This Is the End

RICK BOOKSTABER

Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

December 29, 2017

How to Burn Four Billion Dollars: The Tailspin of the UFC

December 29, 2017

How to burn 4 billion dollars
Whenever I write about the UFC, I should add a standard apology to those who are reading my blog with an eye toward the area of my expertise: finance, and in particular financial risk management. But I have enjoyed mixed martial arts (MMA) since its inception in the mid-1990's, (I also love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which I have been active in over the same time period), and find the current missteps in UFC fascinating. Watching the UFC, by far the largest MMA organization, in its tail spin from the incredible height of its purchase by WME-IMG for $4 billion is becoming  more interesting than watching its fights.

The UFC was a failing enterprise in the 1990's, and was salvaged in 2000 by the Las Vegas Fertitta brothers for $2 million. They each cleared over half a billion from the sale. The president of the UFC, a former personal trainer, Dana White, pulled in a similar amount, plus or minus (actually, minus) a few hundred million.

Even at the time of the acquisition in 2016 the purchase price was met with skepticism.  But they did have some marquise talent, most notably Ronda Rousey. Her run is over. Not a surprise, because MMA demands many fighting skills, and there are thus many ways an up-and-coming athlete can find to break through an opponent's style, which in the case of Rousey was superb grappling without a base in stand-up fighting.

So, anyway, how is it going? Ronda is gone with no other women in a position to take on anything approaching her role. Dana and crew have latched onto Connor McGregor, a brash fighter who is both flamboyant and good in the octagon as the next big draw. They went all-in with McGregor by setting up a fight with Floyd Mayweather, the undefeated boxing champion. The fight pulled in $600 million, netting a hundred million plus for each fighter. This is the point that the UFC went full-stop into entertainment business, and as I wrote in a recent post, it is the point where it jumped the shark.

Now it is not clear that McGregor will fight again in the UFC. But with the hope he will come back and defend his title, and because now entertainment trumps sports, he continues to hold the title even though he has not defended it for over a year.

The number of viewers is languishing. FOX's recent title match was the second most-watched UFC event this year, but also was the fourth-lowest on FOX to date, with two million views (though it peaked above three million during the title bout). A UFC Christmas event drew 350,000 viewers, a tenth of the draw of last year's.

Meanwhile, it looks like the entertainment complex is doubling down after the McGregor-Mayweather spectacle by suggesting Mayweather will meet McGregor in a MMA fight.  If their boxing match was a joke -- Mayweather carried him for ten rounds to give the fans their money's worth before leveling him -- this would be a farce. It would be like arguing that a 41 year-old version of Lionel Messi should spend a few games as a linebacker in NFL football because in American football, among other things, they kick the ball. Mayweather is not stupid; we will never see him in the UFC, but that it would be put out there even for a second to tantalize the UFC fans is a measure of how entertainment value is dominating substance.

And, to top it all off, I hate to say that MMA is getting boring. Maybe the push toward entertainment at all costs is reducing the focus on athletic elegance. Or maybe the nature of MMA, which requires skills in a wide set of fighting styles, kickboxing while standing, jiu jitsu when on the ground, and wrestling and judo for the takedowns, leads to a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, and for those who are familiar with the best of each of these disciplines, a sport that is less than the best is inevitably going to come to seem crude.

December 25, 2017

Bitcoin Can’t Win Against Fiat Currency

December 25, 2017

I'm not going to write anything here about the huge drop in bitcoin over the last few days, so what I am writing cannot be ignored should bitcoin get back up to the 20,000 range. And I'm not going to write about the stupid articles that espouse bitcoin. Though to get a sense of the level of thoughtfulness for the arguments for bitcoin, just to pull one recent one at random, check out this from Forbes.

I'm going to point out only one simple but devastating barrier to bitcoin becoming the standard, becoming even a second-tier means of payment:

If bitcoin doesn't find its way back into the shadows of the drug trade and underground economy on its own, it will be banished by the stroke of a pen, actually, of many pens. No sovereign will give up the power of issuing and controlling its currency. The central bank and monetary authority is one the most powerful economic tools of any government. If bitcoin or other extra-governmental currencies start to take hold, they can and will be made illegal to use for payment in one country after the other. 

The cryptocurrencies will still find a market in the underground economy, where people want to avoid taxes or need to remain anonymous and untracable because their activity is illegal or subversive. (It is true the ledger is public so all transactions can be seen. But the identity of the user behind the address can be kept anonymous.) But it will not be useable for the bulk of transactions, like your mortgage, credit card bill, tax payments. Or purchases on Amazon. It will be good for your recreational drugs, and your under-the-radar part-time t-shirt printing business.

A few other thoughts while I'm at it:

I can't take seriously a currency, crypto or otherwise, keeping in mind that currencies are supposed to be a store of value, when its exchange rate is determined by speculative activity, untethered to anything in the real world.  Where the volatility is greater than for any asset in the real world. And where the assessment by bitcoin.org is that "it is truly difficult (and exciting) to imagine how it will play out."

To those who think there is credibility for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies because Goldman now is considering a cryptocurrency trading operation, just remember this from Matt Taibbi: 

"The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

And right now, bitcoin smells like money.

Note: A fiat currency is the currency issued by a government that is declared its legal tender, accepted for payment of all debts, public and private. The word "fiat" means it is not backed by anything. No gold or silver; the government declares it as currency by fiat. 



December 16, 2017

The Cry of the Pod People

December 16, 2017
Twitter was not available to the pod people in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They had to confront the humans directly, pointing and screeching to muster the mob to attack. But now that we have Twitter, a pod person in our day and age can efficiently and remotely signal a human to the pod-people mob with hashtag HumanToo. (This hashtag is already used in other contexts, but always by humans, so no problem.)

