Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jordan Peterson's Business Cycle Theory

University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson has gained YouTube notoriety recently for speaking out against social justice warrior lunacy. However, it should be noted that his book, Maps of Meaning, is a very profound one. I heard him give a talk in which he mentioned initially that he was interested in economics, but was put off by the undefended assumption that people want to maximize their wealth. Most people want to be wealthy, of course, but they also want to have a fulfilling life, which is much more complicated. The larger existential question is, “How do I invest my time now to have the best life?” This does not lend itself very well to mathematical expositions.

His basic premise is that we develop maps of meaning to identify our best life. The world appears to us not in the form of objects, but rather things with an inherent valence or meaning according to how well they help us thrive. Thus, a cliff-edge does not represent a mere vertical descent, but rather, physical danger. Our world is filled with things, people, and ideas that all have meaning to us, and we arrange them in a map according to the way in which we see they have interrelated effects on our lives.

Human life is a narrative quest, focused on a story we find useful and true, an arc that leads to something profoundly good and beautiful. We attend to things we believe will lead us to this objective most efficiently, and thus, all of our tactics, strategies, and summum bonum are tied in a speculative endeavor. This conscious mode of thought is grounded in a metaphorical language that derives from narratives that use universal archetypes in the way that a good fictional character can describe a universal existential problem better than dry prose (e.g., Job, Holden Caulfield, or Anakin Skywalker).

Eventually, our maps develop anomalies, events that do not fit, because maps are always simplifications of reality. A sufficiently large anomaly is similar to finding that your microscope is out of focus: everything becomes a blur, chaos, and it is not obvious in which direction to adjust the lens. It is difficult for people to improvise solutions to their problems, as failure cascades through a complex system. In such a scenario, the first response is to freeze, as rats will freeze initially when moved to a new cage, because all they know is that their current environment is unmapped. Gradually, they begin to sniff around for predators, food, and other rats. Once they perceive that the danger is diminished sufficiently, the rat begins to explore the cage and do normal rat things.

Thus, when you learn that your partner is unfaithful or you are not good at your job, you have to rethink some fundamental assumptions about the meaning of your partner and job, and adjust your life accordingly. This happens until death, hopefully less frequently as one becomes older, but certainly at least several times. Alas, many ignore anomalies using cognitive dissonance, but the cumulative cost of not facing one’s errors leads to frustration and existential angst (which explains many angry bloggers).

What is interesting is the way in which this epistemological process is akin to Gould and Eldridge’s punctuated equilibrium theory, in which evolution consists primarily of stasis, but occasionally of significant change. The maps people use to understand the world do not change in a linear way, as if they were updating their Bayesian prior daily, but rather people update only when their prior fails massively.

Peterson and Business Cycles

This seems relevant to business cycles. Previously, I riffed on Batesian mimicry, the idea that business cycles focus on new things each recession because idiot imitators and outright frauds are drawn to businesses that seem most bulletproof to pointy-headed bosses. Thus, just as colorful poisonous snakes imitate colorful non-poisonous snakes (who then save on metabolic resources with the same benefit), putting “dot-com” after your company’s name was a great strategy circa 1999, and giving mortgages to anyone with a pulse was a great strategy in 2005. Failure is endogenous in humanity’s crooked nature.

However, a problem remained; why does investment decline across industries in each recession? Why do industry-specific problems spread into disparate sectors such as consumer, electronics, housing, etc.? Using the Peterson theory, when something sufficiently anomalous happens, investors see chaos because it portends a major epistemic flaw in their maps. Thus, it is best to wait and see where their maps are wrong before investing more. Finding a new paradigm takes time. One rarely understands an anomaly fully, even in hindsight. Even today’s economists disagree about the essential cause of the Great Depression of 1929, or the more modest 1990 recession.

Thus, in real-time, anomalies reach tipping points that halt investment, because deferral is not nearly as costly as is a bad investment. Recessions last approximately 12 months on average, so eventually, people determine the anomaly’s essence or at least become comfortable with a new, imperfect map of the business landscape in which chaos is contained, and activity resumes. Contractions are not equilibriums, because people naturally want to explore the uncharted, as exploring is one of Jaak Panksepp’s instinctive mammalian affects. The breadth of a business cycle is the result of the catastrophic nature in the way in which we update our worldviews.

Yet, every 10 years, economists develop a new model that the next cycle does not fit. Consider the recession in 1975, which focused on oil, in 1982, on interest rates, in 1990, on commercial real estate, in 2001, the internet bubble, and in 2008, residential housing. Each one is sui generis, as the prior indicators fail to work. In the most recent crisis, when mortgage indices began to falter in early 2007, no economist thought it was a major problem because these had not led to recessions in the past. A few funds failed, but everyone thought it was contained.

Then, larger mortgage-related firms continued to fail, and it became clear that the problem was bigger than anyone thought. In the fall of 2008, it seemed that the sky was falling, as people were unclear whether the problem was centered on residential housing, all securitizations via some arcane math error (copulas), or some unknown financial positive-feedback loop. Even now there is no agreement on the genesis of the 2008 recession, and like the fall of Rome, the list will probably remain forever long, even though I believe the only necessary and sufficient condition was the flawed assumption about diversified housing prices (no one thought a nationwide nominal housing price decline was possible).

Interestingly, the government caused another anomaly by trying to make things better. In an effort to help solve the problem, the government instituted many new rules that made it easier for delinquent homeowners to remain in their houses without paying, and required a costly legal process for lenders to evict anyone (foreclosure now averages over 600 days). Further, the government filed numerous lawsuits that punished banks for making the same loans it had encouraged previously, but such is politics. Thus, mortgages went from a 90% to a 20% recovery rate assumption, and half of total bank profits in this recovery went to pay fines, so that banks have had one of the weakest post-trough recoveries of any expansion. This has contributed to our anemic expansion, and highlights that one also must foresee the clumsy government response to any anomaly, which makes the problem much more intractable.

