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Trust Masters, not Models

June 25, 2020 4 comments

Normally, when I write about markets, I try to point at models but there is a lot of guesswork and gut-work in analysis. When times are sort of normal, then models can be a big part of what drives your thinking. But times have not been ‘normal’ for a very long time, and this is part of what drives big policy errors (and big forecasting errors): if you are out of the ‘normal’ range, then to make a forecast or comment usefully on what is going on you need to have a good feel for what the model is actually trying to capture. You need to know where the model goes wrong.

When I was a rates options trader – stop me if I’ve told this story before – I found that I preferred to use a simple Black-Scholes pricing model instead of some fancy recombining-trinomial-tree-with-heteroskedastic-volatility-model. That was because even though Black Scholes doesn’t match up super well with reality, I at least had a good feel for where it fell short. For example, the whole reason we have a volatility smile is because real-world returns have fat tails, but pricing models like Black Scholes are based on the normal distribution. When the smile flattens, it means returns are becoming more like they’re being drawn from a normal distribution; when it steepens it means that the tails are becoming fatter. So that’s easy to understand.

If you understand why an option model works, then it’s easier to think about how to price something esoteric like an option on an inflation swap (which can trade at a negative rate, but actually isn’t a rates product at all but rather is a way of trading a forward price), and not mess it up. But if you just apply and try to calibrate a bad model – especially if it’s really complicated – then you get potentially really bad outcomes. And that is, of course, exactly where we are today.

We haven’t been ‘normal’, I guess, for a couple of decades. Central banks, and in particular the Federal Reserve, have dealt in the markets with a heavier and heavier hand. Nowadays, the Fed not only has expanded its balance sheet by trillions in a very short period of time, but it has expanded the range of markets it is involved in from Treasuries to mortgages to ETFs and now individual corporate bonds. And, since the whole point of this is because the Fed wants to make sure the stock market stays elevated (they are preternaturally terrified at the notion of a wealth effect from a market crash, even though historically the wealth effect has been surprisingly small) I suspect it is only a matter of time before they directly intervene in equity markets.[1] C’est la vie. There is no normal any more.

But at least the ‘normal’ we have had over the last decade was just modestly outside of the prior normal. Things didn’t work right according to the ‘traditional’ way of thinking about things; momentum became ascendant in a way we’ve never seen before and value almost irrelevant. We are now, though, working on a whole different part of the number line. This means that economists will continue to be surprised at almost everything they see, and it means that any model you look at needs to be informed by a good intuition about how the hell it works.

So, for example, let’s consider the money supply. Over the last 13 weeks, M2 is up at a 63% annualized rate. With two weeks left in the quarter, it looks like we will end up with something like a 10.25%-10.50% growth in the money supply for the quarter. The Q2 average money supply, compared to Q1 (important in looking at the MV=PQ equation), is going to be about 13.85% higher. That’s not annualized! Remember, the old record in M2 growth for a year was a bit above 13%, in 1976.

The current NY Fed Nowcast for 2nd Quarter GDP – keeping in mind that no one has any idea, this is as good a guess as any – is -19.03%. I really like the .03 part. That’s sporty. That would mean q/q growth of -4.75%.

If we want the price deflator to come in around 1.75% (+0.44% q/q), which is where it was for the year ended in Q1, then that means money velocity needs to fall about 16% for the quarter. (1-4.75%)*(1+0.44%)/(1+13.85%)-1 = -15.97%. If money velocity falls less, and that GDP estimate is correct, then inflation comes in higher. If money velocity falls more, then inflation comes in lower. If GDP growth is actually better than -19% annualized, then inflation is lower; if GDP is worse, then inflation is higher. We don’t need to worry much about the M2 numbers themselves, as they’re almost baked in the cake at this point.

The biggest amount that money velocity has ever fallen q/q is about 5%. But clearly, these are different times! We’ve also never seen a 19% decline in growth.

Weirdly, our model has M2 money velocity for Q2 at 1.159, which would be a 15.6% decline in money velocity. Let me stress that that is a total coincidence, and I put almost zero weight on that point estimate. Contributing to that sharp decline, in our model, is the small decline in interest rates from Q1, the increase in the non-M1 part of M2, the small increase in global negative-yielding debt, and (most importantly) a large increase in precautionary demand for cash balances due to economic uncertainty. (This is why it’s hard to get velocity to stay down at this level. The current low levels depend on low interest rates, which will probably persist, but also on dramatic precautionary savings, which are unlikely to). Small changes in money velocity will have big effects on inflation: if our model estimate for velocity was right, we’d see annualized inflation for Q2 at 4.3% or so. Here’s how confident I am in our model: for Q3, it is seeing unchanged velocity (approximately), which with money trends and the GDP Nowcast figures from the NY Fed would imply that y/y inflation would rise to 6.22%, about 17.5% annualized for the quarter. Not going to happen.

Here’s where knowing a bit about the underlying process and assumptions really matters. Velocity is effectively a plug number, in that bureaucrats are good at measuring money and pretty good at measuring GDP and prices, but really bad at measuring velocity directly. So velocity is solved for. And our model (along with every other model, probably) treats the response of money velocity to the input variables as more or less instantaneous. For small changes in these variables – movements in money growth from 4% to 6%, or GDP from 2% to 0% – the assumption about instantaneity is pretty irrelevant. The economy adjusts prices easily to small changes in conditions. But that’s not true at all for big changes. On the available evidence, many prices (if not most) accelerated a bit in Q2, which surprised almost everyone including us. But no matter what the model says, prices are not going to drop 5% in a quarter, or rise 5% in a quarter, for the entire consumption basket. Price changes take time – heck, rents don’t change every month, and it takes time to rotate through the sample. Also, manufacturers don’t tend to make large changes in prices overnight, preferring to drip it in and see consumer response. But here’s the point: the model doesn’t know this. So I suspect we will see money velocity this quarter around 1.14-1.17…not because I believe our model but because I think prices will accelerate by a little bit and I think the real uncertainty surrounds the forecast of GDP. Over time, velocity and inflation will converge with our model, but it will take time.

