Sunday, March 7, 2021

My Friends Are All Wrong For Different Reasons

I have always prided myself on the diversity of friends I have been blessed with. This goes along with an ability to be a welcomed part of many different social groups. (At least I think I have been a welcomed part . . .)

To take one example, senior year of high school my first class was Leadership with all the cool kids--the ones who were popular enough to be class officers, etc. The bulk of the day was honors classes with the smart kids--"nerds" was strictly a putdown back then. The last class was gym with all the others--misfits who in many cases lived in fringe realms and in some cases it was amazing they hadn't dropped out of school already. I don't know of anyone in my class of 600+ who could actually approach my level of diverse and deep integration. 

At my best I am a social chameleon. At my worst I'm a jingle you can't get out of your head.

Among other things, this quality has given me a chance to learn from lots of different people as well as compare key difference among groups. Painting with a broad brush, here is one thing I notice.

My friends on the right tend to naively believe the rhetoric of the politicians they admire. They think the things they hear are sincerely believed and will be sincerely pursued. 

My friends on the left have the opposite problem. They tend to naively believe that the rhetoric espoused by the politicians they admire should be ignored—that the true pursuits will be reasonable, noble, and unarguably worthwhile. 

Both can be willfully blind to the most grotesque, pandering, and ridiculous rhetoric. 

I admit this is an overgeneralization to make a point, but it is still a generalization based in truth. While there are many exceptions to this rule, in the cases where it holds I don't find the friends usually to be in contempt. They are almost always unintentionally wrong rather than willfully guilty. Political cognitive dissonance is a very real and rationally held phenomenon

My ultimate takeaways:
  • Looking inward first, I should be on guard for both of these problems in my own thinking and behavior. 
  • To change minds on the right where I agree with a friend on the policy desire, I should emphasize how politicians and political solutions fail to pursue our common cause.
  • To change minds on the left where I agree with a friend on the policy desire, I should emphasize how politicians and political solutions work against our common cause.
Changing minds on the right or left where I disagree with a friend on the policy desire is much more daunting. It probably starts by inquiring as to why they want what they want in the first place. From here it is very often the case that we have the same desired ultimate outcome. It is just that we disagree about how to achieve it. Without first finding common ground, a discussion inevitably becomes an emotional argument rather than a fruitful search using logical arguments.* 

For example, trying to change a paternalist's mind on the drug war cannot constructively start until he understands that you are not advocating unconditional, rampant drug use. He will imagine chaos on the streets and label you extremely dangerous. He has been conditioned to believe that opposition to drugs because they are bad = support for the drug war. 

Likewise, you cannot begin to alter the position of a supporter of the minimum wage until you firmly establish the common ground that you both want the best for low-wage workers.



*People have always misunderstood my love of argument thinking that I love to be in arguments. 

A Hypothetical SARS-CoV-2 Study

Perhaps this already exists, but I doubt it. At least I do not expect this ambitious of a study has been attempted at the rigor I desire. And I know it is a lot to ask. 

Nevertheless, here is the rough outline of what I'd love to see done well.

Independent variables examined using county-level data for the U.S.:
  • 20-day trailing average humidity
  • 20-day trailing average temperature
  • Latitude 
  • Population density
  • Stringency measure (government-mandated restrictions)
  • Mobility measure during COVID relative to the same mobility measure average value for 2019
  • Median income
  • Proportion of population 65+
  • Percentage of elderly in LTC facilities
  • Population proportion by ethnic/race ancestry (hypothesizing that prior immunities are associated different geographies)
  • Date of first case within y-hundred miles (adjusting for treatments, interventions, etc. changing over the timeline)
Results:
  • I would like to see the cross sectional results by standardized timeline (from date of first case; from date of first death; from x days past first case within y-hundred miles).
  • I would also like to see the time series analysis in total and by various cohorts.
My general hypothesis is that every thoughtful observer will find the results somewhat surprising. These same, thoughtful observers come at the problem with their own biases and priors as well as some unintentional agendas (the intentional agendas are for the unthoughtful observers). I think they tend to emphasize the areas they find compelling while somewhat negligently remaining silent or quiet on the areas they actually don't disagree about but feel are overemphasized by others. To that extent there is a lot of talking past one another. I am very specifically thinking about the realms of both the libertarian/classical liberal/neoliberal/generally freedom-championing thinkers and the economists/social and public policy thinkers. 

