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 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.
Economic predictions have always been highly variable and uncertain, and, for some reason, relied upon as if the future were a magical algorithm. Essentially, economists would make one fundamental mistake. They thought they were practicing a science. Data could be collected, inputted, and a predictive algorithm could be generated. Even Nobel Prize winners like Paul Samuelson believed that with enough data we could come to understand the economy and how it functioned.
This is nonsense. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown us, human behavior and irrationality, combined with unpredictability and randomness (thank you Naseem Taleb) make this even a questionable social science. Using existing analysis and algorithms to reliably forecast is a fool’s errand, essential for someone’s tenure, and maybe even a Nobel Prize, but doesn’t add much that is useful. Some of the more laughable Nobel Prizes have been given to people who determined that markets were efficient. They are not. Economies can be predicted with useful data input. They cannot. A couple of inputs about inflation and the unemployment rate, and we know how to manage an economy. We can’t. That last one is the Philip’s Curve – true for a limited time and then it goes spectacularly wrong – a lot like most risk and market prediction models.
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
Clear and coherent markets, free from political agenda, bad compromises, and ineffective regulation is almost nonexistent. The consequences are usually pyrotechnic. It is not as if the world hadn’t provided ample warnings about the risks associated with irresponsible finance. History has centuries worth of such examples, but even looking at recent events over the last 25 years is illuminating.
In spite of Alan Greenspan acknowledging the “irrational exuberance” of the markets in 1996, stock market valuations continued to rise. The warning signs of unstable economies were believed to be localized and the broader markets decoupled from this turbulence. This was naïve thinking then and outright irresponsible now.
The idea that markets are uncertain, and consistent prediction is essentially impossible, is not new. John Maynard Keynes published a book on probability and uncertainty in 1921, with this concept of uncertain and irrational markets forming the basis of his general theory of financial markets. So, years before the stock market crash of 1929, and almost every 10 to 15 years afterward, the cycle of financial crashes and panics was predicted by a well-publicized thinker, and then, as is typical, ignored. The lesson is simple, and Keynes laid it out 100 years ago: markets seem rational but only during periods of stability. Markets are uncertain. Predictive models work most of the time, and that is their fundamental flaw. They will fail. Investment models that account for uncertainty and failure succeed in the long term.
S&P 500 stock market values are experiencing the same volatility as the first half of 2020, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic (based on the 50 largest value movements as a percentage of the index’s total market value). These dramatic movements show that market volatility leads to big price movements in stocks, both up and down. There are a couple of factors combining to enhance this turbulence: The popularity of the momentum trade (buying stocks that are rising quickly and dump the relative losers quickly). Decreasing liquidity (fewer buyers and sellers for the other side of trades). Both factors magnify the market’s moves in either direction.
The Archegos implosion teaches the same lessons that apparently need to be taught over and over again.
1. High leverage eventually brings margin calls.
2. Margin calls equal disaster.
3. Margin calls come when too much leverage is attached to securities linked to market volatility.
4. All securities are linked to market volatility.
There is no such thing as uncorrelated assets anymore. Investment strategies founded on the belief that the securities held are somehow immune from previously “uncorrelated” volatility are anachronistic. Combine these investments with substantial leverage intended to enhance returns, and this strategy ends in disaster.
If it’s zero eventually, great quarterly performance is meaningless.
It’s risk-adjusted return, idiot.
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.