For what it’s worth, I think that GDP growth will be a little lower than the NY Fed thinks, for a different model reason: the model assumes that changes in various economic data can be mapped to changes in GDP. But that assumes a fairly stable price level…what they’re really mapping this data onto is the nominal price level, and assuming that the price level doesn’t change enough to matter. So I think some of the dollar improvement in durable goods sales, for example, reflects rising prices and not growth, which would be manifested in a slightly lower GDP change and a slightly higher GDP deflator change.

What does this mean and why does it matter?

For one thing…and you already knew this…models are currently trash. They mean almost nothing by themselves. You should ignore it all. I give very little credence to the NY Fed’s forecast. I am pretty sure Q2 GDP growth will have a minus sign, but I couldn’t tell you between -15% and -25% and neither can they. Which is why the -19 POINT OH-THREE is so sporty. But by the same token, you should listen more to the model-builder, and to people who understand what’s going on behind the models, and to people who are taking measurements directly rather than taking them from models. Because this is going back to the art of forecasting, and away from the science. We are over-quanted in this world, and we are over-committed to models, and we are overconfident in models, and we are over-reliant on models. They have a place, just as the autopilot has a place when conditions are placid. When things get rough, you want a real pilot holding the controls.[2]

There used to be a couple of guys in Boston who were auto mechanics and had a radio show. People would call up and describe the noises their cars made, and the guys would ask whether it made the noise only turning left, or both directions, and whether it got worse when it was humid, and other things that sounded crazy to you and me. And then they would diagnose the problem, sight-unseen. Those are the people you want to take your car to. They’re the ones who understand how it really works, and they don’t need to hook your car up to a computer to tell you what the problem is. I took my car to them, and they really were geniuses at it. So look for those people in market space: the ones who can tell by the sound of the squeal what is really going on under the hood. They won’t always be right, but they will have the best guesses…especially when something unusual happens.


[1] Ironically, I think that something else they are considering would have a much bigger effect on equity markets than if they directly bought equities, but I don’t want to talk about that in this space because it also has big implications for inflation-related markets and would create some really delicious relative value trades that I don’t want to discuss here.

[2] Although I didn’t think I’d remark on this in today’s comment: this is also why the Trump Administration’s move today to loosen the Volcker Rule to let banks take more risks with their capital is very timely. There is a lot of bumpy flight ahead of us and we should want seasoned traders making the markets with actual capital behind them, not robots looking to scalp an eighth.

Categories: Analogy, Investing, Trading

You Haven’t Missed It

April 26, 2018 2 comments

A question I always enjoy hearing in the context of markets is, “Have I missed it?” That simple question betrays everything about the questioner’s assumptions and about the balance of fear and greed. It is a question which, normally, can be answered “no” almost without any thought to the situation, if the questioner is a ‘normal’ investor (that is, not a natural contrarian, of which there are few).

That is because if you are asking the question, it means you are far more concerned with missing the bus than you are concerned about the bus missing you.

It usually means you are chasing returns and are not terribly concerned about the risks; that, in turn – keeping in mind our assumption that you are not naturally contrary to the market’s animal spirits, so we can reasonably aggregate your impulses – means that the market move or correction is probably underappreciated and you are likely to have more “chances” before the greed/fear balance is restored.

Lately I have heard this question arise in two contexts. The first was related to the stock market “correction,” and on at least two separate occasions (you can probably find them on the chart) I have heard folks alarmed that they missed getting in on the correction. It’s possible, but if you’re worried about it…probably not. The volume on the bounces has diminished as the market moves away from the low points, which suggests that people concerned about missing the “bottom” are getting in but rather quickly are assuming they’ve “missed it.” I’d expect to see more volume, and another wave of concern, if stocks exceed the recent consolidation highs; otherwise, I expect we will chop around until earnings season is over and then, without a further bullish catalyst, the market will proceed to give people another opportunity to “buy the dip.”

The other time I have heard the angst over missing the market is in the context of inflation. In this, normal investors fall into two categories. They’re either watching 10-year inflation breakevens now 100bps off the 2016 lows and 50bps off the 2017 lows and at 4-year highs (see chart, source Bloomberg) and thinking ‘the market is no longer cheap’, or they just noticed the well-telegraphed rise in core inflation from 1.7% to 2.1% over the last several months and figuring that the rise in inflation is mostly over, now that the figure is around the Fed’s target and back at the top of the 9-year range.

Here again, the rule is “you didn’t miss it.” Yes, you may have missed buying TIPS 100bps cheap to fair (which they were, and we pointed it out in our 2015Q3 Quarterly Inflation Outlook to clients), but breakevens at 2.17% with median inflation at 2.48% and rising (see chart, source Bloomberg), and still 25bps below where breakevens averaged in the 5 years leading up to the Global Financial Crisis, says you aren’t buying expensive levels. Vis a vis commodities: I’ve written about this recently but the expectations for future real returns are still quite good. More to the point, inflation is one of those circumstances where the bus really can hit you, and concern should be less about whether you’ve missed the gain and more about whether you need the protection (people don’t usually lament that they missed buying fire insurance cheaper, if they need fire insurance!).

(In one way, these two ‘did I miss it’ moments are also opposites. People are afraid of missing the pullback in stocks because ‘the economy still looks pretty strong,’ but they’re afraid they missed the inflation rally because ‘the economy is going to slow soon and the Fed is tightening and will keep inflation under control.’ Ironically, those are both wrong.)

