This Is the End


Markets, Risk and Human Interaction

February 11, 2018

Amazon Dystopia

February 11, 2018
The following is a brief, contemporary account of our world, which we call, for obvious reasons, the Amazon Dystopia. I leave it undated -- Kadir.

The dystopia is most evident in the control of the working class. During work and commuting time all workers are mandated to wear a “health watch”, a wristband that monitors their movement. The wristbands also tell the time and weather. Workers also wear “world view” collars and glasses equipped with biometrics and a 360 degree video display to determine the level of their exertion, and where they are fixing their gaze. The collars can generate electric impulses to encourage workers. If they fail to perform, there is summary dismissal. The government has recently added a worker-terminating explosive charge if workers are found engaging in treasonous behavior – which includes “robust criticism or a marked lack of enthusiasm.”

Cocking and the Rise of the Plutocrats

The elections are determined by majority vote, but the people’s choice becomes the tool of the wealthy once ascending to office. This transformation is known as “cocking”. This is an unfortunate play on the Koch name, but one that is not classified as robust criticism.

Cocking was first revealed in the Washington Post, which reported that the Koch brothers, a center of corporate political power, presented various incumbents with a check made out to their opponent for $25 million, with the threat that the check would be handed over to the opposition if the incumbent did not act in what the Koch brothers considered to be the best interests of the country. The threat only had to be made good one time, and the story planted for the Washington Post team to uncover, (with a Pulitzer for their efforts), before compliance to the threat became absolute.

The Consolidation of Power: From the One Percent to the One
The cocking grew, and political power became increasingly consolidated with those with the deepest pockets, until it finally has become a plutocracy of one. And having power over the press has helped to correctly frame the new order for the masses. At least the small subset of the masses that is not placated by free, unlimited streaming of videos and music.

From Each According to His Need

A value-added tax is now a primary source of revenue. Essentials such as food, clothing, and school supplies pass through a taxation station, the “fulfillment center”. Its operation is based on extensive records of every citizen, both their biometrics, gazing patterns, queries, social interactions, and of course consumption history, to infer their preferences, to the end of taxing them more highly on their purchases based on the algorithmic determination of how much they need them. This principle is promoted with the slogan, “from each according to his need.” All purchases are made with the certification of the buyer that they will not resell or redistribute, with the delivery chain iron clad from the fulfillment center to the consumer's doorstep to reduce the risk of missteps.

Luxury goods by definition are not needed, and therefore generally are exempt from taxation.

To Each According to His Abilities

The tax is paid to the agency that is responsible for the building and maintaining of this distribution system. This payment is tax exempt, because it already is a tax. The agency is in private hands because the government has determined to leave to business those things that it can do best, as measured by the profit they can extract. Thus the slogan, “to each according to his abilities.” As has been noted in various recent Washington Post articles, this is the most sure way of adding to the economy, and thus to the wealth of all individuals.

The Revolt of the Masses

Note by the conveyor of this account: As with any dystopia there is a plucky, fearless group that is fighting back. Led by Kadir and his former-rival-but-now-lover Sabella, a beautiful woman who is good with knives, this group is bringing in others to fight against the tyranny of the plutocracy.

Note by the second conveyor of this account: They are discovered and killed. The end.

February 6, 2018

Not Wages. Not Inflation. Volatility. ETFs.

February 06, 2018
The recent tumble in the market is being attributed to the wage report, a rise in interest rates, and concern about inflation. A reassessment of economic conditions does not lead to such a violent reaction. It might give a push, but then gravity does the rest. For the markets, gravity is the technicals -- how leveraged or overextended investors are, how concentrated, and how much liquidity there is in the face of a flood of selling.

This is just a quick recap of a couple of posts I have done over the past months that relate to technicals behind the current market downturn. In early November I wrote a post about how the low volatility regime we have enjoyed (if that is the right term) could blow up. We have seen the first leg of that with the decimation of the inverse volatility ETFs and ETNs. They have actually printed negative prices. What was worth $2 billion a day ago was worth $20 million in after-hours trading, and depending on how they terminate, could become zero.

The VIX went from the lowest level in history to near the highest. The next shoe that might drop will be the actual market volatility. If actual volatility rises, there will be a rash of funds that target a specified volatility that will have to sell positions -- mostly equities. If a fund is targeting, say, 12% volatility and market volatility goes from 12% to 24%, the fund will need to go from fully invested to 50% invested.

Looking at an extreme tail risk, the total failure of the inverse volatility ETF might cause ripples across ETFs more broadly. Some investors, I would think mostly retail investors, might simply hear that an ETF went to zero in one day, and think that is a concern for other ETFs. If they start to liquidate on that basis, it could lead to widespread contagion. I posit this in a post from October, though with high yield ETFs as the spark.

The cascade due to volatility and the contagion from ETFs might occur, or might not. If they do, it will be a slower process than what we have observed over the past few days. And things do not follow a straight line. There will be "bargain hunting" along the way. But depending on how that plays out, it might be piling more investors onto the thinning ice.