We don't have body snatchers right now, and, for what it is worth, we have put in legal protections should the event ever occur. Barring a dystopian state, (probably inevitable should the instance arise), no one can take someone's body without due process. No one can point and screech and have the mob take over from there.

At least that is true if body snatching is considered an assault on civil liberties that are protected by law. I suspect that is the case. Just as there are other actions that require due process. No one can be incarcerated without due process. No one's property can be seized without due process. However,  there are harmful actions that can occur outside the constraints of due process, like accusations that do not rise to a threat of harm or to libel. While immune from the requirement of due process, they can destroy one's character and reputation. (Thus the term character assassination.) It can leave the victim unemployable, and set them apart from society.

The pod people had bad intentions from the start, at least from the human's perspective. But sometimes there are things going on that justify some pointing and screeching. Unfortunately, what starts off with noble motives can move into body snatcher mode. And when pointing and screeching is given free rein, that is where things inevitably arrive. With the excesses, the social winds finally turn, and any value, any noble cause, is lost in the process, even met with a backlash.

In a recent post I discussed McCarthyism. This is a good example of how a legitimate concern -- there really were spies tied to the Soviet Union infiltrating the government, intent on subverting our government -- can turn into body snatching. Accusations could be made without support. People could be targeted mistakenly or even for ulterior motives. (And, getting back to the pod people, what if a timid pod person is not body snatching, but is only body touching. Do we pile him in with the full-throttle snatchers?) All with the result that, in so charge an environment, and based on the accusation alone, they were destroyed.


December 11, 2017

Stocks to Short for Your Grandkids

December 11, 2017
As I mentioned in an earlier post, working in a pension fund makes me think toward the long term. In that post I spoke about broader long-term risks; here I will give my view about long-term risks at the more specific level -- namely, industries to short if you are looking out a generation or more. That is, how various industries will decline over the next thirty or forty years. That is a long time, like the time since Whip Inflation Now of the mid-1970's, or the LBO craze of the late 1980s, but if you are under fifty there is a good chance you will live to see it, and your grandchildren will be in the thick of it.

General propositions
The key drivers of what to short are developments in the following areas:

  • ·       Increased reliability of products. Already, many of the things we consume are more reliable and last longer than any time in the past. Take computers and LED screens. And soon, it will be electric cars.
  • ·       Less consumption of goods. In the sense that most of our time is spent on fewer things – like those highly reliable computer items.
  • ·       More commodity items. Which means less demand for advertising. Compare advertisements today with those of a generation or two ago. Almost everything was driven by brands. Now we are not as focused on brands, and as far as brands go, there are so many brands that are hard to differentiate that they may as well be commodities. Meanwhile luxury goods are moving toward items that are inherently scarce, like art and real estate -- items that do not require production.
  • ·       More efficient production. And part of that efficiency is that what we produce requires less labor.
  • ·       Increased demand for personal space and privacy. We will circle the wagons around our personal space and privacy. We are going to draw the line when we find that companies know more about us than we know about ourselves.

Let's start with the easy ones, where there is a clear consensus, and work our way down from there:

Energy
Oil. We all know that fossil fuel is a goner. And the more obvious it becomes that oil remaining in the ground will be a stranded asset, the more oil will be pumped out in the shorter term. So between growing renewables, flowing oil, and more efficient technologies, energy will be abundant.

Will the oil jobs be replaced by renewables. Is it only a matter of retraining of those working in this sector to work with renewables? No, because even ignoring the higher economies in production, the capital plant of renewables lasts a lot longer and requires less maintenance per kilowatt-hour produced.

Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East. There is a clear regional implication to this, of course. This is not good for the Middle East. And what is also bad for the Middle East is climate change.  Some predictions are that the Arabian Peninsula will become so hot as to be uninhabitable. So much for the Saudi's Vision 2030. And, I really can’t understand what the thinking is with Aramco. It is a long-term bet under the clouds of oil demand dropping with increasing speed and the political vulnerability of Saudi Arabia.

Transportation
Trucking.  Trucking will also clearly be altered from an employment standpoint by self-driving vehicles. We got a taste of this a few weeks ago when Tesla unveiled its semi truck. Whether you like Tesla's odds or not, self-driving trucks are coming, especially for runs along the interstate.

Things will also change at the local level, for example for package delivery. A new household appliance, already in the works, will be a lockbox that can be opened for securely delivering packages, as ubiquitous as mailboxes. In the limit there will be one run per day of an autonomous vehicle to each residence and business. (How the packages get from the vehicle to the lockbox is the weak link in taking humans out of the loop in this scenario.)

Autos. Another no-brainer is that the automobile-related industries will be far smaller. Gas stations will disappear. And most mechanics. Cars will last far longer and require less maintenance, garages, which are already on the downswing, will largely disappear as well. (New tires from Costco.) Once production is scaled up with a few rounds of efficiency gains, electric cars are not complex, and are cheap to build. The cost of cars will be a fraction of what they are today. With low maintenance, low fuels costs, low purchase price, and autonomous driving, transportation will be far safer and less expensive.

People will be traveling less; fewer trips to the mall. People will have less need for a dedicated car because they will summon an autonomous car that can be running people one place or another nearly 24/7.  And most people won't care as much about style because they will be treating them as what they are, transportation services -- which gets to my point about more commodity-like products.

There will still be the vestigial car, just like there are still mechanical watches. Gas-powered cars will be admired and collected for their workmanship and intricacy, and not for their performance or function. Driving a car will be a hobby, like horseback riding. And maybe not in forty years, but at some point, people-driven cars will be seen on the street about as often as horses are. They will be enjoyed on closed tracks, just as horses are today.