My market view is this:

  • For some time, TIPS have been very cheap to nominal bonds, but rich on an absolute Negative real yields do not a bargain make, even if they look better than other alternatives when lots of asset classes are even more expensive. But as real yields now approach 1% (70bps in 5y TIPS, 80bps in 10y TIPS), and with TIPS still about 35bps cheap to nominal bonds, they are beginning to be palatable to hold on their own right. And that’s without my macro view, which is that over the next decade, one way or the other, inflation protection will become an investment theme that people tout as a ‘new focus’ even though it’s really just an old focus that everyone has forgotten. But the days of <1% inflation are over, and we aren’t going to see very much <2% either. We may not see 4% often, or for long, but at 3% inflation is something that people need to take into account in optimizing a portfolio. I think we’re at that inflection point, but if not then we will be in a year or two. And TIPS are a key, and liquid, component of smart real assets portfolios.
  • Stocks have been outrageously expensive with very poor forward return expectations for a long time. However, these value issues have been overwhelmed by strong momentum (that, honestly, I never gave enough credit to) and the currently in-vogue view that momentum is somehow better than value. But perennially strong momentum is no longer a foregone conclusion. Momentum has stalled in the stock market – the S&P has broken the 50-day, 100-day, and (a couple of times, though only briefly so far) 200-day moving averages. The 50-day has now crossed below the 100-day. And the longer that the market chops sideways the weaker the momentum talisman becomes. Eventually, the value anchor will take over. There may be more chop to come but as I said above, I think another leg down is likely to come after earnings season.

And so, in neither case have you “missed it.”

Kicking Tails

February 12, 2018 5 comments

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Like many people, I find that poker strategy is a good analogy for risk-taking in investing. Poker strategy isn’t as much about what cards you are dealt as it is about how you play the cards you are dealt. As it is with markets, you can’t control the flop – but you can still correctly play the cards that are out there.[1] Now, in poker we sometimes discover that someone at the table has amassed a large pile of chips by just being lucky and not because they actually understand poker strategy. Those are good people to play against, because luck is fickle. The people who started trading stocks in the last nine years, and have amassed a pile of chips by simply buying every dip, are these people.

All of this is prologue to the observation I have made from time to time about the optimal sizing of investment ‘bets’ under conditions of uncertainty. I wrote a column about this back in 2010 (here I link to the abbreviated re-blog of that column) called “Tales of Tails,” which talks about the Kelly Criterion and the sizing of optimal bets given the current “edge” and “odds” faced by the bettor. I like the column and look back at it myself with some regularity, but here is the two-sentence summary: lower prices imply putting more chips on the table, while higher volatility implies taking chips off of the table. In most cases, the lower edge implied by higher volatility outweighs the better odds from lower prices, which means that it isn’t cowardly to scale back bets on a pullback but correct to do so.

When you hear about trading desks having to cut back bets because the risk control officers are taking into account the higher VAR, they are doing half of this. They’re not really taking into account the better odds associated with lower prices, but they do understand that higher volatility implies that bets should be smaller.

In the current circumstance, the question merely boils down to this. How much have your odds improved with the recent 10% decline in equity prices? Probably, only a little bit. In the chart below, which is a copy of the chart in the article linked to above, you are moving in the direction from brown-to-purple-to-blue, but not very far. But the probability of winning is moving left.

Note that in this picture, a Kelly bet that is less than zero implies taking the other side of the bet, or eschewing a bet if that isn’t possible. If you think the chance that the market will go up (edge) is less than 50-50 you need better payoffs on a rally than on a selloff (odds). If not, then you’ll want to be short. (In the context of recent sports bets: prior to the game, the Patriots were given a better chance of winning so to take the Eagles at a negative edge, you needed solid odds in your favor).

Now if, on the other hand, you think the market selloff has taken us to “good support levels” so that there is little downside risk – and you think you can get out if the market breaks those support levels – and much more upside risk, then you are getting good odds and a positive edge and probably want to bet aggressively. But that is to some extent ignoring the message of higher implied volatility, which says that a much wider range of outcomes is possible (and higher implied volatility moves the delta of an in-the-money option closer to 0.5).

This is why sizing bets well in the first place, and adjusting position sizes quickly with changes in market conditions, is very important. Prior to the selloff, the market’s level suggested quite poor odds such that even the low volatility permitted limited bets – probably a lot more limited than many investors had in place, after many years of seeing bad bets pay off.


[1] I suspect that Bridge might be as good an analogy, or even better, but I don’t know how to play Bridge. Someday I should learn.

Categories: Analogy, Investing, Theory, Trading

The Limits to Trusting the Robots

October 20, 2017 1 comment

After another day on Thursday of stocks starting to look mildly tired – but only mildly – only to rally back to a new closing high, it hardly seems unusual any more. I have to keep pinching myself, reminding myself that this is historically abnormal. Actually, very abnormal. If the S&P 500 Total Return Index ends this month with a gain, it will be the second time in history that has happened. The other time was in 1936, as stocks bounced back from a deep bear market (at the end of those 12 months, in March 1936, stocks were still 54% off the 1929 highs). A rally this month would also mean that stocks have gained for 19 out of the last 20 months, the longest streak with just one miss since…1936 again.

But we aren’t rebounding from ‘oversold.’ This seems to be a different situation.

What is going on is confounding the wise and the foolish alike. Every dip is bought; the measures of market constancy (noted above, for example) are at all-time highs and the measures of market volatility such as the VIX are at all-time lows. It is de rigeur at this point to sneer “what could go wrong?” and you may assume I have indeed so sneered. But I also am curious about whether there is some kind of feedback loop at work that could cause this to go on far longer than it “should.”

