Understanding Risk

Risk is the permanent loss of capital.

It is not volatility, nor is it uncertainty. It is the realization of a loss. Therefore, risk is hard to understand because it is only clear with hindsight that a loss has occurred. Understanding how risk works can avoid this permanent loss by avoiding the mistakes that cause the permanent loss of capital.

Risk can also be used advantageously. Knowing that there is the prospect of loss, planning, and investment strategies that profit from these losses put you on the right side of the equation. Risk can be used to an investor’s advantage.

Essentially, anti-fragile (to coin Naseem Taleb’s term) strategies can benefit from volatility, uncertainty, and loss. Randomness permeates all markets, which means risk is always present. Knowing that, investment strategies need to be able to withstand unpredictable or unforeseen stresses. Not all risk factors can be known, or even if potential risks are identified, the magnitude and timing are unknown. What can be certain is that they will occur, and a portfolio that is “fragile” can be devastated

Time to Worry

When Everything is Going Great, It Probably Isn’t.

Things can only get better from here… said the turkey the day before Thanksgiving. It’s challenging to know when it’s too late because things go badly gradually, then suddenly.

It might be time to start worrying about tech-stock valuations. Usually, all it takes is a few overly ebullient stock analysts to set off an alarm. When unreasonableness takes over (remember all those analysts’ reports from March 2000? The NASDAQ could only go up and all those internet funds were going to double again in 2001?). In March 2000, the bellwether for this nonsense was Henry Blodget’s recommendation of Amazon with a target price of $400.00 by March 2001 (at the time Amazon was trading for about $60.00 a share). Instead of being $400.00 in March 2001, Amazon’s price was $5.97 per share.

Long Term Value Means Long Term

Of course, Amazon has created an amazing business model and is fundamentally rewriting technology services and customer logistics. Trading at almost 100 times earnings the market believes there is much more growth and profitability to come. Really? Regardless of your perspective about that, Amazon is an example of investments that are either “don’t bother it’s ridiculous” or “never sell it’s ridiculous.”

The market may stay permanently irrational about companies like Amazon, or Amazon may catch up to the market’s irrationality. What should an investor do? The answer is simple – don’t play. By that I mean you either buy the stock and ride the tiger (which means you can never get off – or sell) or stay out of the jungle completely – don’t ever buy. Half measures rarely have good outcomes.

Amazon is exemplary. This tiger has rallied substantially since those woeful days in March 2001 to close above $3,200 per share in February 2021. So, even if you listened to the absurdity belched out in March 2000, and on paper, had substantial losses from your Amazon investment for several years, if you held on, you are brilliant and rich (more like lucky; but it’s smarter to be lucky than lucky to be smart). Don’t listen to the analysts and don’t get off.

Think Differently

Is It Really Different This Time? Well, sort of – and that makes all the difference. Interest rates are at zero, and worldwide markets assume that will change little for some time to come. Global coordinated monetary and fiscal policy are spiraling interest rates to this flattened level with little prospect of upward movement. The combination of monetary, fiscal, and interest-rate policy coordinated in this manner is unprecedented and is being pushed to its limits. A subliminal fear may be permeating the markets, generating extreme movements, causing both substantial profits and losses from massive capital flows magnifying price movements within compressed time frames. How do we explain this, and more importantly, how do we predict and profit from it? Bitcoin Explains Everything – Read That Twice If You Need To

Uncertainty and prediction

The world economy is an infinitely complicated web of interconnections. We each experience a series of direct economic interrelationships: the stores we buy from, the employer that pays us our salary, the bank that gives us a home loan, etc. But once we are two or three levels degrees separated, it’s impossible to really know with any confidence how the connections are working. That, in turn, shows what is unnerving about the economic calamity potentially accompanying the coronavirus.

