You may not have heard of Modern Monetary Theory, but you soon will do; it is becoming increasingly popular in the US as the "democratic left" searches for an alternative narrative to that of Donald Trump and a way to harness popular discontent with the way capitalism appears to be working. As we have discovered recently, economic illiteracy is no barrier to popular acceptance and though this ideology is clearly of that idiom, it does look set to go mainstream in the run-up to the next Presidential election, set for November 2020. I will not attempt to debunk the theory itself (as my view of it is entirely independent of the likelihood of its' coming to pass) but instead look at the consequences for asset prices in general should it do so. Forewarned is most definitely forearmed.
So what is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)?
"He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” - Noel Gallagher on brother Liam, (Q Magazine, April 2009)
The passing of Jack Bogle this week leaves the world of investing much poorer, but his career has benefitted investors enormously (nearly $1 trillion) according to some. He eschewed the riches that most on Wall Street seem to covet and genuinely helped millions of investors get cheap access to capital markets returns. This post sums up what many of us owe to him; he has truly left an enormous legacy, which we should all try to keep alive.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” - Winston Churchill
As our clients are well aware, EBI uses "Factors" within our portfolios to "tilt" our holdings towards those areas that exhibit a premium over and above that of the market for exposure to various specific characteristics. All portfolios have a tilt towards Small Cap and Value shares, but for the World Portfolios, we also employ Momentum, via iShares and Vanguard managed ETFs. It begs the question as to why we don't use more "Factors", which we shall attempt to address here.
As the chart below describes, the growth of Factor Investing has been enormous, quadrupling in the last 6 years, as US investor interest has mushroomed.
"Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan". - John F. Kennedy
As ESG/SRI goes mainstream, with more providers offering ethical options for investors, the spotlight has fallen on those shares that do not fulfill the criteria required for inclusion in "Responsible" portfolios. As a result of the potential tracking error risk for Investors arising from wholesale deletions of a large number of firms from the mainstream indices, Fund Management firms have been cautious in what they omit from their Index funds, mostly restricting themselves to 3 main sectors; controversial weapons, Coal producers and those firms that fail to comply with the UN Global Compact on Corporate sustainability.
"The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s" - Paul Krugman 1998
If we were in any doubt as to the value of predictions, the above quote should put it to rest. One wonders how one can be so spectacularly wrong and still retain credibility, but it does not appear to have damaged his reputation - he is a Nobel Prize winner no less!
"I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody". -James Carville US Political Commentator.
Bonds, like the companies that issue them, come in a bewildering array of forms, from the plain (Government bonds etc.) to the downright esoteric (High Yield, Municipal and even PIK varieties), but investors in all of them have to ask themselves, how confident am I that I will get my money back and (more importantly for the investor's return on capital), when?
Up-Date to a previous blog; at the end of October, we discussed the recent travails of the Hedge Fund community (here). We will very shortly find out how bad it could get; this article picks up on the theme and points out that Investors who wish to redeem their HF holdings have to give 45 days notice of their intention to do so. So, November 15th is the deadline to get out (penalty-free), for year-end. After another really poor year and the likely shock of seeing October's (lack of) returns, many could decide to head for the exits, which could (theoretically) scupper any chance of a year-end rally (as Hedge Funds could be forced sellers).
Found in a church in France.
“When you enter this church it may be possible you’ll hear God’s call. It’s unlikely He will call you on your mobile. Thank you for turning off your phones... If you want to see God, send Him a text while driving”
As of Friday last week, World Equities had lost $15 trillion in value (-7%), with almost two thirds of Global stocks now in "Bear market" territory (i.e. down 20% or more). In Wall Street, talk is already turning to the possibility of the "Powell Put" being in play - the idea that, should markets fall below a certain point, the Fed will ride to the rescue with rate cuts/money printing/buying assets directly etc. or whatever else is deemed necessary to ensure that asset prices don't fall. As we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, asset prices appear to be the only relevant metric in policy decision-making - and don't the markets know it!
A teacher asks a class a question: There are ten sheep in a pen. One jumps out, how many are left? Everyone but one boy said nine are left. That one boy said none are left. The teacher said you don’t understand arithmetic and he said: "You don’t understand sheep."- Charlie Munger…
The last year of the US stock market has seen some wild swings, but one thing has remained constant - Growth has continued to outperform Value, especially in the US, but Globally too. We are still no closer to seeing Value recover its poise and in USD terms, it has now lagged by c. 3.7% per year over the last decade. So, the "Value premium" has become the value discount, or so it seems.
More recently, things have taken a turn for the bizarre; I came across this Bloomberg screenshot (from the Macro Tourist website), which shows the Factor returns over the last year from US markets, whereby the overall return is a function of the average return of the top Quintile performance minus the bottom Quintile (or top fifth of the sample versus the bottom fifth). The conclusions are rather depressing;
Ethical investing is most definitely in! In the last 5 years, the business of Socially Responsible Investing has seen huge growth, as investment "consumers" start to think more carefully about the effect they have on the world in a myriad of different ways, leaving fund management groups scrambling to react, (or board the bandwagon, depending on your view). There are now more than 200 funds available to UK investors, and flows via platforms (i.e. from retail investors) were up 19% in the first half of 2018, according to ESG Clarity an ethical investment-focussed website for investors. Amundi, a prominent ETF fund manager, has announced it will fully incorporate ESGinto its' money management and voting practices by the end of 2021, with a view to influencing Corporate managements across the Globe. Pressure is mounting on fund managers as Local Authority pension schemes are being pressed to divest their…
"You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave" - Hotel California (The Eagles).
Up-date: today (28/9), it appears the HSBC mobile app has gone down. Ho hum.
“We are looking at a society increasingly dependent on machines, yet decreasingly capable of making or even using them effectively.” ― Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age
The doctrine of "Amercian Exceptionalism", which has been around for a while, has mainly applied to politics and international relations, but recently it appears to have moved into the realm of asset markets - in the last year, US equity returns have diverged significantly from those of the rest of the World, with the last 4-5 months seeing the US markets going their own way, with little regard to global trends. The chart below shows that in the last 4 months or so, they have diverged massively from World ex-US equities, as an apparent "rolling bear market" has engulfed Emerging Markets, Europe, the UK and Asia. As of 19th September, the MSCI World Index (including the US) is +4.8% year-to-date; ex the US, it is down 0.9% .
The Venezuelan economy is in freefall. In the last 5 years, their economy has shrunk by 50%, amidst shortages in medicines, food, and other material basics, inflation is over 500,000%, (and the IMF projects it to be 1 million percent by year-end). According to U.N. estimates, nearly 2.3 million Venezuelans have left the country over the last 2-3 years (about 7% of the population). The currency has collapsed too, as confidence implodes, with some wags now suggesting that the State TV broadcaster drops their version of "Who wants to be a millionaire" as even the jackpot is now worthless - 1 million Bolivars is currently worth about £3.09. In mid-August, President Maduro announced a 95% devaluation
Around 2 years ago we talked about the performance (or lack thereof) of Hedge funds and wondered whether they would survive - they clearly have done so, but the self-styled "smartest guys in the room" are now resembling the dumbest creatures on the planet. After 2017's volatility-free rise, the masters of the universe unanimously agreed that when Volatility picked up they would be on hand to benefit. A fall in February did indeed allow them to (briefly) shine, such that by the end of April they were up 0.4% year-to-date versus a 0.4% fall for the S&P 500 over the same time frame. It did not last though - as the major indices saw a succession of new all-time highs going into August, the (equity) hedge fund returns fell to -1%, whilst the S&P 500 rose 8% as of mid-August. What went wrong (this time)?