To be sure, it shouldn’t. By many measures, equities are at or near all time measures of richness. The ones that are not at all-time highs are still in the top decile. Buying equities (or for that matter, bonds) at these levels ought to be a recipe for a capitalistic disaster. And yet, value guys are getting carried out left and right.

Does the elimination (with extreme prejudice) of value traders have any implications?

There has been lots of research about market composition: models, for example, that examine how “noise” and “signal” traders come together to create markets that exhibit the sorts of characteristics that normal markets do. Studies of what proportion of “speculators” you need, compared to “hedgers,” to make markets efficient or to cause them to have bubbles form.

So my question is, what if the combination of “buy the dip” micro-time-frame value guys, combine with the “risk parity” guys, represents a stable system?

Suppose equity volatility starts to rise. Then the risk-parity guys will start to sell equities, which will push prices lower and tend to push volatility higher. But then the short-term value guys step in to ‘buy the dip.’ To be clear, these are not traditional value investors, but rather more like the “speculators” in the hedger/speculator formulation of the market. These are people who buy something that has gone down, because it has gone down and is therefore cheaper, as opposed to the people who sell something that has gone down, because the fact that it has gone down means that it is more likely to go down further. In options-land, the folks buying the dip are pursuing a short-volatility strategy while the folks selling are pursuing a long-volatility strategy.[1]

Once the market has been stabilized by the buy-the-dip folks, who might be for example hedging a long options position (say, volatility arbitrage guys who are long actual options and short the VIX), then volatility starts to decline again, bringing the risk-parity guys back into equities and, along with the indexed long-only money that is seeking beta regardless of price, pushing the market higher. Whereupon the buy-the-dip guys get out with their scalped profit but leaving prices higher, and volatility lower, than it started (this last condition is necessary because otherwise it ends up being a zero-sum game. If prices keep going higher and implied volatility lower, it need not be zero-sum, which means both sides are being rewarded, which means that we would see more and more risk-parity guys – which we do – and more and more delta-hedging-buy-the-dip guys – which we do).

Obviously this sort of thing happens. My question though is, what if these different activities tend to offset in a convergent rather than divergent way, so that the system is stable? If this is what is happening then traditional value has no meaning, and equities can ascend arbitrary heights of valuation and implied volatility can decline arbitrarily low.

Options traders see this sort of stability in micro all the time. If there is lots of open interest in options around, say, the 110 strike on the bond contract, and the Street (or, more generally, the sophisticated and leveraged delta-hedgers) is long those options, then what tends to happen is that if the bond contract happens to be near 110 when expiry nears it will often oscillate around that strike in ever-declining swings. If I am long 110 straddles and the market rallies to 110-04, suddenly because of my gamma position I find myself long the market since my calls are in the money and my puts are not. If I sell my delta at 110-04, then I have locked in a small profit that helps to offset the large time decay that is going to make my options lose all of their remaining time value in a short while.[2] So, if the active traders are all long options at this strike, what happens is that when the bond goes to 110-04, all of the active folks sell to try and scalp their time decay, pushing the bond back down. When it goes to 99-28, they all buy. Then, the next time up, the bond gets to 110-03 and the folks who missed delta-hedging the last time say “okay, this time I will get this hedge off” and sell, so the oscillation is smaller. Sometimes it gets really hard to have any chance of covering time decay at all because this process results in the market stabilizing right at 110-00 right up until expiration. And that stabilization happens because of the traders hedging long-volatility positions in a low-volatility environment.

But for the options trader, that process has an end – options expiration. In the market process I am describing where risk-parity flows are being offset by buy-the-dip traders…is there an end, or can that process continue ad infinitum or at least, “much longer than you think it can?”

Spoiler alert: it already has continued much longer than I thought it could.

There is, however, a limit. These oscillations have to reach some de minimus level or it isn’t worth it to the buy-the-dip guys to buy the dip, and it isn’t worth reallocation of risk-parity strategies. This level is much lower now than it has been in the past, thanks to the spread of automated trading systems (i.e., robots) that make the delta-hedging process (or its analog in this system) so efficient that it requires less actual volatility to be profitable. But there is a limit. And the limit is reach two ways, in fact, because the minimum oscillation needed is a function of the capital to be deployed in the hedging process. I can hedge a 1-lot with a 2 penny oscillation in a stock. But I can’t get in and out of a million shares that way. So, as the amount of capital deployed in these strategies goes up, it actually raises the potential floor for volatility, below which these strategies aren’t profitable (at least in the long run). However, there could still be an equilibrium in which the capital deployed in these strategies, the volatility, and the market drift are all balanced, and that equilibrium could well be at still-lower volatility and still-higher market prices and still-larger allocations to risk-parity etc.

It seems like a good question to ask, the day after the 30th anniversary of the first time that the robots went crazy, “how does this stable system break down?” And, as a related question, “is the system self-stabilizing when perturbed, or does it de-stabilize?”

Some systems are self-stabilizing with small perturbations and destabilizing with larger perturbations. Think of a marble rolling around in a bowl. A small push up the side of the bowl will result in the marble eventually returning to the bottom of the bowl; a large push will result in the marble leaving the bowl entirely. I think we are in that sort of system. We have seen mild events, such as the shock of Brexit or Trump’s electoral victory, result in mild volatility that eventually dampened and left stocks at a higher level. I wonder if, as more money is employed in risk parity, the same size perturbation might eventually be divergent – as volatility rises, risk parity sells, and if the amount of dip-buyers is too small relative to the risk parity sellers, then the dip-buyers don’t stabilize the rout and eventually become sellers themselves.