Casualty Insurance
It is a mixed bag; some lines will dwindle, others will grow.
Auto. Autonomous vehicles are safer than people-driven vehicles, especially when all cars are autonomous. Fewer accidents means less need for casualty insurance.
Liability. Less high-risk labor.
Property. Things will be looking up here, due to the effects of climate change.

Real Estate
Commercial. Stores will become less prominent as the efficiencies of delivery improve. And as many items last longer. This leads to issues for commercial real estate. There will be construction for warehouses and "fulfillment centers." These are cheaper to build and maintain than commercial retail space. So less construction and maintenance. With the move toward renewables, there is a drop in construction of large-scale fossil fuel plants, and the plant for renewables will not require as much construction and maintenance demand.

Residential. Demographics and lifestyle will change the demand for housing. There will be less demand for large houses with living rooms and dining rooms that are not used, and for four and five bedrooms. This means a glut for some zip codes. And it also means fewer construction jobs. Houses will have solar cells and batteries to be increasingly self-sufficient, so less energy use.

So chalk up the construction industry -- one that is more immune to technology -- as another casualty.

Basic Materials and Mining
With less demand for new cars, less construction, and key goods that are replaced less often, there will be a drop in demand for many raw materials. Though others, like those that are needed for batteries and computers, will increase in demand. Or maybe not. Who knows what raw materials will be in demand, and how great that demand will be with the changes in technology that we might see over the course of the next generations. And because these products last longer, and finally meet the needs for various functions, they will not be the same engine of production.

Advertising (and Facebook and Google)
There is a feedback loop between advertising and the information and social network companies that depends on advertising. This feedback leads to a self-destructing business model, with the information companies and advertising going down together. The information companies depend on advertising, and yet they are information engines that reduce the need for advertising.

And advertising for non-luxury and non-status goods (luxury and status goods are not the fodder of Google or Facebook) will drop for the reasons I mentioned above: less advertising because we will demand fewer goods, and many of the goods will be commodity-like. Few of us care about which chargers we buy for our phones.

There are other pressures that might build for social networks such as Facebook. We will still need search engines, but Facebook is already tiresome to some of us, and we are getting the first whiffs of the toxicity at its root. With the world veering toward an impersonal dystopia, we will guard our privacy, we will circle around our real relationships. Here are recent articles from Wired that give a flavor of where things might be going, one a truly harrowing saga of overcoming malicious cyber attack, and another one of any number you can find, appearing with increasing frequency, on privatizing Facebook. From the perspective of forty years out, Facebook and social networking in general will have been a flash in the pan.

December 9, 2017

McCarthyism

December 09, 2017
I enjoy studying American history of the post-World War II period, and just remembered that earlier this week we passed the anniversary of a milestone for that period: On December 2, 1954, the United States Senate voted 65 to 22 to condemn McCarthy for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute", signaling the erosion of the crushing anti-communist excesses of the previous years. McCarthyism has been applied indiscriminately and almost invariably incorrectly to any number of perceived political and social excesses, but it is worth recalling it for what it was. 

First, to criticize McCarthyism is not to diminish the real threats. We must understand that at the time there was a real, broadly recognized threat to the U.S.  Through documents from Soviet archives and Soviet messages, we know that the Soviet Union engaged in substantial espionage activities in the United States during the 1940's, that the Communist Party in the U.S. was being funded by the Soviet Union, and that it was used as a base for recruiting spies. We should not have McCarthyism diminish the reality of the subversive elements of the time.

The threat was real, but the reaction to that threat was a frenzy, often described as a witch hunt, that was particularly focused on those in the entertainment industry and government. A simple accusation was sufficient for people to be attacked, lose their job and even their career, with no further prospects for employment at more than a menial level. President Truman remarked that, "A man is ruined everywhere and forever. No responsible employer would be likely to take a chance in giving him a job." Those who were accused had no recourse because the process took place through extra-judicial channels; no response could hold sway. Pleading the Fifth Amendment during the proceedings was taken as an indication of guilt.

What is more, although there were instances of serious attempts at subversion, there also were many who were attacked for activities from decades earlier that, though perhaps outside the social and political norm, had been benign. These were pulled up and judged with the now more stringent standard. It was as if a law had been enacted, and those who did not follow that law in the past were found guilty.

Yet at the time, these excessive and unlawful efforts which cast aside any notion of due process were supported by many thoughtful people. For example, William F. Buckley Jr., a prominent conservative intellectual, wrote that McCarthyism “is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks." Certainly there were those who were opposed, but popular opinion – and no doubt the concern that those who opposed the juggernaut would be painted with the same brush – kept them silenced.

The political climate of McCarthyism declined through the 1950’s as public opinion shifted, and a number of court rulings pushed back against the processes that supported it. Most notable is one in 1956 that pushed back on using the invocation of the Fifth Amendment to infer guilt. The Court wrote that “we must condemn the practice of imputing a sinister meaning to the exercise of a person's constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment”, and in 1957, when the Court condemned cases where “Guilt or innocence may turn on what Marx or Engels or someone else wrote or advocated as much as a hundred years or more ago.”   



December 4, 2017

Assisted Dying for the Rest of Us

December 04, 2017
The baby boomers have changed our society as their demographic wave has washed over one institution and norm after another. Split sessions for public schools, a new level of competition for elite colleges, the free love generation and the rise of student protest, the housing bubble, the creation of the Millennials, (a.k.a. the echo boomers). They have the numbers and the political will to do things, and they have time and again pushed against the norm. To use the phrase of one baby boomer, they think different.

The final change will occur with the crashing of that wave: The availability of assisted dying for all. Assisted dying is already becoming the norm for those with terminal illnesses. Australia is the most recent to join the ranks of Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, and Luxembourg, as well as California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and Oregon in the U.S. (I use the term assisted dying broadly, to also involve giving the subject a lethal drug, and not literally being on hand as they take it and pass away. That is what is allowed in California.)