The problem is the audience has very much grown and diversified for these thinkers. It is very hard for the casual observer to understand the nuance and the starting positions of general agreement. For example, the public has always been completely oblivious about the fact that economists agree fundamentally to the vast extent that they do.

In the case of COVID this problem has been greatly magnified. And at the same time the slippage into hyperbole has been greatly amplified too. The result is painting ourselves into corner solutions. When the narrative has been taken to the extent that many so often and so easily have taken it (myself included of course), our narratives tend to fall apart. Again, this is for the thoughtful observers

P.S. Yes, at first glance I can see potential problems with the independent variables, and I assume there are many more I can't yet imagine. The covariance between stringency and mobility might force one of them out of the analysis. In that case I would like to see a rigorous comparison between just these two--Phil Magness points to some of what I would expect in that voluntary mobility changes dominate policy. After all, politicians follow rather than lead.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

What Stops School Choice?

We should fund students instead of systems.

That is the ubiquitous and powerful tagline from Corey DeAngelis and the larger pro-school-choice movement. I wholeheartedly agree with it. 

I also strongly agree that the pandemic was a very fortuitous turning point in the long struggle to improve educational opportunities for all and especially underprivileged students. As one of my Big Five low-hanging fruits of public policy, this is an exciting development. Yet we are still a long way from here to there. 

Understanding what stops or prevents immediate realization of the eventual winning idea, that parents should be free to send their children to the schools of their choice, should help us understand what it will take to get there eventually and hopefully sooner and sooner. 

Here is my rough approximation of the obstacles including how much they account for the prevention:
  • FOOL & FOOM*  --  20%
  • Local Xenophobia  --  20%
  • Incumbent Interest Protecting Turf   --  60%
The first one is a shared concern of both progressives and conservatives. The second tends to be more the domain of conservatives--I'm thinking specifically of suburbanites. The last is much more in the domain of progressives. 

*Remember that FOOL (HT: Arnold Kling) and FOOM are Fear Of Others' Liberty and Fear Of Others' Mistakes. These are the only defensible position for the three causes I identify, and only on the surface are they defensible. IF we cannot trust others (other parents, etc.) to make good choices for their children's educational needs, then perhaps this is a justified obstacle. 

But if we cannot trust them for that, what can we trust them for? Feeding and sheltering those same children? Voting for the politicians that will run the school system that is instituted and operated by a government we can trust to do right by those parents and their kids? 

There is an awkward tension between placing blame upon parents for underperformance (disgraceful performance usually) of government schools while at the same time lacking trust that those same parents could or would possibly make good choices for the children in those government schools. Taking it one-step further, those who believe that the problems of government schools lie at home outside of the schools (e.g., lack of a stable home life, help with homework, etc.) should not advocate for greater and greater resources for the schools since they claim the problem isn't in the schools. If they are right, let's put those extra resources into improving things at the point of the problem.

Circling back to advancement of the school-choice cause during the past 12 months, I feel like progress is being made against all three areas of prevention. We can cure FOOL & FOOM by attacking them head on appealing to real-world examples and analogies along with asking those holding the concerns to put themselves in the shoes of those they are concerned with.

Local xenophobia takes a long time to cure. Appeals to morality only go so far. People have a natural, animalistic-like protection instinct for their children. The hypothetical Other disrupting the fragile world of one's child is a salient fear. Experience with counter cases is the best medicine, and it is a slow process.