In the years ahead we will learn what happens when that web is torn apart when millions of those links are destroyed all at once. It opens the possibility of a global economy quite different from the one that has prevailed in recent decades. Or, as John Kenneth Galbraith has said, “we have two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. “The bottom line is establishing and maintaining an unconventional investment profile requires acceptance of uncomfortably idiosyncratic portfolios, which frequently appear imprudent in the eyes of conventional wisdom. We are entering a new world and must think differently.

Things Have Changed – Sort of

The last few weeks highlighted the need to bring a new understanding of, and strategy for, investment risk. Volatility is increasing and occurring over a significantly compressed timeframe – for individual stocks and the overall market. Recent trading activity in GameStop, AMC, and a few other stocks demand an investment strategy focusing on Risk Adjusted Return. The new power of retail investors is here to stay, and that will shake up traditional portfolio managers because they are increasingly losing control of the trading process. Trading apps on platforms like Robinhood and social media chat rooms found on Reddit are game changers, fueling an unprecedented level of interest and activity (social media information is easily accessible and trading activity has very little friction – few, if any fees, and immediate). These two factors are irreversibly changing the market. In the past year, U.S. brokers added at least 10 million new retail trading accounts, and a shift to zero trading commissions late in 2019 unlocked a wave of activity that dwarfed even the wild days of the dot-com bubble. Beginning in early 2020, and coinciding with coronavirus lockdowns, trading activity started to surge and has not subsided, even as the economy has gradually reopened. Average daily trading at the biggest retail brokers hit a record of 6.6 million a day in December 2020. In January 2021, it reached 8.1 million. On January 27, 2021, equity volume was triple the average day in 2019.Retail investing has been a small fish trading in the large hedge fund and institutional pond. But that’s changing. Before the pandemic, retail trading made up about 15% of equity volume; now, it’s consistently making up more than 20%. The game changer is when that activity is concentrated on just a few stocks, a much more likely event among retail investors (driven by social media platforms), and it makes a substantial difference. In the case of GameStop and several other highly shorted stocks, it can cause startling price movements in a very short time.

The superficial and the real

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

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

A new industrial revolution

Businesses that combine closed-loop, arms dealer and monopoly characteristics represent something fundamental that is shifting in the global economy. They represent automation that is pervasive, smart, and is a layer that sits across the entire economy. Data processing and prediction build these business models. They permeate all services, including supply chains, logistics, mobility, and consumer offerings. Pervasive and innovative, they represent opportunities for increasing investment returns. Incumbents enhance their position, generate increasing value, create challenging barriers, enable more innovation to solidify their position and will sustain their value because of this new competitive dynamic. Innovation is always a threat, and value can be created from a new entrant, but the bar is increasingly higher for both the level of disruption and quality of innovation to an existing or even new market.

To be sure, new opportunities will be created as new technology develops. An example is the wireless data and smart phone market. Essentially, 4G mobile technology enabled the substantial value creation at Facebook, Netflix, Uber and AirBnB. These companies could build their services on top of this technological platform and create not only a new competitive business, but a new market where they could be the dominant player. As 5G develops and we see unimagined high-speed for data, entertainment, communication, and other services, we will have new businesses and opportunities created on this platform – only so much can be imagined today, others which are yet to come. But there will be real-time connection with customers enabling new and innovative products and services, artificial intelligence permeating software and communication enhancing quality and innovation further, enhanced gaming (perhaps even to a professional level), and virtual reality and augmented reality perhaps finally becoming the market opportunity that has been imagined for many years. This list is far from exhaustive, and without doubt, there will be valuable companies created whose business models we can’t quite imagine today.