At some point, the initial mortgage bond anomaly was seen as evidence of a substantive flaw in people’s business models, but it was unclear what that flaw was. They saw chaos and turtled in, froze like rats in a new cage, and investment declined across the board, which is the essence of a recession. When bad information arises, this causes all investors to put less weight on their Bayesian prior about the future, so expectations shift more as new information arises, which is why volatility increases during incipient downturns.

The Maps of Meaning business cycle model highlights some key characteristics of recessions that standard business cycle theories do not:


  • The anomalies were real, and exposed profoundly flawed assumptions in certain common business practices. Specific business models were not viable, evidenced by large sustained exits in key sectors after each recession. This is important, because some economists believe recessions are caused by self-fulfilling, but groundless shifts in expectations; many Keynesians lie here (see, sunspot theories of recessions).
    • After 1990, commercial real estate remained depressed for several years 
    • After 2001, many internet companies exited
    • After 2008, mortgage companies and housing suppliers exited
  • Anomalies arise in different parochial aspects of the economy. 
    • A macro model that looks at aggregates will miss the essence of the shock
  • Attempts to counter business cycles via aggregate policy never work.
    • Simply lowering interest rates, or increasing government spending does not address the issue, which focuses on a particular business flaw, not an aggregate one
    • Once the shock is understood and contained, investment resumes, not because of any top-down stimulus, but rather simply because of cognitive adjustment


When investors perceive a large anomaly in their Weltanschauung, their natural reaction is to stop investing in new things, because regime shifts take place after every cycle and if one occurs in your business, you are toast if you build a new plant or keep those workers you hired in anticipation of growth in your now-discredited map.

The Next Big One

It is difficult to predict the future, but I would suggest several large areas that seem unsustainable, yet have witnessed fantastic growth over the past several recessions.

Municipalities are accumulating large pension deficits because it is easy to promise future retirement packages and allow the next generation of politicians to deal with it. Historically, muni bonds have been rock-solid investments, but if they become risky and all municipals face a new default premium, how much would they have to cut back their expenditures?
College tuition has outpaced the inflation rate for two generations, and the number of people going to college also has been increasing, creating a massive increase in college revenue. Yet now, many graduate lack skills for which people are willing to pay (e.g., journalism), so that many students will never recoup their tuition and opportunity costs. When prospective students begin to realize this, an unprecedented downsizing will occur.
The Fed has increased the money supply at an unprecedented rate over the past 10 years, and 8 years into an expansion, the US federal deficit is 4% of GDP. European nations are no better, and several, such as the PIGS, are worse. This portends a government bond collapse and rampant inflation.
40% of US corn is used for ethanol, a low-octane, corrosive fuel that exists only because of federal mandates, and 15% is used in high-fructose corn syrup, which is inefficient and less healthy than are other sweeteners, and is propped up by federal mandates as well. The effect on our aquifers is unsustainable.

When one of these starts to blow, people will believe at first that it will be no problem, because none of these areas has been key in any business cycle since WWII. However, when firms continue to fail, panic will ensue across the board, because if one of these areas goes down, another, or all of them, might, and the most sensitive businesses related to these areas are not obvious (land for farmers? computers for students?). Further, municipal debt, colleges, and corn could be accelerators rather than instigators of the next recession, in the same way unprecedented US state defaults prolonged the 1837 recession until the mid-1840s. Eventually, as the effects are contained in certain sectors of the economy, the economy will recover; again, recession is not an equilibrium.

Unfortunately, this time it all will occur with a banking sector that is precluded from backstopping obvious market overreactions because of the Volker rule. This will enhance the downturn, but unlike the May 2010 flash crash, it will last much longer.

The take home lesson? Buy cybercurrencies.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Robeco's Pim van Vliet has a new Low Vol book


Pim van Vliet runs one of the oldest and most successful Low Volatility funds in the world, which has now flowered into Robeco’s Conservative Equities brand of funds. It is noteworthy that it is not referred to as “low volatility,” because when he began this strategy in 2006, low volatility was not a ‘thing.’ High Returns from Low Risk is targeted at airport readers and casual investors, and is a quick read—36k words—that makes a profound point: objectively, high volatility stocks are bad investments. 

In contrast, students are taught that expected returns are an increasing linear function of risk. If investment in riskier assets generates a higher return, the only reason to focus on low or high volatility is one’s risk preference. When combined with the idea of efficient markets, this implies that investing is actually very simple: choose how much risk you can tolerate, which dictates your expected return, and diversify accordingly. 


Alas, within most asset classes, highly risky assets generate consistently lower returns than do those with average risk, and, after transactions costs are included, risky asset classes, such as options, are horrible investments for individual investors, the more so the riskier the option. Risky assets attract excessive interest from investors, and academics help them rationalize this adverse preference through their extensions of the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), all of which are very rigorous, but wrong. On the other hand, these same investors are skeptical about market efficiency, which causes them to burn money by trading too much and realizing too many short-term capital gains (which are taxed at higher rates than are long-term capital gains).

From High Returns from Low Risk

Aristotle noted that courage is a virtue situated between the extremes of cowardice—a deficiency of courage—and rashness—an excess. Courage is a good thing, and a good life requires a modest amount of it, but it is foolhardy to take too much or too little risk: so too in investing. Yet every year, new investors enter the market and are attracted to highly risky assets, and because they are taught that this should generate higher-than-average returns even if they have no alpha, they are emboldened. Yet investing in high risk assets is ill advised for two reasons: they generate higher wealth volatility and have a lower expected return.