January 28, 2018

This is the Way Facebook Ends (And Maybe Apple and Google)

January 28, 2018
Investors tend to focus on the most likely outcome. As a risk manager, I spend time focusing on the unlikely, on the bad things that might possibly happen. Where T.S. Eliot writes, "This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper" I would write, "This is one possible way the world might end...."

So, with that as the starting point, how might the world end for Facebook? And, by extension, for Apple and Google, because Google faces similar, but not so dire, business risk, and because much of Apple's raison d'ĂȘtre is to provide the hardware for Facebook and related applications.

Regulatory Backlash
As a start, there is a crescendo of regulatory backlash to the power that Facebook and Google wield. It is most manifest in recent action in Europe, and has been given some headline coverage from a speech a few days ago by George Soros at the World Economic Forum. If you want a sense of where he is coming from, the Washington Post headlined it as "Facebook and Google are doomed, George Soros says."

The current controversy on net neutrality applies to Google and Facebook. One concern is that without net neutrality there will be a stifling of the small start-ups, and increased power for the larger players. Point the rifle three clicks to the left from the net neutrality debate, and you have them in the line of fire.

A Self-destructive Business Model
Facebook and Google have a business model that is at war with itself. On the one hand they link like-minded people together, so they can share their views, interests, and product suggestions. On the other hand, they depend on advertisers for their revenue. But if their business model is perfected in the first case, there is no need for the second. People will know what they want without the advertisers that are outside their social circle chiming in.

Social Norms
Obviously a social network like Facebook or Instagram only works if people want to share on the social network. And the bulk of those who do so are acutely sensitive to the cool thing to do. If it becomes uncool, that is the end of that. Put another way, the fever pitch of social media is of the same flavor as any fad. It has no purpose other than being the thing of the moment. For social media, that moment might last another two years or another ten. But at some point there is the risk people will find it so last year, or so "what my parents used to do."

As a measure of it being a fad, what other $500 billion company could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow and have no real impact -- except on advertisers?

And there are signs of change. When Cook states that he wouldn't want his nephew on social media, that is not a good sign. Closer to home, a month ago my fourteen year old daughter decided to get off of social media.

A recent meme is social media as cigarettes. Think of cigarettes in the Mad Men era. People were addicted, but also it was part of being social, and it was the way you kept yourself busy. If you weren't holding a cigarette, what were you going to do with your hands? Social media is addictive, social, and keeps you feeling like you are doing something with your hands.

How Does Apple Fit Into the Mix?
The iPhone is the hardware that runs the fad. Take away the need for social media functionality, and there is no reason to move beyond the power of, say, the iPhone 6. Maybe you disagree with that, but by the time you get to the iPhone X I think you are at a bridge beyond. Once you deal with the battery issues and avoid dropping it, (or drop it and pay $100 to get the screen repaired), a smart phone lasts forever, and has the power you need if you are not lighting up social media. Put another way, think about how frequently you upgrade your iMac.

The Darkening of Silicon Valley
One thing that can help push social norms away from Facebook is a reframing of the Silicon Valley sphere away from the cool end of the dial and toward the menacing. The sea change that is putting Silicon Valley companies in the sights of regulators is also washing away the veneer. Soros wasn't the only one bashing the fruits of Silicon Valley. There was a litany of others along with Soros from the World Economic Forum. Undeniably, Silicon Valley is exciting, filled with great minds, and is the go-to destination for college kids. I know the feeling; that was the investment banks of the 1980's. And look where that ended up.

Case in point, there is the growing realization that Facebook is not simply a fun app, and the work of those brilliant Silicon Valley engineers is not just creating a global sand box where we can play. In the wrong hands it in can subvert a political system with more efficiency than a rioting mob. It already has. That has got to move the dial a bit in terms of perceptions.

Note: I did a post on Facebook back in 2011 that has similar sentiments, but with a more philosophical flair.

January 1, 2018

Al Franken’s #MeToo-Ish Impending Resignation

January 01, 2018

We all have nothing but support for the push against sexual harassment. No one would suggest that things can go too far. Though, actually, some think things have with Al Franken, where even front-line accusers are admitting they were too harsh and quick to judgement. Some, but not all. Kirsten Gillibrand, for one, just can't let up, asserting that any accusation of sexual harassment is sufficient to pull the plug on anyone.

Based on the second thoughts in the aftermath of Franken, I think we can imagine things getting out of control. Even the New York Times has suggested the tide of sexual harassment accusations is taking on a partisan tinge, as well as first glimmers of profiteering from ambulance-chasers. What does it mean for things to go too far. What would that look like. Some people might compare it to McCarthyism, though that is such a common label for anything that smacks of an institutionally-sanctioned witch hunt mentality. For some, images might come to mind from Maple Street or the pod people.

We all applaud the efforts to eradicate sexual harassment by any means necessary. To have it brought into the sunlight. To see women finally have their voices heard and to assert power and take action. We all revel in these men being on the receiving end. Thoughtfulness and soberness is necessary in the process, however, lest there be a backlash that scuttles these efforts.