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Volatile stock and bond markets are not going away anytime soon, and investment strategies focused on discipline, market-tested algorithms, and the patience to withstand near-term turbulence will continue to deliver better results. As US stocks have dropped about 25% and US long-term treasuries dropped nearly 30%, specific strategies that combine futures, derivatives, and other securities along with market-neutral equity trading have produced superior returns. This impressive overall performance can be expected to profit from market movements and even market shocks that, while specifically unpredictable, will be inevitable from now on. In the face of dismal predictability and lack of confidence, it is discipline, time-tested algorithms, and a multi-strategy perspective toward broad market sectors that have outperformed and will continue to deliver superior risk-adjusted returns and better overall performance.
The onslaught of market-making bad news seems almost a daily event. A gloomy picture of slowing economic growth, elevated inflation, and confusing fiscal and monetary policy has added a lethal mixture to the market’s performance. Fiscal stimulus is sidelined, and monetary policy is constricting economic growth and entrepreneurial innovation. It makes for a gloomy outlook and an even more depressing long-term perspective. The next 10 years look more like a lost decade. High-growth company valuations have been significantly discounted, and over time as discount rates drop, their valuations are likely to increase substantially. Higher-yielding fixed income securities will be a standout performer as interest rates are reduced, the higher-yielding BDCs, REITs, leveraged loan securities, and high cash flow instruments, along with high-dividend equities, will prove extremely attractive and are currently available at bargain prices. Providers of value and users of value will be the winners for the next decade. Those generating real cash flow and disruptive innovation will define the next decade.
Predictions usually end up being nonsense. We simply draw a trajectory from what we know today. But innovation is a discontinuity. Things are unpredictable because innovation does not come from consensus thinking. It comes from small groups and individuals with a spark of entrepreneurship, intelligence, and vision.
One of the fundamental tenets of predicting technology is that most forecasters get things spectacularly wrong.
Remarkable things can happen. Or not. Can we solve climate change, food shortage, limited healthcare, and other global stresses – all with TikTok videos? Innovation is unpredictable and astonishing – it can address the world’s most critical issues today, from hunger to efficient energy, to devastating diseases. It is also too often misguided, inefficient, and meaningless – creating nothing more than distractions and wastes of time cloaked in an image of technological wonder. Misguided and manipulative business plans sit alongside the groundbreaking disruptions that may address society’s most significant problems. We don’t have time. Even though there is no clear argument for resources going to a new video-sharing platform or immersive game, that is beside the point. Technology delivers something, nothing else can. It is the only way to find solutions to otherwise intractable and potentially devastating global crises. . The freedom to pursue solutions is the essential first step. Letting the best people do their best is still the best policy. It will also generate the best outcome.
The market is consensus thinking. Performing above average means being different. Simply being different doesn’t define success. Success means understanding what it takes to not only think differently but understand when consensus thinking is wrong and executing and implementing those choices effectively. Doing better (generating superior returns with less overall risk) is difficult. Understanding “what’s really going on” is not a simple formula. It requires different, deeper, and better thinking. Depart from the investment crowd, focus on the factors that are necessary and, in combination, sufficient to make a difference, sustain performance and manage risk. It’s not easy or obvious, but it is superior.
Risk is higher. Markets are more unpredictable, and valuations more volatile. So, when anyone says “this time it’s different” it usually makes good sense to stop listening. However, these days the markets have given us more frequent and intense volatility. The NASDAQ is down almost 30% so far this year, and shocks from the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, massive central bank interest-rate maneuvers, and China’s zero-covid policy, are all ongoing inputs for turmoil that will continue for some time. Persistent uncertainty creates higher costs of capital and less affordability, weakening business investment, slowing GDP growth, and reducing investment returns. Hyperbolic “this time it’s different” statements are turning out to be true. This time days look darker, uncertainty greater, economic growth lower, vulnerability to additional shocks higher, and investors fear many more dark days to come. More frequent and intense volatility will not be calmed anytime soon. It really may be different this time.
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 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.
Beyond 2022, higher interest rates and slower global growth most likely trigger a market correction, perhaps at an exorbitant cost. As discounts rates rise and growth assumptions lower, many stocks based assumptions that low interest rates and high growth would sustain for many years will see dramatic repricing and much lower valuations.
Energy and commodities, and the businesses associated with them, are in for a very bumpy ride, but there is a fundamental sustainability to their cash flow and long-term attractiveness as world supply reorders. That which is essential prevails.
The luxury of thinking we have halcyon days of global growth and geopolitical stability may not be with us for some time to come. It is perhaps time to plan for that now.