Pim was introduced to the benefits of low volatility investing when he read Robert Haugen, who indicated in several papers that higher risk stocks do not generate higher-than-average returns. As I was researching this before it became popular, I have a strong opinion on the unimportant issue of who discovered the low vol anomaly first. Haugen did not know what he had discovered until approximately 2008, when he kept seeing his 1991 and 1995 papers referenced by the growing low volatility crowd. Haugen always emphasized that markets were inefficient, so he was an early proponent of the “factor zoo.” After all, George Douglas (1969) and Richard McEnnaly (1974) found no risk premium, yet no one mentions them.

In contrast, Bruce Lehman’s Residual Risk Revisited (1990) noted how strange it was that everyone was convinced the market index’s imperfect proxy of the “true” market was obscuring the CAPM, yet this implies residual risk should generate a sizable risk premium, which it did not. That was a big dog not barking. Then there was Ed Miller’s 1977 paper, where a greater diversity of opinions generates a lower return for high volatility assets, and that diversity of opinion correlates with volatility. In 2001, he wrote in the Journal of Portfolio Management that one should invest in low volatility equities, full stop. This is really the first academic publication to champion low volatility, and the fact that he was influenced by his earlier theory is important, because without a story that one really believes, any particular correlation becomes one of many, as with Haugen. 

That is clearly a rabbit trail quibble, however, as Pim is a gracious fellow, and is quick to give credit when he can. Another example of this is that in which he credits his colleague, David Blitz, for noting that relative rather than absolute performance affects investment manager: underperforming is a greater threat to a long-only portfolio manager than is losing money. That is, if you lose 10% in a market that is down 10%, you did average, and your assets under management will probably not be decreasing. However, if you make only 5% in a market up 15%, assets will go down. Risk is symmetrical: it can be too great or too little, because if you take too little risk, you will underperform in bull markets, which is just as bad as those who take too much risk and underperform in bear markets.

Pim noted his dismay at this finding: it would not be an easy sell to tell investors that his low-vol tilt generates better returns merely because they have lower volatility, because they would have higher relative volatility. Yet this could be precisely why the strategy presents an opportunity, in that, for a portfolio manager, low risk is actually average risk, so risk averse professionals do not invest in low, but rather in average beta stocks (aka, closet indexing).

One of my ideas that Pim highlights is that envy is more important than greed. That is, the relative risk preferences peculiar to investment professional contracting exist in individual investors themselves, as they also are not maximizing returns subject to volatility constraints, but subject to relative volatility constraints. This makes the low vol effect more fundamental and less ephemeral. If greater low vol performance were merely an institutional inefficiency, we should expect mechanisms to circumvent that, such using a Sharpe Ratio rather than total return. Yet over time, the end-of-year lists of best managers are ranked invariably according to simple raw returns within their focus, which always encourages risk-taking via the convex rewards of being at the top.

The most prominent methods used to explain the high returns on high beta assets are partial equilibrium results, ignoring the implications in a more general setting: 

1)      Frazzini and Pedersen (2010) relied on a leverage constraint, as investors reaching for the equity premium try to grab more via a higher beta with the same dollar investment.
2)      Harvey and Siddique (2000) focused on people’s preference for stocks with high co-skew, which are like lottery preferences, or risk loving preferences.
3)      Ed Miller (1977) showed how the winner’s curse implies that assets with a high diversity of potential outcomes have lower returns.
There is some element of truth in these approaches, yet they are all deficient as definitive explanations, because they imply very counterfactual things. Academics focus on rigorous solutions because general solutions do not lend themselves to the type of clean models that journals like to publish (and not coincidentally, what academics like to work on), and science is all about simplifying things to identify fundamental laws. This is a salubrious division of labor, where academics do their thing and practitioners then implement these findings in a more ad hoc way given all the realities academics assume away. Yet here these models are profoundly inconsistent with other stylized facts that suggest a deeper problem, in the same way Bruce Lehman’s noting that idiosyncratic risk having no risk premium highlighted a deep problem to the standard model.

If we take the following three empirical facts:

1.      The equity market return premium is positive (3-6% annually)
2.      High beta stocks have lower-than-average returns 
3.      Average investors choose to be long—not short—high beta stocks
You then need all of the following non-standard assumptions to generate such a result:
1.      There must be systematic factor risk for both high and low beta equities
a.       If high beta stocks did not have a systematic risk exposure independent of the market,  arbitrage would ensure any beta premium is a linear function of beta
2.      Some investors must be maximizing relative risk
a.       If all investors were maximizing absolute risk, no rational investor would be long in the high beta equities, because they have strictly dominated Sharpe ratios.
b.      If all investors were maximizing relative risk equities would not have a return premium.
3.      Some investors should exogenously prefer high beta assets
a.       Without such investors, the high beta assets would have higher-than-average returns, even with relative preferences, because of the effects of the absolute risk preference investors.
Now, this is a messy result, but such is reality (I show this in a paper here). Frazzini and Pedersen’s model implies beta arbitrage (there's only one 'factor'), but a zero-beta portfolio long low beta stocks and short high beta stocks will generate considerable volatility. If that is anticipated, their pricing formula would then include this factor, and the high beta assets would have a greater-than-average return because of the high residual, yet non-diversifiable, volatility in high beta assets. In Harvey and Siddique’s world, for skewness to have a strong effect (e.g., 3% expected return reduction for high vol assets), either investors are risk loving globally, or the equity risk premium should be 15% (Pim published a paper on this here). In Miller’s world, there is a massive arbitrage available to those sufficiently hyper-rational to see this behavioral bias, in that they will adjust their ex ante estimation in light of their knowledge of the subjective valuation prior distribution, which implies massive inefficiency. As it is very difficult to make money in asset markets, assuming that the market is patently irrational is not very compelling.