Currently there are restrictions, like having a terminal illness, especially one that is either painful or imminent. But once the mechanics are in place and the threshold has been passed, it is only a matter of degree to have assisted dying for those who decide that their debilitating state makes them no better off than one who is terminally ill. Once we have clear diagnosis tools for Alzheimers, for example, I can imagine voluntary assisted dying protocols along the lines of a more successful and less surreptitious Alice Howland in the film Still Alice.

The way is being paved to make this more acceptable. For example, consider the context provided by a recent full section in the New York Times devoted to the bleak world of old age and dying in Japan. We will see more articles depicting the emptiness of old age, the drain on society and our children, arguments that we should take charge of our death just as we do our lives -- this is the sort of thing that resonates with the baby boomers, also called the "me generation" -- and even arguing, as I have, that keeping someone alive can be akin to torture. I also have argued in a past post that we could help matters along by giving payments (obviously to a designated beneficiary) if someone elects to forgo expensive treatments that would only delay death by a short period.

November 18, 2017

Tesla Roadster Turns the Bugatti into a Wrist Watch

November 18, 2017


In three years Tesla will be rolling out the fastest production car in the world. And not a "production car" as in, we made ten or so of these so it can be called one. No, a production car that rolls off of an assembly line — though I hope the rate of production is controlled with DeBeers-like style — and that still outperforms any car you can buy at any price.
The Tesla Roadster that was unveiled this weekend and is slated for delivery in 2020 is not only better, it is in a different league in terms of its performance specs when compared to any car at any price. Including, for example, the 1500 hp Bugatti Chiron, which starts at $2,998,000.  The Roadster does zero to sixty in under two seconds (no other car is even built with the idea it can beat two seconds), a quarter mile in under nine seconds (no other car is even close to nine seconds). Top speed of over 250 mph. (It might be ten or twenty mph shy of the record here, we will have to see. Musk has said once it gets into production, the performance might exceed what we are seeing with the prototype. For now we just know it is "over 250 mph".) Plus, it seems to be user-friendly. Obviously it is quiet. And it seats four, at least if two of the four are small.


And, its best-in-the-world performance in terms of speed and acceleration will not even be the headline item when it gets its test-drive reviews. I predict that the Tesla Roadster will take corners unlike any car built today. First of all, it has a lower center of gravity because of its batteries. Second, it can have the distribution of that weight precisely tuned because the batteries can be placed most anywhere on the underbelly. And third, with a separate motor for each of the rear tires, the Tesla can have a computer assist that keeps the car from skidding out as you take a corner. Anyone who has tried to make a Tesla S skid on wet or icy roads already knows this. Imagine what happens when you are speeding around a turn and the computer can differentially send more torque to one tire versus the other.

And, this is only the beginning. As Musk has pointed out, by the time the car is in production there will doubtlessly be further improvements. And even then, it is only Version 1.0. The bigger point is that an electric car is a better technology than the gas-powered car. Over time the gas-powered car will have to yield.

Already, two days after the announcement, I have been reading the reaction from the aficionado of  high-end sports cars, supercars, and, as the Bugatti and its kin are called, hypercars. The basic argument is: "There is more to a sports car than how fast it goes. It is the workmanship. The feel of the car shifting gears. The sound of the engine growling.  The melding of man and machine." It is the laudable appreciation of these finer points that is behind the market for mechanical timepieces. They cannot be as accurate, but they embody the workmanship of great craftsmen; the feel of winding the spring; the sound of the mechanism ticking; the melding of man and machine (I guess).

So it will be for the exquisitely crafted cars of today, from the Ferrari to the Bugatti. If we take performance as the objective, the best car in the world will no longer be one that is one or two or three million dollars. It will, at least for a time, be the two hundred thousand dollar Tesla. And after that, it will be another electric car. Like fine timepieces, the supercars of today will be admired and owned not for superlative performance, but for an appreciation of their workmanship and their mechanical intricacy.

November 14, 2017

Pension Actuaries: The Joke is On Us

November 14, 2017
...An Actuary is someone who wanted to be an accountant but didn't have the personality for it....An introverted actuary stares at his own feet, and extroverted one stares at the other person's feet....What is the difference between God and an actuary?  God doesn't think he is an actuary...."Look at the white horses over there." Actuary: "They're white on this side, anyway."

Unfortunately, when it comes to the mess our pensions are in, actuaries are no joke. Pension funds labor under actuarial assumption for expected returns that are mainly pulled out of thin air without any regard for financial economics. Does anyone really think pensions will be able to grow at seven percent or more per annum? When they are constrained by their various constituents to hold 50% to 60% in bonds and cash? (See Figure 3 of this OECD publication.)

Those unrealistic assumptions lead to unsupportable levels of contributions, and thus pensions are underfunded as a matter of course. You know the assumption are wrong when virtually every pension is on the negative side of the ledger.  But the actuaries do not seem to have been trained in the concept of making course corrections. Nor do they educate themselves in financial economics to better evaluate the mess they are creating.

Why am I going into this? Over the weekend I attended an event honoring a former colleague of mine from my days at Morgan Stanley, Jeremy Gold.  He is an actuary who has spent his career trying to move the pension actuaries toward a firmer foundation in financial economics -- to have them at least avail themselves of what financial economists can provide. In the mid-1980's, Jeremy and I worked together in the Fixed Income Research Group at Morgan Stanley. He and I went on various trips to push fixed income products, and to market the fledging new strategy of portfolio insurance (flying out once to have dinner with the head of the Port Authority of Los Angeles, who we discovered, part way through the first course, had -- surprise -- thought we were selling port insurance). We co-authored a paper in 1988, In Search of the Liability Asset, that is still on various reading lists, maybe not for actuaries, but at least for those in finance.