Fighting incumbent power is like bankruptcy. It comes on slowly and then suddenly. I would like to think we are entering the sudden stage for many communities. Check out Corey's twitter feed for hope in this regard. As more successful examples emerge of funding the kid with a backpack rather than the building with the career administrators, it will be more difficult for the incumbent resistance to hold.




Sunday, February 21, 2021

A Crowding Theory to Explain the Trade of the Decade

Bold title, I know. Yet while there may be some hyperbole in it, we do face a situation in equity markets quite unlike anything we've seen since the dot-com tech bubble era. 

[Disclaimer: This is not investment advice because I don't know you. I am not analyzing your situation, your appropriateness or suitability for equity or any other investment idea, your goals, or your risk tolerance. This is an attempt to explain what I believe to be the valuation existent in the market today. Read at your own risk.]

I. The Trade of The Decade

Typically with tolerable variation equities are "cheap" or "expensive" at the same time. The Great Recession was a period where equities went on sale, so to speak, for those willing and able to bear the risk. You didn't have to be brilliant; you just had to be brave. Buying and holding throughout the deepest points of the downturn (roughly Oct 2008 - Mar 2009) was a rewarding investment. Make no mistake it was not easy to do this as for years after the market bottomed it still never felt quite safe, but that is what investors generally and equity investors specifically get rewarded for--buying when no one wants to. 

At least they should be rewarded for that. And the expected reward is the "risk premium"--the expected return over and above the return for a risk-free investment. Think of it simply as the premium you should expect to earn for bearing the risk. Every investment has one. Sometimes it is relatively high like for stocks in the early 2010s. Sometimes it is relatively low like for stocks in the late 1990s. That "relative" measure could be in relation to its own history alone, the position of that asset class compared to other asset classes, or both. Current market risk premiums are the foundation behind my hypothesis that a big opportunity/challenge is in front of equity investors today.

The "trade of the decade" I allude to is a relative trade. Unlike so many highly-touted trades in history, this one is fairly simple. I wish to briefly outline it without effectively proving it so as to get to the true purpose of this post: a hypothesized reason for the opportunity to exist in the first place. After all, I am a strong supporter of semi-strong efficient markets theory (EMH).

First, some assumptions:
  1. Markets are generally efficiently priced. This means all important known information is thoroughly and quickly incorporated into market prices. Therefore, an investor should not expect to be able to outperform the market. 
  2. Risk tolerance (degree of risk aversion) among investors and risk outlook (the economic picture going forward) determine risk premia. The world looked very scary in March 2020 and investors' general appetites for risk were substantially lower than usual. 
  3. Risk premiums today are generally low across all asset classes. A couple of ways to say this in everyday language are: equity returns going forward (next ten years) will be lower than what we have enjoyed historically especially in the last 11 years and interest rates look to be lower for longer (lower than historically and for longer than typically has been the case). Caveat: risk premiums can be low and returns look high and vice versa. I am being a bit casual with how I equate risk premiums and future returns as compared to history, but I believe the underlying point holds.
Here is the problem, opportunity, and challenge all rolled up into one. Today certain portions of the stock market look fairly expensive (high valuation) while other parts look fairly attractive (low valuation). To be more concrete about it the high/low valuations are in comparison to those specific equity subclasses' own history. However, adding to the puzzle the risk premia for those asset classes look typical for the expensive group while they likely are desirable for the attractive group. 

Even a sloppy reader at this point is growing quite frustrated by the fact that I haven't identified which groups of stocks I put into the expensive and attractive categories. That is intentional as I don't want that to be the takeaway from this post, but I will now relieve that frustration as long as you know I am NOT effectively proving my case. Take this too as assumption. 