If that’s the secret…if it’s the ratio of risk-parity money to dip-buyer money that matters in order to keep this a stable, symbiotic relationship, then there are two ways that the system can lose stability.

The first is that risk parity strategies can attract too much money. Risk parity is a liquidity-consumer, as they tend to be sellers when volatility is rising and buyers when volatility is falling. Moreover, they tend to be sellers of all assets when correlations are rising, and buyers of all assets when correlations are falling. And while total risk-parity fund flows are hard to track, there is little doubt that money is flowing to these strategies. For example one such fund, the Columbia Adaptive Risk Allocation Fund (CRAZX), has seen fairly dramatic increases in total assets over the last year or so (see chart, source Bloomberg. Hat tip to Peter Tchir whose Forbes article in May suggested this metric).

The second way that ratio can lose stability is that the money allocated to buy-the-dip strategies declines. This is even harder to track, but I suspect it is related to two things: the frequency and size of reasonable dips to buy, and the value of buying the dip (if you buy the dip, and the market keeps going down, then you probably don’t think you did well). Here are two charts, with the data sourced from Bloomberg (Enduring Intellectual Properties calculations).

The former chart suggests that dip-buyers may be getting bored as there are fewer dips to buy (90% of the time over the last 180 days, the S&P 500 has been within 2% of its high). The latter chart suggests that the return to buying the dip has been low recently, but in general has been reasonably stable. This is essentially a measure of realized volatility. In principle, though, forward expectations about the range should be highly correlated to current implied volatility so the low level of the VIX implies that buying the dip shouldn’t give a large return to the upside. So in this last chart, I am trying to combine these two items into one index to give an overall view of the attractiveness of dip buying. This is the VIX, minus the 10th percentile of dips to buy.

I don’t know if this number by itself means a whole lot, but it does seem generally correct: the combination of fewer dips and lower volatility means dip-buying should become less popular.

But if dip-buying becomes less popular, and risk-parity implies more selling on dips…well, that is how you can get instability.

[1] This is not inconsistent with how risk parity is described in this excellent paper by Artemis Capital Management (h/t JN) – risk parity itself is a short volatility strategy; to hedge the delta of a risk parity strategy you sell when markets are going down and buy when markets are going up, replicating a synthetic long volatility position to offset.

[2] If this is making your eyes glaze over, skip ahead. It’s hard to explain this dynamic briefly unless I assume some level of options knowledge in the reader. But I know many of my readers don’t have that requisite knowledge. For those who do, I think this may resonate however so I’m plunging forward.

Hard to Sugar-Coat Nonsense Like This

July 20, 2017 3 comments

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One of the things that fascinates me about markets – and one of the reasons I think “Irrational Exuberance”, now in its third edition, is one of the best books on markets that there is – is how ‘storytelling’ takes the place of rational analysis so easily. Moreover, almost as fascinating is how easily those stories are received uncritically. Consider this blurb on Bloomberg from Wednesday (name of the consultant removed so as not to embarrass him):

Sugar: Talk in market is that climate change has pushed back arrival of winter in Brazil and extended the high-risk period for frost beyond July, [name removed], risk management consultant for [company name removed] in Miami, says by telephone.

Sugar futures have recently been bouncing after a long decline. From February through June, October Sugar dropped from 20.40 cents/lb to 12.74¢; since the end of June, that contract has rallied back to 14.50¢ (as of Wednesday), a 14% rally after a 38% decline. There are all sorts of reasons this is happening, or may be happening. So let’s think about ‘climate change’ as an explanation.

There are several layers here but it boils down to this: the consultant is saying (attributing it to “talk in the market,” but even relaying this gem seems like gross negligence) that the rally in the last few weeks is due to a change in the timing of the arrival of winter…a change which, even if you believe the craziest global warming scaremongers, could not possibly have been large enough over the last decade to be measurable against the backdrop of other natural oscillations. Put another way, in late June “the market” thought the price of sugar ought to be about 12.74¢/lb. Then, “the market” suddenly realized that global warming is increasing the risk to the sugar crop. Despite the fact that this change – if it is happening at all – is occurring over a time frame of decades and centuries, and isn’t exactly suffering from a lack of media coverage, the sugar traders just heard the news this month.

Obviously, that’s ridiculous. What is fascinating is that, as I said, in this story there are at least 4 credulous parties: the consultant, the author of the blurb, the editor of the story, and at least part of the readership. Surely, it is a sign of the absolute death of critical thinking that only habitual skeptics are likely to notice and object to such nonsense?

Behavioral economists attribute these stories to the need to make sense of seemingly-random occurrences in our universe. In ancient times, primitive peoples told stories about how one god stole the sun every night and hid it away until the morning, to explain what “night” is. Attributing the daily light/dark cycle to a deity doesn’t really help explain the phenomenon in any way that is likely to be useful, but it is comforting. Similarly, traders who are short sugar (as the chart below, source Floating Path, shows based on June 27th data) may be comforted to believe that it is global warming, and not unusually short positioning, that is causing the rally in sugar.

As all parents know, too much sugar (or at least, being short it) isn’t good for your sleep. But perhaps a nice story will help…

 

Inflation Trading is Not for the Weak

June 27, 2017 1 comment

I was prepared today to write a column about horse racing and value investing…that will have to wait until tomorrow…when this article was sent to me by about a dozen people:

Deutsche Bank Said to Face Possible $60 Million Derivative Loss

The article was sent my way because the loss was tied to a trade that used US dollar inflation derivatives, and since that’s a market I basically started back in 2003 folks figured I might want to know. And I do.

The inflation derivatives market is not huge. The chart below shows rolling 12-month inflation derivative volumes (source: BGC Partners) through last September, which was the last time I went looking for the data for a presentation. Total interbank volumes are around $10-15bln per month; customer volumes are not included here but are not insignificant (any more).