Jeremy left Morgan Stanley in the late 1980's to get a Ph.D. from Wharton, and spent the next twenty years as a thorn in the side of the actuarial profession, pushing them to add financial and economic structure to their methods. One of the best and most widely read of his works for this is the paper Reinventing Pension Actuarial Science.

At the base of it, finance is not actuarial science.  It is not predicated on repeatable, or even known, probabilities. There is no appeal to the law of large numbers for the systematic risks of the financial system.The future does not look like the past. There are no mortality tables for asset returns.

...What do actuaries and Packer fans have in common? They both think that history will repeat itself...

So if you want to be the arbiter for over 20 trillion of U.S. pension assets, a good start is to do it based upon a foundation in finance.

November 13, 2017

More on ETFs - Craziness in High Yield ETFs

November 13, 2017

Exchange Traded Fund
I wrote a post a month or so ago on the risks from ETFs, in particular how ETFs on less liquid markets - with high yield bonds being my poster child - could cause problems for the market generally.  Basically that there is a fundamental flaw when people think an instrument based on a illiquid market is capable of intraday liquidity. And that if the ETFs in such a market have a severe problem, ETFs generally might be considered tainted by a range of retail investors, leading to an outflow from even the more liquid ETFs.

Here is an article that points toward the potential for problems with high yield bond ETFs:

Investors Playing ETF Rout Pushed Junk Bonds to Brink of Chaos.

Excerpt:

Trading in exchange-traded funds got a little crazy last week when it became clear that junk bonds were in for more pain. But the market was fortunate the consequences weren’t more severe, strategists warn. Though spared the worst, investors came close to creating a scenario where ETF activity drove prices....a snowball effect where a dislocation develops between the fund price and the value of its underlying assets.

November 4, 2017

Our Low Risk (Low Volatility) World

November 04, 2017
In case you haven't noticed -- and I haven't -- we apparently are in a world of exceptionally low risk. To see this you need look no further than the volatility of the major markets. The volatility of the U.S. equity market, for one, is at its lowest level in a generation. So, no worries here, right?

I wrote a blog post in 2011 titled The Volatility Paradox which explained that when volatility is low, risk is actually rising because people are more emboldened to take on higher leverage and to move to riskier assets. If volatility is half of what it used to be, why not lever twice as much? Thus the immediate question is what happens if there is a sudden surge in volatility from our current, low level. What is the dynamic through which a volatility shock might propagate across the financial system?

A conventional stress test will assess positions that have explicit volatility exposure, such as positions in options, in the VIX and other volatility-based instruments. There is plenty of dry powder here; over the course of 2017, as the U.S. equity market volatility as measured by the VIX index dropped to one of its lowest points in history, we have seen a growing concentration in short volatility exposure by leveraged ETFs, mutual funds, and hedge funds.

But a stress test that does the simple mathematical calculation of direct portfolio exposure to volatility will underestimate the effect of a rise in volatility, because there are dynamics triggered by other strategies that do not have explicit volatility exposure but that have a link to the volatility of assets and to the assets themselves. A rise in volatility will trigger actions for these strategies, leading to selling of the underlying assets, and this in turn will lead volatility to rise even more, creating a positive feedback between the volatility of the market and the assets in the market.

What are these strategies? Well, a good place to start are volatility targeting, risk parity, and other strategies that will rebalance their portfolios when volatility rises. Volatility targeting is a strategy that targets a level of volatility to manage risk that is typically set based on the manager’s mandate. For example, the manager might follow a strategy that will seek to keep the portfolio’s volatility near 12%. If the volatility of the market is 12%, the fund can be fully invested. However, if the volatility of the market rises to 24%, the fund will sell half of its holdings in order to stay in line with its 12% target. Risk parity allocates portfolio weights to have the same total dollar volatility in each asset class. These multi-asset class strategies often use leverage to adjust holdings of underlying assets, buying more of the lower volatility assets relative to the higher volatility ones. If the volatility of one of the asset classes rises, the fund will need to sell some of that asset class in order to maintain equal dollar volatility. In both of these cases, there is a clear mechanism going from the rise in volatility to a drop in the underlying asset.

Things won't all happen at once. The agents for these strategies differ significantly in their time horizon. Those who are directly linked to volatility, those that are in short-volatility ETFs and the like, will have an immediate P&L effect from a surge in volatility, and will need to reduce their positions immediately. The volatility targeters will only reduce positions as the rise in volatility is seen as having a non-transient component, and their adjustments will be in a weekly to monthly time scale.  And the risk parity agents will have an even longer time horizon, because they generally make asset adjustment with a monthly or quarterly time frame, and do readjustments based on a longer-term estimate of volatility.

Oh, a little more on the relationship between low volatility and risk: If you want to see really low volatility, look back at the swaps markets in the summer of 1998. But you might recall that in August of 1998 there was a rash of defaults in Russia, which was then followed by the blow up of LTCM, the (before that) famously successful quant fund whose principals a few months earlier had graced the cover of Business Week (never a good sign). In that case, low volatility didn't spell low perceptions of risk, it was an indication that no one wanted to go into those markets because things were so uncertain. I go through my first-hand experiences with this in one of the chapters of my 2007 book, A Demon of Our Own Design.

November 2, 2017

Interview in the U.K. for the Daily Mail

November 02, 2017
I had a video interview in the U.K. on my recent book, The End of Theory, with Rachel Straus, (Big Money Questions), that just came out with the Daily Mail. You can get to it here.