From the perspective of valuation, large-cap stocks in the U.S. (especially growth-style stocks) are expensive compared to their own history. Small-cap stocks in the U.S. (especially value-style stocks) are cheap compared to their own history. International stocks (especially value-style stocks) are also cheap compared to their own history. One way to measure valuation is to look at the current market price compared to the earnings, the P/E ratio. The higher the ratio all else equal the more expensive the stock.

One of the best ways to see this is to look at long-term analyses of real (inflation-adjusted) price/earnings ratios. The most famous of these is Shiller's CAPE (cyclically-adjusted PE) for the S&P 500 index. 


We can then do very similar analysis on various other indices considering important subclasses to see how they compare to the S&P 500 (large-cap U.S. stocks). This analysis [summarized in the table below] is where we see these key differences. Namely, that the riskier areas of the stock market (value-style companies, smaller sized companies, international companies, et al.) look relatively inexpensive.




Risk premiums* [analysis and results not shown] both echo some of the valuation analysis as well as tell a bit of a different story. The risk premium for large U.S. stocks is near the median of where it has been over the last 15 or so years meaning that adjusted for risk these stocks look appropriately priced. The risk premium for small U.S. stocks is far above its own historical median meaning adjusted for risk these stocks look very low priced. To a lesser degree the same low price depiction can be ascribed to international value stocks. The risk premium for international growth stocks is more similar to large U.S. stocks (i.e., it is around its historic median). So we have a general range of stocks from those that look appropriately priced (safer stocks like large companies and growth-style companies) to those that still look attractively priced (riskier categories mentioned before).

The risk premium story is not as sanguine for large U.S. stocks as it may appear. Despite my assumption above that interest rates will remain low for a long time, they don't have to. And they can rise meaningfully above current levels and still be historically low. If they do rise, that will have a big impact on stock valuations. Large growth stocks in particular look very sensitive to this risk as their cash flows come far into the future. A rising interest rate means a rising discount rate applied to those cash flows, which reduces the current value of the stock.

The trade of the decade is to fade away from large U.S. stocks and increase exposure to small U.S. stocks (especially value) and international stocks (especially value). The most acute version of this is for large growth versus small value stocks in the U.S. Specifically we could identify indices like the Russell Top 200® Growth Index and compare it to indices like the Russell 2000® Value Index. The reason I call it the trade of the decade is because my more in-depth analysis focuses on 10-year expected returns and risk pricing as well as the fact that it might take a decade to fully play out. The reason you should heed caution before engaging in this trade is (1) this risk might not be for you (it indeed comes with risk not specified in this post) and (2) this is not an endorsement of reducing diversification (I still advocate exposure to large-growth stocks, etc.).

II. The Crowding Theory

IF I am correct about the different relative risk-adjusted valuations for various equity subclasses such as large growth stocks versus small value stocks, interesting questions emerge. How did this come to be? What explains it consistent with EMH?

I believe two crowding effects have brought this about. Flight to safety is the first crowding effect. Sophisticated money avoiding public equities is second. 

Recall my assumption that risk premia are determined by the general level of risk aversion among investors and the market's risk outlook. The tidal wave of the pandemic that unfolded gradually then suddenly from mid-January 2020 through to the market bottom of late March 2020 was a massive reevaluation of risk that triggered an extreme flight to safety. Note that it was not the entirety of the valuation dispersion between various groups of stocks. For some time now growth has been outperforming value, large has been outperforming small, and U.S. has been outperforming international. For U.S. equities the market's reaction to the pandemic was in fact the dominant portion of the differences we see today. 





From Vanguard: 

Difference in annualized total returns over rolling five-year periods

Difference in annualized total returns over rolling five-year periods
Source: https://advisors.vanguard.com/insights/article/growthvsvaluewillthetideschange

As the risks and worry of the pandemic grew, investors sought refuge in the safest of assets, U.S. Treasury securities. This lowered interest rates to nearly zero across the yield curve. They also derisked in other ways. For those who wanted continued equity exposer, they flocked to the safest equities in the world, large U.S. growth companies. The now much lower interest rate conditions worked in tandem to make these equities more and more attractive. The riskier aspects of the market suffered as investors tended to rotate away from them and into safety. 

