlight growth, disruption, sustainability – what will have a long-term value creating effect. What sectors make the most impactful difference? Recently, as we look at technology, biotechnology, and other important sectors, we see above average returns because of the impactful nature of the sectors. But technology is also permeating finance (Fintech) and entertainment (streaming services) that are disrupting incumbents and creating disproportionate value to the new entrants. Is this sustainable? Will the disruptors capture value, or will more established companies ultimately win? Observation, questioning assumptions, testing models, and assuming no knowledge regardless of historical experience are the only cures for gravity.