Most inflation books, especially these Volcker Rule days, are run pretty close to the vest. Most of these volumes will be set against customer flows, or against bond breakevens, or against other positions on the inflation curve. Net risk positions for any derivative book, especially these days, are pretty small…which is why Deutsche is investigating whether risk limits were breached in this case. In principle this should be easy to figure out, since DB and every other bank has risk control specialists whose job it is to monitor these risks.

But inflation risks are complex. Our firm breaks fixed-income risks down into six basis risks that add up to the net risk of a bond. For a TIPS bond, there is just one risk; for a corporate bond there will be six. Our risk schematic starts from real rate risks and builds up – unlike in most risk systems, which start with nominal risks and try to force real bonds to fit. Inflation-linked derivatives also have commodity deltas implied, since they are tied to headline inflation and headline inflation is tied largely to energy prices. Geez, I could write a book on this – it would be a combination of “Inflation Risks and Products[1] and, in this case, “Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks & Fraud in Financial Reports.”

Suffice it to say that even really sharp investors don’t always quite get it when it comes to inflation. In early 2014, a prestigious investment management firm took a multi-billion-dollar bath on a “risk-parity” product that hadn’t truly understood how to figure out the risks of TIPS. How much more difficult, then, is it for risk control officers, many of whom have shiny new Ph.D.s and very little direct market experience? A fast-talking trader who knows something about the product can, if he is unscrupulous, persuade risk control that he is not really taking risks that he knows, or ought to know, he is taking.

In short, I am sympathetic with the risk control guys in this case. They were probably outgunned by a slick operator pushing the limits of his limits. It’s almost assuredly the case: the market, as large as it is, is too small in the Volcker Rule era to allow the accumulation of a prudent position of large enough size to cause this sort of loss – especially in the recent period of exceptionally low market volatility.

This, then, is an object lesson: if you’re running inflation risk, and you think it’s pretty much like running nominal rate risk – you’re wrong, and you should get help before your firm’s name is the one in the Bloomberg article.[2]

Tomorrow, we can talk about horse racing.

[1] In which I co-wrote a chapter, on commodities actually, with Bob Greer.

[2] To be fair, in this case the problem was the combination of ignorance and what appears to be malfeasance. If you’re careful with your control structures and only hire high-quality people of sterling reputation, you shouldn’t have a problem with the second part of this formula.

Categories: Bond Market, TIPS, Trading

Who Keeps Selling These Free Options?

November 22, 2016 Leave a comment

It seems that recently I’ve developed a bit of a theme in pointing out situations where the market was pricing one particular outcome so completely that it paid to take the other side even if you didn’t think that was going to be the winning side. The three that spring to mind are: Brexit, Trump, and inflation breakevens.

Why do these opportunities exist? I think partly it is that investors like to be on the “winning side” more than they like ending up with more money than they started. I know that sounds crazy, but we observe it all the time: it is really hard (especially if you are a fund manager that gets paid quarterly) to take losses over and over and over, even if one win in ten tries is all you need to double your money. It’s the “wildcatter” mindset of drilling a bunch of dry holes but making it back on the gusher. It’s how venture capital works. There are all kinds of examples of this behavioral phenomenon. I am sure someone has done the experiment to prove that people prefer many small gains and one large loss to many small losses and one large gain. If they haven’t, they should.

I mention this because we have another one.

December Fed Funds futures settled today at 99.475. Now, Fed funds futures settle to the daily weighted average Fed funds effective for the month (specifically, they settle to 100 minus the average annualized rate). Let’s do the math. The Fed meeting is on December 14th. Let’s assume the Fed tightens from the current 0.25%-0.50% range to 0.50%-0.75%. The overnight Fed funds effective has been trading a teensy bit tight, at 0.41% this month, but otherwise has been pretty close to rock solid right in the middle except for each month-end (see chart, source Bloomberg) so let’s assume it trades in the middle of the 0.50%-0.75% range for the balance of the month, except for December 30th (Friday) and 31st (Saturday), where we expect the rate to slip about 16bps like it did in 2015.

fedl01

So here’s the math for fair value.

14 days at 0.41%  (December 1st -14th)

15 days at 0.625% (December 15th-29th)

2 days at 0.465% (December 30th-31st)

This averages to 0.518%, which means the fair value of the contract if the Fed tightens is 99.482. If the Fed does not tighten, then the fair value is about 99.60. So if you buy the contract at 99.475, you’re risking…well, nothing, because you’d expect it to settle higher even if the Fed tightens. And your upside is 12.5bps. This is why Bloomberg says the market probability of a 25bp hike in rates is now 100% (see chart, source Bloomberg).

fedprob

There is in fact some risk, because theoretically the Fed could tighten 50bps or 100bps. Or 1000bps. Actually, those are all probably about equally likely. And it is possible the “turn” could trade tight, rather than loose. If the turn traded at 1%, the fair value if the Fed tightened would be 99.448. So it isn’t a riskless trade.

But we come back to the same story – it doesn’t matter if you think the Fed is almost certainly going to tighten on December 14th. Unless you think there’s a chance they go 50bps or that overnight funds start trading significantly higher before the meeting, you’re supposed to be long December Fed funds futures at 99.475.

The title of this post is a question, because remember – for everyone who is buying this option at zero (or negative) there’s someone selling it too. This isn’t happening on zero volume: 7207 contracts changed hands today. That seems weird to me, until I remember that it has been happening a lot lately. Someone is losing a lot of money. What is this, Brewster’s Millions?