So that is how risk premiums for various stocks got so extremely different, but why didn't sophisticated investors step in to absorb the difference? After all, they are supposed to have extremely long (infinite?) time horizons and not be subject to wild swings in risk. 

Sophisticated investors is a bit pejorative on my part. Here I am talking about the so-called "smart money" of institutional investors like endowments and pension funds. They like to think of themselves as cunning lions, but they bunch together like scared, vulnerable sheep. Theoretically, they should be a counterbalance to short-horizon investors who are theoretically much more sensitive to changes in risk appetite and risk conditions. 

For example, a person close to or recently entering retirement should be invested positionally to withstand the risk of market volatility. The same can be said of any investor--they should be so positioned. Yet often times they are not. And even more often they are liable to overreact to bad news leading them to drastically alter their investment positioning as an attempt to predict the future. However, I do not think this is a big effect. It is a behavioral story that isn't necessarily as irrational as it seems--extreme events like the Great Recession and COVID pandemic give us insights into our attitudes on risk tolerance not apparent before. 

At the same time the sophisticated investors themselves are subject to the same types of risk tolerance reevaluation. Rather, to be a counter-balance they need to be in the market. The reason why the “smart money” hasn’t absorbed all the excess risk premium in riskier aspects of the market already is because endowments and pensions have trended far from traditional public marketsEndowments have on average reduced their public market equity exposures by 50% in the past 50 years going from about 60% to less than 30%. They are crowding away from public equities making them unavailable to provide a counterweight. 

To be sure riskier assets have done well in the past few months--small-cap U.S. stocks were up 35% for the three months ending in January 2021. The primary catalyst were vaccine developments in November. Add to that improvement in our understanding of the true risks of the pandemic as well as rapidly improving economic fundamentals. Even still, risk premiums in risky assets (value, small cap, international stocks) are at elevated levels compared to their own history as well as their safer equity counterparts. 

As risk aversion gradually (and perhaps in sudden bursts) returns to normal levels and as the risk outlook continues to improve, my hypothesis is that those assets with outsized risk premiums will perform relatively well (high confidence) and absolutely well (moderate confidence). 

Incidentally while this bodes well for public risk assets, it likely portends poorly for alternatives (private equity, venture capital, hedge funds, et al.). That is a crowded space with not much low-hanging fruit, and what is there is very expensive to be had. 

*The reason I deliberately gloss over the risk premium results is the model I am referring to is proprietary, but more importantly the calculation of risk premia is art and science. Laden with assumptions, it can be very much argued over in fine detail. However, I believe the depiction above is well grounded and firmly supported by a wide range of reasonable underlying assumptions. For more on this topic see Research Affiliates work among many others. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

It Depends . . .

One-dimensional thinking vs deeper-level thinking (AKA, solve for the equilibrium).

Considering this:One-dimensional thinking concludes:Deeper-level thinking concludes:
To arrive at a destinations sooner one should drive…FasterSlower
A risk-averse investor should consider taking on…Less market riskMore market risk
A successful salesperson…Knows how to get what she wantsKnows how to satisfy peoples’ needs
To increase revenues...Increase pricesLower prices or offer coupons
To reduce the damages of a dangerous vice...Prohibit itNormalize it
To better preserve competitive balance in sports leagues...Restrict player compensationLiberalize player compensation
To reduce the risk of gun violence there should be...More gun restrictionLess gun restriction
To change minds...Speak moreListen more
To increase the income of low-skilled workers...Enforce high minimum wages lawsLower or eliminate minimum wage laws
A satisfied restaurant customer...Cleans his plateLeaves some food uneaten
Basketball teams who shoot poorly (have a low percentage of shots that go in) should...Be highly selective with their shotsShoot the ball a lot more
To help the children who toil in child-labor manufacturing we should...Ban and boycott their productsBuy and enjoy their products

Sometimes the obvious is right, and fast thinking serves us well; sometimes the less obvious is right, and slow thinking serves us better.