October 30, 2017

The Vanishing Pavilions: Gutting Government

October 30, 2017
What will be the longest-term damage of the Trump era? A strong, principled leader will restore some semblance of decency and ethics. Foreign governments might view this period as a bad dream, or an outlier event that veered the U.S. away from a now-returning normal. The anti-scientfiic and pro-industry biases in the various departments and agencies can be rectified just as quickly as they were enacted.

There has been plenty of discussion of where the long-term damage might be on the world stage; the new path governments and businesses are taking toward China -- this might have been inevitable, and Trump has been nothing more than an accelerant; the move toward center stage of China and Germany as world leaders.

But within the U.S. the long-term damage will be more subtle. It will be the loss of the oral tradition, of institutional memory, in our government. That is, the loss of processes and interactions that are conveyed by word of mouth and by example as opposed to by written instructions.

The U.S. Treasury is a case in point. I worked there after the financial crisis, helping draft the Volcker Rule, setting up the risk management structure to get information up to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, and building an agent-based models to help assess financial instabilities. I just went back to the Treasury for the first time since the start of the year to find that is has been gutted. This is not something that is on many people's minds, but it has implications that will be felt far beyond the time that a new administration comes on the scene that wants to return the department to a more normal state.

The reason, in a nutshell, is that what the Treasury does -- and what, for that matter the State Department, a department that is in even worse shape, does -- is not in any manuals. It is set on a foundation of what might be called oral tradition. People know how things work, how to get things done, and if the keepers of the oral tradition leave, it all has to start back up from scratch.

When a new administration comes in, it is the normal course of business for all the appointees to be replaced. Generally the new appointees come from outside government, and have not had previous experience in the Treasury. They rely on the staff, which mostly stays from one administration to the next. They know the process for getting things done, for developing and administering policy.

The Treasury is not a regulator per se, but it tends to be the center of communication -- and the referee when necessary -- for the agencies that do have regulatory authority: the SEC, FDIC, CFTC, etc. There is a process that has been honed over many administrations for doing this job, for acting as the central switchboard for dealing with financial issues. What happens when the switchboard operators walk out the door, and there is no operation manual to leave behind?


October 19, 2017

The Crash of 1987 -- Happy 30th Anniversary

October 19, 2017
I was at the center of the October 19, 1987 stock market crash, when the U.S. equity market dropped 20% in a single day. The second chapter of my book, A Demon of Our Own Design recounts my experiences during the 1987 Crash, and provides an explanation of what went wrong.

The essence of the problem was a programmatic positive-feedback strategy, namely, the dynamic hedging program of portfolio insurance, coupled with the time disintermediation between the speed of the index futures market in Chicago and the more deliberate pace of those in the equity market in New York.

This is not so different structurally from what we have now with the time disintermediation between the ETFs and the underlying cash markets in the less liquid markets -- which is not observed when we have two-way flow -- coupled with various positive-feedback strategies such as volatility targeting and various flavors of what are essentially momentum strategies. Or other structural issues within the current financial system.

So, below is an edited version of Chapter 2 of A Demon of Our Own Design.

(If you have arrived here by going to my blog rather than to this post specifically, you need to click on the post to see the excerpt.)

October 15, 2017

Can We have an ETF Meltdown?

October 15, 2017
What is the magic that allows us to have intraday liquidity through an ETF on a market that itself trades more or less by appointment?  Case in point: the high yield bond market.  Or emerging markets. Or just about any bond market short of sovereigns and maybe agencies.

Suppose there is a sudden rush for the exits in the high yield bond market. Those in the cash bonds know the drill. They will put in orders with the bank/dealer market makers. For a while those high yield bond trading desks will buy the bonds and hold them in inventory. But it won't take long for the trading desks to reach their capacity. After that point, they won't be buyers. They will act as agent -- also knows as riskless principal -- and look for someone on the other side of the trade. In the meantime the seller has to bide its time. The point is that on the cash bond side, it is not an intraday sort of a transaction. It can take days to find the other side for the trade. And anyone who is active in the high yield bond market knows that, so they structure their leverage and liquidity accordingly.

However, those in the ETFs by and large have no inkling that this is the way the market for high yield bonds works. As far as they can tell, the ETFs trade like an S&P 500 stock. You put in an order to sell, and you are done in minutes.

The reason there is typically high liquidity in the ETFs is that there is typically good two-way flow. And beyond the buyers and sellers are what are called authorized participants. The authorized participants keep the ETFs linked to the underlying cash bonds. They can create ETFs by buying up and bundling the underlying bonds, and they can take in the ETFs and unbundle them and sell the underlying bonds. In a functioning, two-way market, this all works the way arbitrage does for equities indexes. If the ETFs are at too high a price relative to the cash bonds, they grab the cash bonds to create and sell ETFs. If the ETFs are at too low a price relative to the cash bonds, they buy the ETFs and take the bonds to sell in the bank/dealer market.

It sounds simple, but it can't really be foolproof. You know there must be something that can go wrong when you have an instrument -- the high yield bond ETF -- that is as liquid as water even though the bonds it contains are almost the definition of an illiquid security. There is something akin to trying to cheat the law of conservation of momentum. And we all know that anytime something depends on some notion of arbitrage, things can go off the rails. I was in the middle of the portfolio insurance problems that led to the market crash in October, 1987. I knew all about option theory, but when the market was in free fall and the bid-offer spread for the S&P 500 futures was over a dollar, no one was in the mood to try to keep prices in line by doing delta hedging. Options traded in their own world. Implied volatilities were 80% and higher. The option market went into rotation -- trading one stock at a time throughout the day.

For the ETFs, things can go off the rails if the authorized participants can't do their job. If there is not a two-way market, and if the authorized participants' inventory is filled up with ETFs, and if they see that it will take days to get the bonds off of their hands, at the very time that prices are going crazy, they will be stepping away. At that point there is nothing tethering the ETFs to the cash market. The ETF market and the high yield bond market will each trade as their own thing, based on who needs to sell and who is there to buy. At that point it might as well be one market for Martian gravel and another for Enceladian ice cones.