It is important to note that the current situation is really less of a low volatility than a high volatility puzzle. It is easier to explain why the low volatility stocks have higher returns than expected by the CAPM, yet remain lower than the mid-volatility stocks, than it is to explain why the high volatility stocks have lower-than-average returns, yet people clearly are generally long them (e.g., popular broad indices include these positions). Most importantly, because high volatility stocks have such low returns, low vol targeting actually outperforms the market as a whole.

The flatness of the risk premium, when combined with the incentives to go long in the volatile stocks above, creates higher-than-average low volatility returns. With respect to the reasons why risky equities draw individuals or fund managers outside of a mean-variance or mean-relative variance approach, the list of potential reasons is quite long:

·         Information cheap. Risky stocks such as Tesla are in the news a great deal, and their large price fluctuations are indicative of new information (i.e., news). That makes it easier to generate an opinion, long or short, and because of difficulties in shorting stocks, most long investors are looking at those stocks they want to buy.
·         Lottery preference. This could be called the skewness preference (Harvey and Siddique). They are simply lottery ticket preferences, in that, just as the most extreme lotteries with 100 million payouts generate the highest revenues because they offer the greatest upside, stocks that generate large upsides offer the most interest to investors. Robert Sapolsky has noted that monkeys generate spikes in dopamine when they perceive random rewards, highlighting the addictive quality of gambling, and the convex nature of the human brain’s preference for “more” in stochastic contexts.
·         Long bias compliment. As most long equity investors tend to think equities will rise—otherwise they would be out of the equity market—it then follows that the higher beta stocks will do better in those environments. Indeed, if you invest only in high volatility assets during up months for the market as a whole, your Sharpe dominates a low volatility tilt.
·         Alpha overconfidence. If you have alpha, it makes sense to focus on stocks that can go up 40% rather than 20%; the bias towards high volatility stocks is rational contingent upon this assumption.
·         Alpha signaling. Recognizing that those who know they have alpha are investing in highly volatile stocks, investing in them—and getting lucky—is a way to sell yourself to potential investors. Investors see one’s focus on high volatility stocks as a consistent signal that the asset manager knows he has alpha.
·         Alpha discovery. If you wonder whether you have alpha, it is best to buy some volatile stocks, as it will be obvious after a year whether or not you do.
·         Winner’s curse. People will tend to buy stocks for which they have the highest relative expectation. Stocks with the greatest disagreement will tend to have the greatest volatility, and their owners will be those who are most biased (Ed Miller’s paper).
·         Agency problems. Portfolio managers often receive a quasi-call option on their strategy. To take an extreme example: portfolio managers are fired if they lose money, but if they make money, they receive 10% of the profits. Such a payoff is maximized when the underlying strategy has the highest volatility. A fund complex also faces this payoff, in that fund inflows are convex, so have many risky funds within every style category, some of which will be category winners.
·         Representativeness bias. To get rich, you have to take risk. Some faulty, but plausible, logic then implies that taking a lot of risk will make you rich. 
·         Leverage constraints. If you are constrained by regulations or conventions (e.g., 60-40 equity-bond allocation), and think the market is going up, then you can increase your return by allocating your equity in the higher beta stocks (Frazzini and Pedersen’s “betting against beta” model).
·         Ignoring geometric return adjustment. People should look at the expected total return, which is reduced by the variance. People should anticipate this by making this adjustment, but often do not, which favors the higher volatility stocks.
In summary, there are many reasons other than the standard model that draw people to high volatility stocks, which then hurts their returns on average. Pim discusses his introduction to stock investing and highlights how the biases above directed his interest into a particular volatile stock, one that he could readily form an opinion upon and that could potentially generate out-sized returns.

Back to Pim’s book: he presents a “law of three”—omne  trium perfectum—all good things come in threes. In this context, the law of three is low vol, momentum, and value. His value metric is a form of price-to-income ratio, such as dividend yield or P/E. I am skeptical of a law stating 3 is the cardinality of attributes for Platonic forms, but agree that, in this case, it is a handful and not a factor zoo of dozens.

His basic formula for generating a good long equity portfolio is first, to look only at those stocks with lower-than-average risk. He uses volatility, but one could use beta as well (they give similar results), and the benefit of using beta is that, because it is normalized cross-sectionally, one merely has to remember to target stocks with betas less than 1.0, rather than knowing the current median stock volatility (in the US, 30%).  A simple filter of excluding stocks with betas higher than 1 is great advice: it lowers risk and increases returns, and helps you avoid getting sucked into the biases listed above. If you constrain your stock picking to low risk stocks, you are swimming with the tide.

His portfolio formulation is refreshingly clear. First, normalize momentum and value using percentiles, sum them, apply to the “low vol” half of stocks, and viola, you have a darned good portfolio. He shows you can even do this using Google’s stock screener. Alas, or fortunately for Pim, this is difficult, and so if you really want to do this, it would be better simply to pay Robeco a fraction of a percent to do so, as they will be more diligent in monitoring the portfolio and adjusting for many issues not mentioned merely because they distract from his presentation. 

Pim notes that this “low vol” anomaly is not restricted to developed country equities. He has found it in emerging markets, and within equity industry sectors. He notes it has been found in corporate bondsequity options, movies and private equities, but he could have added penny stocks, IPOs, real estate, currencies, futures, and sports books.