A New Perspective

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

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

Building a Portfolio

Investments are typically analyzed singularly, and collection is considered a “portfolio.” This is a mistake because, while each investment has its own risk and return profile, the combination represents one single combined investment. In other words, a portfolio should be thought of as one investment with its own risk-adjusted return profile. That is, an investment with its own risk-adjusted return. It has dynamic components which consist of each investment within the portfolio. But a portfolio should not be viewed as a collection of investments with different risks.In thinking about where to invest, one of the most important components is to first think about the industry or sector where the company competes. It is important to target specific industries that are worth the investment. A great company within a mediocre sector is not worth the time. As an example, GE, once one of the world’s most valuable companies, has lost most of its market value because it competed in sectors, such as large turbines for energy generation, that were no longer attractive. It doesn’t matter if, according to GE’s standards, it was the number one or number two competitor in that sector. The sector is not worth the time. As it has now been shown, that matters more than how successfully one competes.Of course, it does matter how well a company competes once you chosen an attractive sector. An example here is Nvidia, a company that not only participated in an extremely attractive sector – specialized integrated circuits for intense processing, initially focused on gaining and then artificial intelligence – it competed effectively to become an industry sector leader. As a result, its value has increased almost 10 X in the last seven years.Different sectors have different risk components, and different companies competing within the sectors also have different risk profiles. It is appropriate to combine securities with different risk profiles, in both its sector and competitive position. Each of these companies can be thought of as a growth, defensive, cyclical, or stable investment, for example, depending on these different profiles.Fundamentally, a successful investment strategy combines companies competing successfully in attractive sectors offering unique risk-adjusted return when combined into a single portfolio. It is this investment strategy where the risk-adjusted return is superior. What do we mean by risk-adjusted return? A simple way to explain this is through an “S” curve, as demonstrated below. There is a relatively flat bottom increasing in degree and slope. Sometimes, the slope will increase at an increasing rate, a phenomenon known as “convexity.” We will discuss this later, but convexity is one of the key attributes to an attractive investment. But, as we can see, those returns begin to diminish as we approach a changing slope in the curve.There is a relative flattening at the top of the curve. This is true for every investment. The timescale may be different (attractive returns might be earned for a short time or, potentially, for decades, but, returns eventually flattened). There is no escape from this phenomenon.

Asymmetry and Convexity

If asymmetry and convexity exist, this investment will have a much greater risk-adjusted return, and those positive returns will increase at an increasing rate. Obviously, these are the most attractive components to the most successful investments. How do we find them? A dynamic that has emerged globally combining industry disruption, technical innovation, customer loyalty, and a worldwide market is the “closed loop” business. This is where a company provides a product or service that is innovative, useful, and generates significant demand. Customer feedback for that product or service provides a “loop” that enables the company to understand its customer better and the attractiveness or negative aspects of the company’s product or service. The customer feedback now enables the company to provide a better product or service and be a more formidable competitor. There is now a loop connecting the company and the customer. If a company is essentially able to close this loop so that the customer values the company’s product or service so highly that the customer will not look for competing products, this will enable the company to grow at an increasing rate. Essentially, this closed loop is a value-generating competitive weapon that improves the product offered, retains customers gets better feedback to make an even better product, retains and attracts even more customers, etc. It enables more effective capital investment, more efficient operations, and improves decision-making from better customer data and responsiveness. This creates a virtuous cycle that spirals the business upward creating a sustainable competitive advantage generating increasing returns. As a result, a company that creates a closed loop with its customers will create the most attractive returns. Another critical component to identify an attractive investment is when a company provides a product or service essential to all competitors within an attractive market segment. In other words, the “arms dealer” to that industry. Arms dealers typically represent a singularly attractive investment opportunity. While the term speaks to a specific legal standard, essentially, monopolies are constructed within industry sectors constantly. A valuable product or service, while perhaps initially part of a fragmented industry, ultimately consolidates into a few, and sometimes a single source supplier. As you can probably see, the arms dealers and monopolies are essentially closed-loop businesses. Often unmentioned, yet the most important component to an investment’s story is the team managing the business, especially the CEO. We have discussed businesses that build slight competitive advantages and the network effect built monopolistic positions or understood how to play a role as the provider of an essential product to all competitors in a growing industry. But without doubt the most important component of all of this is the people managing the business. Extraordinary companies are built by extraordinary people.