Sure, that is taking it a little too far. There will be some real money investors who will finally step in and keep things from moving into a totally imaginary world. But for the time being the ETF market will, for all practical purposes, shut down. And, getting to the next chapter in this story, it is the "for all practical purposes" that matters.

A clear-thinking, experienced investor in, say, an ETF on an equity market index or gold or currency will not be bothered much by the failure of the high yield bond ETFs. They will get the point that the high yield ETF was creating a fiction of liquidity when there wasn't any, whereas in these equity and currency and commodity markets the underlying markets trade with pretty much the same liquidity as the ETF. But for many investors, all they will hear is that ETFs are in trouble. In the face of the major market dislocation in which the high yield bond problems are likely to be embroiled, people are already going to be in risk-off mode, and if they smell some sort of structural risk with these "newfangled ETFs" they will sell them, period. And there will be plenty of sources out there ready to spread the view that something is amiss.

And, getting to Soros's theory of reflexivity, the changing expectations that come from people in the market buying into this view means that those clear-thinking experienced investors will get out of these more liquid ETFs themselves. And if the authorized participants are still up for doing their job in those markets, that selling will feed back to drop the underlying markets in equities, currencies, and commodities.




October 1, 2017

Out-there Scenarios: ISIS and Asset Management

October 01, 2017
I break risk management into three levels, Versions 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0.

Risk Management 1.0 is the standard risk management of VaR and the like, where history is used as a guide, and thus where things work if the future is drawn from the same distribution as the past. Any approach that is looking at risks historically, whether using past prices or variance-covariance relationships or leverage numbers or credit ratings; whether using a normal distribution or a t distribution or a gamma distribution or a part of a distribution like semi-variance, is part of this.  If the future looks like the past in some specific ways, it works; if the futures deviates from the past it might not work.

Risk Management 2.0 is a reaction to the fact that the 1.0 methods failed during the 2008 crisis.  This failure is not surprising or unexpected by most of those working in risk management, because we understand the assumptions behind Version 1.0.  But sometimes this was not articulated well when the numbers were passed up the chain.  In any case, after 2008 risk management started to depend more visibly on stress testing. I say "more visibly" because anyone doing risk management over the past decades has done stress testing in one form or another. Certainly when there are non-linear risk-return tradeoffs, like with option exposures, it is a standard method.  But after 2008 it became de rigor in the analysis of bank risk, for example using CCAR.

And there is Risk Management 3.0, which I won't get into here.  It recognizes that a static stress will miss important dynamics that lead to feedback, contagion, and cascades.  And it is not something that can be readily addressed with the standard economics. You can check out my book, The End of Theory, or some of my papers while I was at the Office of Financial Research to get more on this.

Here I am focused on what we need to do before we can get to these dynamics: We need to know what is triggering a market dislocation. And we are particularly interested in triggers that are large in either magnitude or in the number of agents that are affected.  So even before worrying about the methods for dealing with crisis dynamics, the question to ask is: What can go wrong in a really big way.

I sometimes get at this by starting with something really extreme, and then dialing it back until it can be considered as a reasonable scenario. Reasonable does not mean it is likely to happen, but it also is not "what if an asteroid hits New York" either. Anyway, I want to run through some of the extreme scenarios that I have been thinking about. I'll put one out here and see if anyone responds, either with comments on it in particular, or with others that they are cooking up in a similar vein.

So, Out-there Scenario I: A large asset manager is rumored to be funding ISIS.

Suppose a rumor goes viral that a very large asset management firm is actually owned by, or at least is funding ISIS. This hits all the usual fake news outlets, and is then, of course, bounces into the real news if only as a "there is a rumor, unsubstantiated, making the rounds that...." The result will be large scale redemptions in that asset manager. This will start a downdraft in the markets. It will also lead to questions about other asset managers, and redemptions there as well. The resulting cascade could spread across the markets, erode confidence, and become a major market event.

Now, of course (at least I hope it is obvious) I am not saying specifically that this rumor is likely. But start with this and, as I suggested above, dial it down a bit. The point is, we can come up with scenarios where there can be massive redemptions in some particular major asset manager, and they can be exogenous to anything in the market, and on the face of it might be unreasonable.

One argument against this path to major redemptions hitting the market is that people can redeem by moving their holdings to another asset manager. If they do that there will be no actual selling of assets, and no market impact. This is the way investors will redeem if they continue to want to hold the assets and if they operate with professional aplomb. But the sort of people who would buy into a rumor like this are also likely to simply say, "give me my money", and then figure out what to do after that.

A little footnote: A few years ago the Office of Financial Research did a research study of the asset management community, with the key question being whether the largest asset should be SIFIs (systemically important financial institutions). The report was castigated, especially by the SEC, mostly, I think, because the SEC was honed for inter-agency rivalry. But in any case, no one threw the ISIS scenario into the report.


September 19, 2017

Risk Management in the Long Term

September 19, 2017
I work in a pension fund. And pension funds, as well as sovereign wealth funds -- which are like pension funds for an entire country -- need to take the long view. The liabilities can stretch out for twenty or thirty years. And a lot can happen in between. But some of this is not too hard to divine. In fact, ironically, the issues that extend to the long term are in some ways more predictable than those of the shorter term. Things like demographics, changes in demand due to the adoption of new technology, fixed income of retirement, and, unfortunately, climate change.

The thing about demographics is that you get plenty of warning. If the driving issue for risk is what twenty year-olds are up to, you get to know how many twenty year-olds you will be dealing with twenty years ahead of time. (Excluding immigration.) And, similarly, you have a pretty good head start in knowing what lies ahead as people retire, like, that they will live longer, and that there is a sizable group that does not have enough between savings (which is close to zero) and social security and pensions (which averages under $20K a year) to make a go of it.