Investors would be wise to follow simple rules for investing. Those with the humility that comes from wisdom will be relieved to know that they can optimize their investments by merely focusing on lower-than-average risk stocks that make money, generate dividends, and have performed well. Those who need the advice most—average equity investors—are least likely to take it, so I am not worried that a regime shift is in play.

Personally, I am not a big fan of momentum, as while it works over time, it fails massively on occasion, as in 2009, when we had an adverse 4-standard deviation event in the US. Nonetheless, I can see how one can look outside this case and find, in the words of AQR’s Cliff Asness, that value and momentum are “everywhere.” I do, however, prefer his method of putting metrics into percentile space rather than a Gaussian variable, in that expected returns are more linear in a percentile z-score. I also appreciate the fact that he does not create a hierarchy of factors, as do many, in which a “value factor” is a combination of 6 metrics (e.g., the Bloomberg Equity Model), which is then added to 5 other such composite factors.

If there is no risk premium in general so many seminal economic models are extinguished that it simply will not happen ('no science ever defends its first principles' Aristotle). Further, the fact that people are not so much greedy as envious highlights the fact that economics has a profoundly limited relevance, because while in practice people merely want to out-do their neighbors, this is not something anyone admits they should be optimizing, and certainly is infeasible for a society. Economists can explain behavior using profit maximization or cost minimization, because each is consistent with both greedy and envious utility functions, so it is useful for many parochial applications. 

Yet this constitutes a partial equilibrium analysis. To the extent that economists want to prove certain macro policies are socially optimal, they return to a utilitarian world in which people do not care about relative wealth. This is simply untrue, and is relevant to why high marginal tax rates are popular regardless of whether they would bring in more revenue: bringing the top down is sufficient motive for most people (why most people loathe the Laffer curve, as it highlights their base interest in a higher marginal tax rate). With this flawed assumption, macro-economists are no more profound than are historians when analyzing a 'macroeconomy', as their fundamental motivator—individual wealth, however broadly defined—is defective and so does not generalize.

I used to think it would be good to convince others that the standard utility model is wrong, but now I am happy to let the consensus exist in perpetuity because of both the Serenity Prayer (“focus on what you can do”), and professionally, I am all-in on low volatility. Pim van Vliet is not keeping this powerful economic insight secret, but I am confident that most people will ignore his advice to their detriment. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Why Are Libertarians Irrelevant?

Classical liberalism was the foundation of the American Constitution and is based on utilitarian reasoning that is still popular academically. However, the major parties use libertarian principles selectively: Democrats are pro-choice with respect to abortion, drugs, and gay marriage, while Republicans are pro-choice with respect to business, guns, and schooling. The Libertarian Party, meanwhile, caters to the few who feel very strongly about the gold standard, open borders, or marijuana.

In canonical models of economy, maximizing individual preferences is the self-evident goal. Consider all standard models of social welfare:

Individuals maximize the present value of their wealth
Individuals maximize the present value of their wealth and the equity in their society
The top earners form a coalition with the bottom to expropriate the middle

In any case, a libertarian argument seems to be a perennial force, always arguing at the margin for lower taxes and regulation. Even in the latter case, which I think best reflect most market economies, the mandarins at the top and the patronage workers at the bottom need the entrepreneurs to generate enough taxes to subsidize them. Everyone would agree that some level of taxation less than 100% is optimal due to the incentive effects (for example, France’s 2014 75% top rate tax was quickly rescinded back to 45% because of weak revenue). The question is merely what that number is. Politics would be a boring battle between those who want taxes to be 40% and those who want them to be 50%—the libertarians vs. the egalitarians, each acknowledging that their difference of opinion is merely a matter of degree.

Strangely, this is not the case, and libertarianism is not foundational within either party.

How Libertarianism Crashed

During the West’s period of tremendous growth prior to World War I, countries consisted largely of aristocratic Republics. Just as Athens only allowed male citizens to vote—approximately 10% of the population—in early America, most states had property and other requirements that limited voters to society’s elite, with the result that less than 20% of the population voted throughout the 19th century. Most Americans then were practicing Christians, which implied they favored moral equality among individuals, but also the idea that the government exists to protect individual free will rather than individuals living to support the government.

No one can read the US Constitution without concluding that the people who wrote it wanted their government to be limited severely; the words “no” and “not” as applied to government power occur 24 times in the first seven articles of the Constitution, and 22 more times in the Bill of Rights. This is because the Puritans, Quakers, and Cavaliers who dominated early America all thought living under the others’ ways would be tyranny, and they were right.

In such an environment, libertarianism was a strong ideology. John Locke’s liberalism focused on life, liberty, and property, a free economy with minimal government interference (zero government is a straw man caricature). To the extent that people are poor, unconditional charity makes them worse, as poverty is primarily the outcome of a lack of purpose and discipline rather than food and shelter. Thus, workhouses for the poor had codes of conduct and required hard work. Regardless of circumstances, the poor can achieve better lives. The formula is neither complex nor mysterious. The key choices are to work steadily and stay on the right side of the law. For example, if one follows 3 simple rules—finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children—only 2 percent of such people are in poverty today.

Then, two things happened. First, Democratic Republics began to emphasize democracy over republicanism. Universal suffrage occurred in the early 20th century in most Western countries, and more offices became directly elected (e.g., Senators). Second was the death of God, as intellectuals believed organized religion was simply a relic of the past, like our belief in the divine right of Kings. No longer was it sufficient to merely be right with God, but rather, to do good on earth by minimizing suffering. This new progressive ideology was based on the idea that if we apply scientific reasoning to societal problems, as we did to physical questions, we can rid society of poverty just as we eliminated smallpox.