*

An administrative announcement about upcoming (free!) webinars:

On consecutive Mondays spanning December 5, December 12, and December 19 at 11:00ET, I will be doing a series of one-hour educational seminars on inflation. The first is “How Inflation Works;” the second is “Inflation and Asset Classes;” and the third is “Inflation-aware Investing.” These webinars will also have live Q&A. After each session, a recording will be available on Investing.com.

Each of these webinars is financially sponsored by Enduring Investments.

Brexit and Trump and Free Options

November 9, 2016 1 comment

As the evening developed, and it began to dawn on Americans – and the world – that Donald Trump might actually win, markets plunged. The S&P was down 100 points before midnight; the dollar index was off 2%. Gold rose about $70; 10-year yields rose 15bps. Nothing about that was surprising. Lots of people predicted that if Trump somehow won, markets would gyrate and move in something close to this way. If Clinton won, the ‘status quo’ election would mean much calmer markets.

So, we got the upset. Despite the hyperbole, it was hardly a “stunning” upset.[1] Going into yesterday, the “No Toss Ups” maps had Trump down about 8 electoral votes. Polls in all of the “battleground” states were within 1-2 points, many with Trump in the lead. Yes, the “road to victory” was narrow, requiring Trump to win Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and a few other hotly-contested battlegrounds, but no step along that road was a long shot (and it wasn’t like winning 6 coin flips, because these are correlated events). Trump’s victory odds were probably 20%-25% at worst: long odds, but not ridiculous odds. (And I believe the following wind to Trump from the timing of Obamacare letters was underappreciated; I wrote about this effect on October 27th).

And yet, stock markets in the two days prior to the election rose aggressively, pricing in a near-certainty of a Clinton victory. Again, recall that pundits thought that a Clinton victory would see little market reaction, but a violent reaction could obtain if Trump won. Markets, in other words, were offering tremendous odds on an event that was unlikely, but within the realm of possibility. The market was offering nearly-free options. The same thing happened with Brexit: although the vote was close to a coin-flip, the market was offering massive odds on the less-likely event. Here is an important point as well – in both cases, the error bars had to be much wider than normal, because there were dynamics that were not fully understood. Therefore, the “out of the money” outcome was not nearly as far out of the money as it seemed. And yet, the market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before the Brexit vote. The market paid you handsomely to be short markets (or less long) before yesterday’s election results were reported. And, patting myself on the back, I said so.

capture

This is not a political blog, but an investing blog. And my point here about investing is simple: any competent investor cannot afford to ignore free, or nearly-free, options. Whatever you thought the outcome of the Presidential election was likely to be, it was an investing imperative to lighten up longs (at least) going into the results. If the status-quo happened, you would not have lost much, but if the status quo was upset, you would have gained much. As I’ve been writing recently about inflation breakevens (which was also a hard-to-lose trade, though less dramatic), the tail risks were really underpriced. Investing, like poker, is not about winning every hand. It is about betting correctly when the hand is played.

At this hour, stock markets are bouncing and bond markets are selling off. These next moves are the difficult ones, of course, because now we all have the same information. I suspect stocks will recover some, at least temporarily, because investors will price a Federal Reserve that is less likely to tighten and the knee-jerk response is to buy stocks in that circumstance. But it is interesting that at the moment, while stocks remain lower the bond market gains have completely reversed and are turning into a rout. 10-year inflation breakevens are wider by about 9-10bps, which is a huge move. But there will be lots of gyrations from here. The easy trade was the first one.

[1] And certainly not “the greatest upset in American political history.” Dewey Defeats Truman, anyone?

August: More Esther, Less Mester

The last two weeks of July felt a lot like August typically does. Thin, lethargic trading; somewhat gappy but directionless. Ten-year Treasury note futures held a 1-point range except for a few minutes last Thursday. The S&P oscillated (and it really looks like a simple oscillation) between 2160 and 2175 for the most part (chart source Bloomberg):

dull

In thinking about what August holds, I’ll say this. What the stock market (and bond market) has had going for it is momentum. What these markets have had going against them is value. When value and momentum meet, the result is indeterminate. It often depends on whether carry is penalizing the longs, or penalizing the shorts. For the last few years, with very low financing rates across a wide variety of assets, carry has fairly favored the longs. In 2016, that advantage is lessening as short rates come up and long rates have declined. The chart below shows the spread between 10-year Treasury rates and 3-month LIBOR (a reasonable proxy for short-term funding rates) which gives you some idea of how the carry accruing to a financed long position has deteriorated.

carry

So now, dwelling on the last few weeks’ directionless trading, I think it’s fair to say that the markets’ value conditions haven’t much changed, but momentum generally has surely ebbed. In a situation where carry covers fewer trading sins, the markets surely are on more tenuous ground now than they have been for a bit. This doesn’t mean that we will see the bottom fall out in August, of course.

But add this to the consideration: markets completely ignored the Fed announcement yesterday, despite the fact that most observers thought the inserted language that “near-term risks to the economic outlook have diminished” made this a surprisingly hawkish statement. (For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that any reasonable assessment of the change in risks from before the Brexit vote to after the Brexit vote could conclude anything else). Now, I certainly don’t think that this Fed, with its very dovish leadership, is going to tighten imminently even though prices and wages (see chart below of the Atlanta Fed Wage Tracker and the Cleveland Fed’s Median CPI, source Bloomberg) are so obviously trending higher that even the forecasting-impaired Federal Reserve can surely see it. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Fed cannot afford to be ignored.

wagesandprices

Accordingly, something else that I expect to see in August is more-hawkish Fed speakers. Kansas City Fed President Esther George dissented in favor of a rate hike at this meeting. So in August, I think we will hear more Esther and less Mester (Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester famously mused about helicopter money a couple of weeks ago). The FOMC doesn’t want to crash the stock and bond markets. But it wants to be noticed.

