Zero-sum thinking has begun. Despite comparative advantage, mutual cooperation, and specialization proving indisputably more beneficial than any other approach to economic interaction, this ideal is under threat. Rules and norms for economic integration lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created an order-of-magnitude increase in the average wealth of the Western population, and benefited countless hundreds of millions enabling a way of life otherwise unimaginable post-World War II. Now that system is under threat as developed countries subsidize alternative energy, attract manufacturing via expensive subsidies, and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out; national gain is now the highest priority. In other words, stupidity and zero-sum thinking have taken over. A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Management and control usually spell disaster eventually. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have greater substantial benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects. Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought are essential components to the development of any technology of substance and disruptive benefit.
The collapse of FTX shows how easily crypto is manipulated and the “crypto ecosystem” is fundamentally driven by centralized players and not any true form of decentralized or digital assets. Cryptocurrency is a sideshow and benefits no one other than speculators hoping for a greater fool. However, the combination of digital asset regulation, central-bank cooperation, and distributed assets via decentralized platforms still represents one of the most intriguing opportunities, and, with the potential disruption of global finance, one of the most exciting investment areas today.
Let the data tell the story. Remove human bias. Intuitive investment ideas may seem compelling, but more often, these ideas are time-consuming, inefficient, and inferior.
Diverse thinking, innovative approaches, and a willingness to be wrong and start over typically bring superior results.
Trust the model. Data, discipline, and rigor win more often.
While most of Europe and the United States suffer sweltering heat, darkening economic skies and bitter winter of discontent are looming. Threats to the world economy are chilling. Rising interest rates are slowing activity for discretionary spending while rising prices for nondiscretionary spending are also slowing economic activity. It would be miraculous if the compounding of both effects would not lead to a recession in both Europe and the US. China’s growth has stalled. The Ukraine conflict will resolve itself to the West’s dramatic disadvantage and the West seems to be willing to let it happen – much to each economy’s long-term disadvantage. Don’t count on anything miraculous.
The Fed’s latest projection was for annual inflation to fall from over 5% at the end of 2022 to about 2.5% by the end of 2023. At this point, we’re not taking the Fed’s projections seriously, and for good reason. They were spectacularly wrong when a depth of understanding and insight into critical future events was essential. In other words, the understanding of how the economy works, the Fed’s ability to predict the effects of economic shocks, and its policy actions have gotten no better over the last 50 years. More specifically, price stability doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon because people simply don’t think it will. If we look at the combination of rising wages and inflation expectations for both consumers and businesses, it is these expectations that drive inflationary pressures more than central bank policy. Inflation levels will be stickier than first theorized by the Fed, and the time to resolution is likely longer. Expect more “surprises” that will be no surprise.
The illusion that one can either predict or get ahead of cycles, or predict when they will end is why most investors underperform the market. Markets are driven by human emotion, and it is human emotion combined with the supply and demand dynamic that determines price. Therefore, pricing is independent of anyone’s perspective about “intrinsic value.” Markets are based on price, price is based on supply and demand, and that dynamic is subject to abrupt changes based on the whims of small numbers, and sometimes exceptionally large numbers, of investors. Human behavior controls the markets. Optimism, pessimism, psychology, fear, conviction, and resignation all play a role in adding to volatility and uncertainty. Frequent and intense volatility is here to stay. Market movements really can’t be predicted unless they are at extremes when prices are at absurd highs or lows. But, picking the high or the low is a fool’s errand. Understanding and profiting from volatility, managing risk, and believing in a sustainable investment model is still the best strategy.
Cryptocurrency staying power has certainly been challenged these last few weeks. There is been a general market drop (even correction), but crypto has been collapsing in value and, to many, is in a death spiral. Of course, reality is more nuanced, and with more detailed analysis, a broad brush hardly seems appropriate. Certainly, the weakest and, honestly, craziest portions of the crypto world have been exposed to be nothing more than silliness. But some components remain resilient. The market is quite effective at sorting the specifics of an otherwise overgeneralized sector. There is no such thing as “crypto.” There are stable and valuable digital assets, globally exchangeable and disruptive. Others have nothing but fluff. Of course, government should insist on more reliable information, and institutions should guard more effectively against fraud. But, there is wheat among the chaff, and it continues to have the potential to be disruptive, create substantial value, and enhance global prosperity.
Transformation, or euphemistically, “disruption,” creates great opportunities to capture newly created wealth. But, as industries are transforming and strategic disruption is occurring, quite a lot of absurdity and certainly enough terror are associated with some of these extraordinary opportunities to require much greater analysis and understanding. There are extraordinary risks associated with anything disruptive and transformational. The first disruptor isn’t always the one who creates the most value or is even a sustainable competitive entity. Innovation does not mean competitive sustainability. Digital platforms, ranging from the internet to digital assets and cryptocurrency are transforming industries globally. But, along with that comes a lot of hyperbole and typically that is followed by very little substance. Great companies use technological disruption, innovation, and transformation to establish themselves and thrive. But they rarely last. Every company, even the most valuable companies such as Apple, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, etc. must dynamically transform to stay competitive and valuable. Transformations are certain. New entities will become very valuable, legacy companies will diminish, and a handful will transform and thrive. Transformation and sustainability create and capture great wealth, but are far more challenging to identify, and even more challenging to sustain.
The world may appear to be a rational, deductive place if you are a scientist. But not if you are an investor attempting to understand how markets work. Financial markets are human creations, and humans are irrational. Economics, a truly dismal social science, is an attempt to look backward and create explanatory algorithms about what happened and why. They may have some success with this. But as predictive models, they are mostly useless. More often, they destroy value versus conveying any understanding about economic and business functions, and therefore, give not only useless but awful and typically value-destroying predictions. Participating in the markets requires a broader, more methodical and disciplined approach. Since irrationality pervades most activity, markets move dramatically with uncertainty, and investors react with dramatic moves based on even more uncertainty and lack a reasonable level of understanding and longer-term perspective about what is going on. The world now is more dynamic, volatile, uncertain, and unpredictable. Irrationality drives most market decisions and rising above the noise to be more thoughtful, think deeply and slowly to understand what’s going on, and identify the handful of factors (typically very few) that make all the difference to investment success is the true challenge we face today. That challenge takes work and thoughtful strategies in our irrational world. That world will remain fundamentally irrational from now on, and thoughtful strategies are the only way to succeed in this irrational environment.
Investment success combines predicting the future, the confidence to make bold choices, and the fortitude to stay with those choices. Today’s volatile and uncertain world requires new knowledge and perspective and assembling relevant facts from many diverse sources to make better decisions and achieve superior returns.
There is no simple formula. Thoughtful observation of complex factors, understanding their interrelation, and predicting the outcome of their interaction is challenging. Media-based quips are usually misguided, superficial, and potentially catastrophic.