In the 1920s, American farmers were suffering because the WWI boom in agricultural exports was reversed, causing agriculture and land prices to fall. Farmers wanted the federal government to intervene in the market by buying crops at high prices and dumping them abroad cheaply, so Congress passed a farm relief package. President Coolidge vetoed it. That was the last time our federal government adopted a libertarian approach to a national crisis. Democrats became a party energized by economic intervention, as there is no limiting principle to ever more 'democracy,' meaning state regulation. Republican doctrine became dominated by conservative Christians more worried about protecting “traditional values” in general than liberty. The net result has been to increase the size and scope of the government consistently.

Libertarians Need a Tribe

Many libertarians, such as business owners or professors, are somewhat successful, and they benefit directly from being left alone. This is fine if you are talented and ambitious, but the majority is not. Either libertarians will have to wait until a poll tax is reinstated in which only the wealthiest 10% vote or they must appeal to people who desire primarily to become part of something larger than themselves. Utilitarianism does not capture this, because if maximizing one’s income is all that matters, one only has to convince a majority that even the unskilled will make more money in a more libertarian society. Yet merely having more absolute wealth is not very energizing for those in the bottom half.

The little platoons of life that take us outside ourselves are tribes that protect and promote us. Tribalism makes a lot of sense, in that when you are navigating within an atomistic world, having a set of insiders amongst whom you have influence gives you an advantage in the same way a hoplite phalanx can defeat a rabble. A tribe not only helps us materially but also addresses the universal craving to be appreciated. People want to be part of something larger than them, something they are proud of, that values them. To merely make more money but still be relatively poor, is not an attractive objective because it implies they are not valued. There are many such groups to join, as people are interested principally in doing well among those to whom they relate, groups in which they feel most appreciated. These typically are based on ethnicity, profession, or a common cause.

Two of these tribes are toxic. Ethnic tribalism is a scourge, and the best way to stop discriminating based on race is—as Justice John Roberts puts it—to stop discriminating based on race. Encouraging blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, to form advocacy groups that champion their own self-interest, not by changing what they can control (themselves), but rather by changing others (meet our quotas to rectify discrimination), does not help disadvantaged groups and encourages dissension. Top-down attempts to create ethnic equity encourages people to become more ethnically tribal, where people are first judged as part of an ethnicity and then as an individual.

Economic tribes, such as trade unions, are simply factions that benefit from state-sanctioned monopolies. For example, when a city sets a cap on the number of taxicabs we are helping current taxicab owners, but not the net of all potential taxicab drivers and their customers. Thus, auto and steel union were very strong in the 1950s, and those 1950s members did quite well, but the cost was fewer such jobs in the future decades; teachers do not have to worry about losing their jobs for poor performance, but then education is the one area of the economy where real costs of educating students keeps going up, while the real cost of making most things (corn, cars, computers) tends to fall. Some think everyone should be able to work in a field that has monopoly benefits like tenure, so people do not have to deal with the anxiety and costs that come with losing a job. Yet, the collective costs of this would be to eliminate productivity growth, as then labor would not reallocate to where it is best needed. The essence of the market’s superiority to socialism is that in market economies capital and labor is allocated away from where it destroys value and towards where it creates the most value.

That leaves those with a common cause, and as religious zealots founded liberal America, we should go back to those roots. Since the 19th century, Libertarians have derided Christianity because of its pious tendencies, especially with respect to sex and drugs, while Christians are skeptical of libertarians, who seem to encourage a disorderly, hedonistic, and degenerate society. However, they can compromise, because these fears are overblown and they are more simpatico than they realize currently.

Christians should appreciate Libertarians because one’s relationship with God is direct, from one’s heart to God. Libertarianism does not promote sin; rather it allows it. Christians should know they cannot fix the world with laws designed to prevent people from sinning because the world has always been sinful. Protecting people’s right to sin makes a Christian’s conduct more pure because then one is not merely following a rule, but making an authentic choice. In Christianity, it is easy to see how a simple life performing deeds in the humility that comes from wisdom generates the appreciation of a loving God, so merely having this freedom is sufficient to live a righteous life.

Libertarians should appreciate Christians because their virtues are synonymous with the bourgeois and stoic virtues libertarians have always prized; it is a simple argument that a small government is consistent with Christian ethics. Honesty, discipline, courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom are all praised highly in the bible, and create a flourishing society. The recent success of gay marriage and the last century’s failure to prohibit alcohol should convince Christians that morality should be the provenance of mores, not law, lest that authority turns around and force its morals on you. Both Trump and Republican convention speaker Peter Thiel highlight that LGBT issues are a distraction from the bigger issues, and they are right: the federal government should not be defining marriage or what drugs people ingest in their homes; that is the essence of liberty and the exercise of our God-given free will.

If Christians learned about the consilience of libertarianism and Christianity, they could be powerful advocates for libertarian principles in the public sphere, and this objective would appeal to non-Christians afraid of a crypto-Fabian strategy of converting everyone to Christianity. Most importantly, libertarianism would then appeal to the untalented, in that libertarians offer that demographic nothing that would give them a sense of being valued. The Tea Party had strong support from Christians but seemed almost embarrassed by them, yet “smaller government” as an objective has no traction unless it can appeal directly to those who are not among the talented tenth. Christians see all men as made in the image of God, as moral equals, giving them a status they probably will not achieve economically in their lifetimes. That is, Christians address people’s longing to be appreciated, not merely regarded as necessary unskilled labor.