Saturday, February 13, 2021

Biden O/U Performance Predictions

Admittedly I’m being too vague to be falsifiable, but set some agreeable terms, and I’m willing to bet (#MoneyWhereMyMouthIs #TaxOnBullshit). 

Here is a partial list of what I predict the Biden Administration's performance will be in a number of important areas. Specifically where will it outperform (Over) and where will it underperform (Under) the conventional wisdom’s current estimation. To be clear this is where it will be better/worse from my desired perspective than the conventional wisdom’s current estimation. 

For example, I think the conventional wisdom is that Biden will greatly raise personal and corporate income tax rates, increase capital gains tax rates, and restore the SALT deduction. Mostly all bad items from my perspective. I think it won't be as bad as assumed. Likewise, it is presumed that he will user in a much better world of trade and immigration policy. I think it meaningfully won't be that good. 

Over:
Taxes
Environmental regulation
Other general business regulation
Minimum wage

Under:
Trade
Immigration
Drug policy
Health regulation
COVID
Foreign policy (not including hot wars)
Police reform

On Target (bettingwise = no action):
War (actual hostilities)
Education
Demagoguery and divisive politics





Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Fine Art Markets as Taxes on the Rich

I previously explored some of the many problems with art markets and art museums in particular. Let us now turn to the question of the art of taxing art.

The counter to the oft made accusation that lotteries are taxes on the poor might be that fine art is a tax on the rich. What better way for the rich the be relieved of their capital? 

Assuming the rich won't be investing it studiously, using their capital to purchase art at highly inflated prices is preferred to them spending it on goods and services with more tangible resource demands, and perhaps it is preferred to them giving it away to charity. If we don't trust them to invest it well, why would we trust them to donate it any better. 

Of course, we have to think this through. Doesn’t somebody end up using the funds to purchase consumption? Likely in many cases, but as long as they are operating in a closed system (I buy your painting, you buy my sculpture), this needn’t be the case. 

And all the better if the art is fake. Turns out a lot of the art in museums is fake (perhaps +5%), and all the players in the art world are on the take to keep this a secret. If the rich are swapping art at inflated prices that isn't actually authentic art, we have them well occupied spending their wealth, potential demands on resources, on a minimal amount of actual resources. Listen to Michael Lewis' The Hand of Leonardo for more on this. 

Yes, it would push resources into pursuing production/creation of fine art (too many painters and sculptors) but is this really so bad at the margin? 

How should we actually tax it? Tax deductibility for donations to museums is problematic. If I give up a non-income producing asset, why should I necessarily avoid an income tax? And if I give it to an entity exempt from income tax, this is doubly problematic. Should we separate fine art from collectibles (wine vs paintings vs classic cars vs musical instruments, etc.) with the ultimate distinction being those that are value-holding assets (similar to precious metals) versus those that are consumption assets? How much of each quality does a piece of art possess and who decides? This gets pretty fraught pretty quickly. Back to Michael Lewis' podcast above, the compromised ref is very much at risk.

Should we exclude art and collectibles transactions under a consumption tax such as a VAT or national sales tax? These activities aren’t significant resource consumptions. All else equal we want to encourage this swapping as opposed to the funds being spent on actual resources.

If you tax something, you get less of it. My principal is to tax the use of resources and not the creation of resources. A consumption tax does this, but items like art pose problems. Unlike pure capital assets (stocks and bonds for example), collectibles have consumption value and use resources. It looks to me at first glance that most VAT systems distinguish between individuals and firms with only the later subject to the VAT. This makes sense and probably preserves my secondary idea of not unnecessarily discouraging the rich from "taxing" themselves through art.

P.S. Also, see this interesting report.