Demographics is a slow motion tidal wave that washes over society. Look at how our institutions have changed as the baby boomers moved into school age (remember split sessions as elementary schools became overcrowded ) and then college age, and then became home buyers. And now they are moving into retirement, an age of dissaving, of heading off to Florida, and of consuming more and more health care resources. Will we soon see in reverse the housing boom that occurred when the baby boomers reached house-buying age. Will the cash strapped Millennials be able to pick up the inventory? In a time when dining rooms and living rooms are the housing equivalent of an appendix, will there be demand for what will be coming onto the market?

We don't know what lies ahead for technological innovation, but we do know the longer-term trend as the technology that we already have is improved and adopted. Jobs in transportation will shrink. Jobs generally will shrink. The oil, insurance, and auto industries will face huge disruption. The wonders of innovation will meet the realities of political will. The winner-takes-all business models, Amazon being the dominant case, will find increasing headwinds from the regulators and lawmakers.

What is true for the path of demographics is also true for climate change. We have a pretty good read on the direction, if not the magnitude, of climate change. There has been so much energy expended in fighting the pushback on whether climate change is real that we haven't had the energy to contemplate the full implications of its course. If you want to get a scary version of what can happen, read the New York Magazine article The Uninhabitable Earth. The author spoke to climate scientists about their views of the future, views that they generally do not share publicly because it is hard enough to put the simple, non-dire view out there without dodging tomatoes. The dire-view list includes, section by section in the article: heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, and poisoned oceans.

Where does all this lead? To something that is more concerning (well, not as concerning as heat death, the end of food, and the rest) than the trends themselves: social revolt. The ushering in of the industrial age had its Karl Marx and its hundred years of revolution rolling across the globe. What will we see rolling across the globe when the broadly predictable demographic, retirement, employment, and climate trends take their course during the next decades? (And I haven't even discussed the implications of all of this for rising inequality and marginalization.) When we have a younger generation trying to support an older one that outnumbers it by some multiple; when it is doing so without being able to find meaningful (or just about any) jobs; where the retirees do not have the wherewithal for self support; all with the backdrop of a climate that is making the earth uninhabitable in multiple ways?

Has the UFC Jumped the Shark?

September 19, 2017



Now, in the middle of hurricanes, Trump, and a (possibly) overheated stock market, here's a blog about something different and somewhat inconsequential: The mixed martial arts world, which pretty much means the UFC.

I have been interested in martial arts for a long time -- I have been training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for over twenty years -- and have enjoyed the increasing interest in mixed martial arts. But about a year ago the dominant organization for mixed martial arts was purchased by a consortium of WME and IMG for a staggering $4 billion. These are organizations that are not focused on sports, but on entertainment, and the UFC has followed the lead to increasingly become an entertainment enterprise. 

In its first incarnation, the UFC was a little better than a refereed bar fight. Such as it was, these fights are what got me interested in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, because Royce Gracie, a member of the famous Gracie clan that brought BJJ to the U.S., defeated opponent after opponent regardless of the size differential using these ground-based techniques. I train at his nephew Renzo Gracie's academy in New York (In the photo I'm at the bottom right, Renzo is two to the left of me).

Then in 2001 the UFC was bought by the Fertittas brothers, and it was rebuilt as a serious sports enterprise. Over time it attracted top athletes, first men, and then women, most famously Ronda Rousey, that fought in weight classes built on a professional structure. 

But if you want to recoup that sort of investment, you have to reach for a broader audience. You have to create buzz and spectacle. The poster child for this, of course, is the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Connor McGregor. This fight pitted two men who were undefeated in the boxing ring.  One with a 49-0 record, the other undefeated for the same reason that I remain undefeated as a professional boxer. He had never been in the ring. 

This fight looked more interesting than it fundamentally was. Mayweather promised to give the spectators a show, and the match lasted for ten rounds of boxing action. In part because Mayweather didn't bother to throw punches for the first rounds, and then let the exhausted Connor gamely trudge on until he leveled him with a barrage. The slow start could be chalked up to caution on Mayweather's part, making sure he understood an opponent that he had never seen in the ring before. Or it could be that he didn't want fans who spent hundreds of million of dollars to watch the fight head home after a few minutes. 

This fight will mark the turning point, when the sport, at least in its most popular venue, will have jumped the shark. Former UFC champion Benson Henderson put it succinctly, "It's a very slippery slope when you have a world champion boxer fighting an MMA guy for the sake of money, and he can't knock him out in the first round," Henderson said. "He has to make sure he carries him a little bit. For me, that's too close to skirting the edge [of a fixed fight].

Now Paulie Malignaggi, a sparring partner for McGregor and world champion in two weight divisions before retiring earlier this year, has been trying to get into the circus by fueling demand for a grudge match with McGregor based on a falling out after a video appeared that showed Malignaggi hitting the canvas during a sparring session. He argued it was a push, McGregor's camp called it a knock down. 

In any case, there is more showmanship where this is coming from. With Mayweather versus McGregor we had boxer versus MMA fighter.  But before that, we had the WWE star CM Punk come into the UFC octagon to get destroyed (surprise) by a UFC professional of no particular note. We are having a fight of 38 year-old Michael Bisping, who last fought a year ago, versus 36 year-old George St-Pierre, who retired five years ago. And we have another MMA versus pro wrestling bout being bandied about between Jon Jones and Brock Lesner. There is a huge weight discrepancy between them, so maybe it will be billed as David versus Goliath. It also could be billed along some lines related to the fact that both fighters have been banned from legitimate fights for failing drug tests.