It’s hard to adopt an ideology where you dislike the other people who hold it, and Christians and libertarians are at extreme ends in their lifestyle choices. They should remember that this difference is really similar to the difference they share within their own tribes, in that some libertarians are all about drugs, others gold; some Christians emphasize faith, others acts.  The key, as our American founding tribes understood, is freedom. Posterity in their own lives and, perhaps, the next, will punish or reward those who make foolish choices with their freedom.

Another tribe to encourage is the nation, in the case of the USA, Americans. As we are a diverse country, this cuts across ethnicities and , so it is a uniquely inclusive tribe, all the more salutary if we add the objective of minimizing foreign entanglements (aggressive nationalism is bad for everyone). We have enough problems managing our own 320 million people. Yet the key here is helping those on the bottom. Open borders encourages employers to hire immigrants over residents for unskilled labor, because 3 billion people survive on less than $2 a day, and their influx keeps low-skilled wages from rising. This only helps low-skilled immigrants and the rich who employ them. Labor participation rates for those with only high school educations have fallen dramatically since 1970, and this is especially pernicious because such people are especially helped by developing the discipline and soft skills that come from having a job.

Lastly, the long-run implications of importing low-skilled immigrants seems certain to move our nation’s away from classical liberalism. Immigrants today are encouraged to retain their culture as opposed to 100 years ago when Henry Ford forced his immigrant workers to learn English and civics. Democrats want more immigrants, taxes, and regulations because they encourage each other. Even libertarians like Milton Friedman believe you cannot have a welfare state and open borders, so this is not hypocrisy, in that every principle at some point runs into paradoxes (e.g., Popper's paradox of tolerance).

Liberaltarians

Brink Lindsey tried to argue for a left wing Libertarianism, which he called Liberaltarianism. It got nowhere. The top-bottom coalition is the key to the left and the reason that the Democrats have strong support from the poor and the elite. The poor benefit from direct aid, and the middle class Left includes many holding sinecures with average salaries but no chance of losing their job and a hefty guaranteed pension.

Then there are the new victim groups. From the book of Exodus to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s victims have been portrayed as suffering because they are noble, which gives them a sense of meaning and purpose. Seizing on Bertrand Russell’s observations that all movements go too far, the left has taken its Civil Rights victory to such an extreme that it now sees every disparity as modern day Jim Crow, if not actual slavery, so that any member of a historically disadvantaged demographic deserves its own stakeholder status in every jobs program or regulated industry.

The elite left contains the typical collection of baptists and bootleggers. That is, those motivated by principle, and those motivated by hypocritical self-interest. The latter include businessmen who make money off government regulations, especially those regulations practice hurt competition, and thus we should not be surprised that billionaires and Fortune 500 CEOs prefer Clinton over Trump: many capitalists, especially those adept at managing our current regulatory labyrinth, do not want more competition. Then there are simpler rich, like Al Gore or Jose Manuel Barroso, who become big company executives for their political connections.

The principled left elites, however, don’t really like the poor—few choose to live amongst them—they just really hate the rich. Since Plato, intellectuals have resented a market-oriented economy. In their formative years, these people did what their teachers asked very well, and thought their intellectual skills implied objectively that they had the highest merit in society. Yet outside of the classroom, lesser students dominate the intellectuals. Money is not the main point; it is the implication that these intellectuals are not appreciated as much as they feel entitled to be. The intellectual wants society to be as it was in school, the formative environment in which they excelled and were praised accordingly. This is why the verbally adept are more liberal than the quantitatively adept, because in general teachers like the verbally adept.

The free market resembles the anarchy of the schoolyard, in which jocks and ebullient extroverts have higher status, which is what makes intellectuals’ antipathy so visceral—not because of resentment against an abstract system—but rather against the type of people who have bested them. That is why intellectuals do not mind entertainers and professional athletes making millions, as they never considered these people competition within their social circles.

The Left used to be the party of social liberty, but the past 30 years has shown that this principle was merely a tactic adopted when they were in the minority. Democrats are now pushing for more restrictions on speech or forcing bakers to make same-sex wedding cakes because such behavior is not merely an individual choice, but evil. The aggressive moralism of the old Puritans now is the property of progressives, who fight evil motivated by righteous indignation. If you have a higher conception of the good, it seems fine to those in power to push it as far as possible in the public sphere, as most people think their  normative values are objectively good, not mere preferences.

Progressives think that more democratic government power is better in every area of our lives; there is no limiting principle to democracy, including liberty. Progressivism is politics under the assumption that every current problem has a top-down solution and that government is pragmatic, its trial and error mechanism no different than the market. They find government solutions better than emergent phenomena because the latter is not democratic. This leads to an ever growing set of democratically implemented state powers.

Given the large number of patronage jobs (e.g., the SEIU and Teacher's unions), the envy that motivates intellectuals, or all the money big corporations have invested in satisfying existing regulations, libertarians are not going to get anywhere on the merits of their economic arguments with the Left, as redistribution and regulation are their foundational motivation, and what energizes their intellectual leadership: managing others via decree, not pell-mell competition. The Left  merely contends with the Laffer curve the way a parasite contends with the constraints of its host.