The problem is that in thin August markets – there’s no escaping that, I am afraid – it might not take much, with ebbing momentum in these markets, to cause some decent retracements.

Categories: Federal Reserve, Trading, Wages

Britain Survived the Blitz and Will Survive Brexit

June 24, 2016 8 comments

So I see today that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan says this is the worst crisis he has seen. Bigger than the 1987 Crash? Bigger than Long Term Capital? Bigger than the internet bubble collapse? Bigger than the Lehman (et. al.) collapse? Really?

As humans, we tend to have short memories and (ridiculously) short planning horizons. Greenspan, especially in his apparent dotage, has a shorter memory even than he had previously – maybe this is convenient given his record. I don’t want to comment on his planning horizon as that would seem uncharitable.

Why is Brexit bad? The trade arrangements and treaties do not suddenly become invalid simply because the UK has voted to throw off the shackles of her overlords and return to being governed by the same rules they’ve been governed by basically since the Magna Carta. But Jim Bianco crystallized the issue for me this week. He pointed out that while Brussels could let this be a mostly painless transition, it has every incentive to make it as painful as possible. In Jim’s words, “if it isn’t painful then hands shoot up all over Europe to be the next to leave.” That’s an astute political observation, and I think he’s right. The EU will work hard to punish Britain for having the temerity to demand sovereignty.

But Britain survived the Blitz; they will survive Brexit.

Indeed, Britain will survive longer than the Euro. The sun is beginning to set on that experiment. The first cracks happened a few years ago with Greece, but the implausibility of a union of political and economic interests when the national interests diverge was a problem from the first Maastricht vote. Who is next? Will it be Greece, Spain, Italy, or maybe France where the anti-EU sentiment is higher even than it is in the UK? The only questions now are the timing of the exits (is it months, or years?) and the order of the exits.

As I said, as humans we not only have short memories but short planning horizons. From a horizon of 5 or 10 years, is it going to turn out that Brexit was a total disaster, leading to a drastically different standard of living in the UK? I can’t imagine that is the case – the 2008 crisis has had an effect on lifestyles, but only because of the scale and scope of central bank policy errors. In Iceland, which addressed the imbalances head-on, life recovered surprisingly quickly.

These are all political questions. The financial questions are in some sense more fascinating, and moreover feed our tendency to focus on the short term.

A lot of money was wagered over the last few weeks on what was a 52-48 proposition the whole way. The betting markets were skewed because of assumptions about how undecideds would break, but it was never far from a tossup in actual polling (and now perhaps we will return to taking polling with the grain of salt it is usually served with). Markets are reacting modestly violently today – at this writing, the US stock market is only -2.5% or so, which is hardly a calamity, but bourses in Europe are in considerably worse shape of course – and this should maybe be surprising with a 52-48 outcome. I like to use the Kelly Criterion framework as a useful way to think about how much to tilt investments given a particular set of circumstances.

Kelly says that your bet size should depend on your edge (the chance of winning) and your odds (the payoff, given success or failure). Going into this vote, betting on Remain had a narrow edge (52-48) and awful odds (if Remain won, the payoff was pretty small since it was mostly priced in). Kelly would say this means you should have a very small bet on, if you want to bet that outcome. If you want to bet the Leave outcome, your edge was negative but your odds were much better, so perhaps somewhat larger of a bet on Brexit than on Bremain was warranted. But that’s not the way the money flowed, evidently.

Not to worry: this morning Janet Yellen said (with the market down 2.5%) that the Fed stood ready to add liquidity if needed. After 2.5%? In 1995 she would have had to come out and say that every week or two. A 2.5% decline takes us back to last week’s lows. Oh, the humanity!

Just stop. The purpose of markets is to move risk from people who have it to people who want it. If, all of a sudden, lots of people seem to have too much risk and to want less, then perhaps it is because they were encouraged into taking too much risk, or encouraged to think of the risk as being less than it was. I wonder how that happened? Oh, right: that’s what the Fed called the “portfolio balance channel” – by removing less-risky assets, they forced investors to hold more-risky assets since those assets now constitute a larger portion of the float. In my opinion (and this will not happen soon), central banks might consider letting markets allocate risk between the people who want it and the people who don’t want it, at fair prices. Just a suggestion.

One final point to be made today. I have seen people draw comparisons between this episode and other historical episodes. This is refreshing, since it reflects at least some thoughtful attempt to remember history. Not all of these are apt or useful comparisons; I saw one that this is the “Archduke Ferdinand” moment of this generation and that’s just nuts. Europe is not a military powderkeg at the moment and war in Europe is not about to begin. But, to the extent that trade barriers begin to rise again, the idea that this may be a “Smoot-Hawley” moment is worth consideration. The Smoot-Hawley tariff is generally thought to have added the “Great” to the phrase “Great Depression.” I think that’s probably overstating the importance of this event – especially if everybody decides to respect Britons’ decision and try to continue trade as usual – but it’s the right idea. What I want to point out is that while rising tariffs tend to produce lower growth and lower potential growth, they also tend to produce higher inflation. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe is one big reason that inflation outcomes over the last few decades have been lower than we would have expected for the amount of money growth we have had. The US has gone from producing all of its own apparel to producing almost none, for example, and this is a disinflationary influence. What would happen to apparel prices if the US changed its mind and started producing it all domestically again? Give that some thought, and realize that’s the protectionist part of the Brexit argument.

We can cheer for a victory for independence and freedom, while continuing to fight against any tendency towards economic isolationism. But I worry about the latter. It will mean higher inflation going forward, even if the doomsayers are right and we also get lower growth from Brexit and the knock-on effects of Brexit.

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