Things Have Changed – Sort of

The last few weeks highlighted the need to bring a new understanding of, and strategy for, investment risk. Volatility is increasing and occurring over a significantly compressed timeframe – for individual stocks and the overall market. Recent trading activity in GameStop, AMC, and a few other stocks demand an investment strategy focusing on Risk Adjusted Return.

The new power of retail investors is here to stay, and that will shake up traditional portfolio managers because they are increasingly losing control of the trading process.

A Trading Floor in My Pocket.

Trading apps on platforms like Robinhood and social media chat rooms found on Reddit are game changers, fueling an unprecedented level of interest and activity (social media information is easily accessible and trading activity has very little friction – few, if any fees, and immediate). These two factors are irreversibly changing the market.

In the past year, U.S. brokers added at least 10 million new retail trading accounts, and a shift to zero trading commissions late in 2019 unlocked a wave of activity that dwarfed even the wild days of the dot-com bubble. Beginning in early 2020, and coinciding with coronavirus lockdowns, trading activity started to surge and has not subsided, even as the economy has gradually reopened. Average daily trading at the biggest retail brokers hit a record of 6.6 million a day in December 2020. In January 2021, it reached 8.1 million. On January 27, 2021, equity volume was triple the average day in 2019.

Retail investing has been a small fish trading in the large hedge fund and institutional pond. But that’s changing. Before the pandemic, retail trading made up about 15% of equity volume; now, it’s consistently making up more than 20%. The game changer is when that activity is concentrated on just a few stocks, a much more likely event among retail investors (driven by social media platforms), and it makes a substantial difference. In the case of GameStop and several other highly shorted stocks, it can cause startling price movements in a very short time.

The Superficial and the Real

Our political system is binary, and both sides are more extreme than reasonable. There seems little patience for the “reasonable middle” where ideas can be nuanced, refined, and complexity of public policy understood. Instead, our leaders are superficial and guide policy with slogans, not thought. People like AOC and Sanders are caricatures, influential yet ignorant and superficial, forming policies while clueless about what it takes to realistically solve even their most critical issues.

They have great ideas on how to distribute wealth but no ideas on how wealth is actually created. Their perspective is to take existing wealth and distribute it to others instead of developing an engine to help more people create wealth. An example of this kind of dysfunctional policy can be found in resource rich African nations. Instead of building industries using the abundant natural resources present as inputs generating real businesses, those resources are simply gathered and distributed – either to efficient businesses in other countries or among governmental cronies to their Swiss bank accounts. Either way, this attitude is disastrous for an economy ultimately. Wealth is created, and policies should free up the ability to create wealth within appropriate legal restrictions.

A New Perspective

Sometimes, things can change simply because we want things to change. People can feel differently and that can spark a cascade of cause and effect. For instance, sometimes a recession can start simply because people feel as if there is a recession. So, it becomes a downward spiral, and our actions start matching our thoughts and words, and suddenly we have caused recessionary activity. Then we enter a downward spiral that makes reality from our thoughts.

Some of the things that Pres. Biden has done right away were maneuvers to undo what seemed like harmful policies and actions. But also, it was intended to have us think differently. Right away, he did things to try to reconnect us with the rest of the world. For example, the United States is back in the Paris Accord, he is not going to build the wall, he is going to reconnect us with the WHO, and many other things. But right away, he is sending a message that the United States will become part of the world and that is likely to undo the fragmented and rudderless direction and create cascade of positive actions that lead in the same direction – one toward openness and connectivity. I sense we are going to reconnect a little bit more with China, reconnect more generally with the world through global trade and cooperation on climate change, and many other important topics. It’s suddenly uplifting for people to focus their energy, and thoughts lead to words lead to actions.

Currency Values in a Zero Interest Rate World

We are rapidly approaching a zero-interest rate world. Interest rates are being driven to zero (or below zero in many cases) as a first-line tool for central banks to generate economic activity in the face of the dramatic negative impact of the pandemic, as well as existing and lingering economic fallout. This toolbox will be empty soon, and the only remaining weapon will be fiscal policy. Among other things, fiscal policy and domestic financial markets will have an overwhelming influence on global currencies. Capital flows will dramatically impact currency volatility as capital moves to more attractive countries with more liquid and robust asset markets.

Define the Problem or You won’t Solve Anything

Defining and the problem precisely is the only way to solve anything, and, undoubtedly, the single greatest challenge to achieving anything. Otherwise, it is a waste of time and resources (which describes most public policy). All too often decision-makers waste time, resources, and make matters worse because they simply do not understand the actual problem they’re trying to solve. Very few problems are well-defined, and few people take the time and effort to understand what it is they are trying to solve. Motivation, energy, and focus on an outcome are inefficient, misguided, and dysfunctional. Good intentions do not effectively define any problem, and typically lead to very bad outcomes. Wanting to solve a big problem is fine, but not defining it accurately is inefficient at best, and most likely disastrous. It will never lead to a solution.

Technology and Turmoil

Productivity, expansion, and entrepreneurship were enabled through the adoption of new technology. Undeniably, the net economic benefit was substantial. But lives were disrupted, jobs were lost, and what would be seen with a historical perspective as an obvious beneficial choice, was anything but obvious to those so immediately and negatively impacted. Technological advancements produce net benefits for society. But for every advancement, there is a cost. Leadership and subsequent public policy must address this shortfall. As in the past, the solution has been training and education leading to economic inclusion and prosperous lives. and subsequent public policy must address this shortfall. As in the past, the solution has been training and education leading to economic inclusion and prosperous lives. History has taught us the net benefit of technological advancement, the turmoil it brings, and the solution required.