Top-down Policy Fails

Libertarianism remains our best hope for tomorrow because it works. One might think that minimizing suffering is a humble goal, eminently achievable via policies designed and managed by rational bureaucrats. Yet as Walter Bagehot once wrote, “the most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more good or harm.”
  • If you give single mothers more money for being single mothers, you get more single mothers, and thus, in 50 years illegitimacy has soared, the effects of which no government program can offset.
  • Prohibition encouraged crime and disrespect for the law, and hurt the majority of Americans who drink responsibly.
  • We put a $1M surtax on salaries in 1992, which gave firms an incentive to generate more stock options, and exacerbated the internet bubble of 2001.
  • Government agencies and regulators encouraged mortgages with no money down and no income verification because home-ownership was correlated with good things, but then the housing bubble burst, leaving the poor no better off than prior to this boom-bust cycle.
  • We created income security for older Americans, but now few have saved for retirement, fewer are connected to family members, and when the social security Ponzi scheme hits the wall it will create an unprecedented disaster.
  • We made it harder for banks to foreclose on delinquent properties, but this increased the bank loss rate, which goes into the pricing of new loans, thus mainly hurting new borrowers for something they didn't do
  • The Volker rule discourages banks from proprietary trading, so in the next crisis there will be less liquidity (eg, see  July 8 2015
  • More regulation means higher fixed costs and less banking competition, bigger banks to amortize that fixed cost
  • When Teddy Roosevelt set up the Park Service in 1903 to manage Yellowstone, they tried to increase elk by eradicating wolves, but then the elk ate all the grasses and trees the beavers used, so the beavers vanished, causing the meadows to dry up, and the trout and otter to disappear. 
Society is an evolving, dynamic system, and top-down correctives usually make things worse. The inherent weakness of a democracy that elects a powerful government is that the intelligence of half the voters is one standard deviation below that of the average college graduate. To the extent these people are unable to manage their self-interests, they are even less competent to judge who has the best plan to manage the self-interests of others.

Further, those in government are not like the altruistic, social-welfare optimizing angels modeled by academics, but rather, just as selfish as any businessman; they simply want government-sanctioned monopolies that restrict competition under the pretext of protecting consumers or ensuring quality. In this environment, a top-bottom coalition built on political patronage has an obvious advantage and inevitably creates a bureaucracy that measures productivity by inputs instead of output.

Libertarians have an endless list of anecdotes that make for excellent debating points, cases in which government rules and regulations have been instrumental in the failure of our inner cities, or skyrocketing healthcare and education costs. As regulations have proliferated and sundry overlapping agencies promote vague objectives based on worst-case scenarios, there are no longer any shovel-ready projects (most of the 2009 $700B stimulus simply went to transfers and shoring up deficits, 3% was spent on infrastructure).

For the past century, progressives have argued for top-down policies, and macroeconomics has been a major influence because it presumes that if you add up the various components of GDP—consumption, investment, state spending—you can fiddle with the money supply or fiscal policy and get on a “turnpike” to optimal growth. That has never worked. In contrast, Aristotle taught that the primary task of the state was to encourage virtue, as a society of virtuous citizens who interacted freely would create a flourishing society, bottom up, without direction. The focus, again, should be on individual virtue and responsibility, rather than top-down solutions that treat individuals as agentless ciphers.

Trump

It’s clear that at the margin, Trump’s bias is towards lower tax rates and fewer regulations, Clinton’s bias the opposite. As a libertarian, that’s key. Unfortunately, Trump’s cross-over appeal was that he wasn't a prudish Christian like Mitt Romney yet anti-PC enough to imply he'd stop persecuting Christians, which correlated with the remarks that probably doomed his candidacy.

Trump dominated Republicans because he combined the libertarian goals of lower taxes and regulation that all other Republicans were for with non-libertarian immigration and foreign trade restrictions. This appeals to the many low-capital wage earners who are worried that cheaper foreigners are usurping their jobs. An immigration policy like those of Australia, Canada, Singapore, or New Zealand would allow people who can support themselves to come here, and thus would protect the unskilled, whose only bargaining chip is scarcity.

We need to move away from Libertarians who still believe the key issues are the gold standard and legalized marijuana, to those who will embrace Christians, and American workers over unskilled immigrants. Christians need to embrace libertarian principles because it alone offers them protection against a state that finds their values despicable and increasingly illegal. The key is not to agree on ends, as hard-core libertarians and Christians will always disagree on matters relating to swearing, sex, drugs, and God. The focus should be on what politics should be about: setting up a system in which people with disparate goals can get along and flourish.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Finding Alpha pdf


My book The Missing Risk Premium is a steal at only $15, but my first book, Finding Alpha, is a $65, which is a bit much for anyone not expensing their books. Finding Alpha goes over why the current asset pricing model fails, with lots of evidence, explains why economists still like it, and then in chapters 10-13 shows concrete examples of how investors have actually found alpha.

The risk begets return theory is 100 degrees wrong: usually generates a wrong sign, often no correlation. When it does 'work' it's like when the CAPM appeared to work in the 1970s, an omitted variables problem (ie, size effect & bias).

The fact that it should work but doesn't implies there's a something really rotten in economics, because it's not like you can add a skew preference and fix this (this is because if the skew preference has a sizeable effect, investors are not globally risk averse, which then turns everything upside down).  There's plenty of wrong stuff people learn in economics or college in general, but most such errors are clearly based on some left-right ideology, and this is not the case here.

You can download the individual chapters in pdf form here...

Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Risk Uncorrelated with Returns
Chapter 2 The Creation of the Standard Risk-Return Model
Chapter 3 The Empirical Arc
Chapter 4 Volatility, Risk and Returns
Chapter 5 Investors do not Mind their Utility Functions
Chapter 6 Is the Equity Risk Premium Zero?
Chapter 7 Undiminished Praise of a Vacuous Theory
Chapter 8 Why Relative Utility Generates Zero Risk Premiums
Chapter 9 Why We are Inveterate Benchmarkers
Chapter 10 Alpha, Risk, and Hope
Chapter 11 Examples of Alpha
Chapter 12 Alpha Games
Chapter 13 Alpha Seeking Applications
Chapter 14 Conclusion
References