Friday, November 15, 2019

To Infinity and Beyond

This is a bit of a followup to the Dracula post from earlier this year. 

Foundations and endowments DO NOT have infinite time horizons. Technically speaking, nothing does. But I would argue they don't even have extremely long time horizons. 

These types of entities have no reason to believe they will exist into the long, far future. At the very least they will transform so dramatically the future them is not the current them--donors, beneficiaries, and employees will all be different as will its mandates, goals, and mission. Over very long periods of time slight changes to average inflation or average rates of return very significantly affect the purchasing power of assets. These are highly uncertain variables where the difference between phenomenal growth and permanently impaired capital is almost imperceptibly small to a current observer. The tax structure governing these entities over the long-term future is also highly uncertain. A related but independent threat is if the powers that be and the powers that will be even allow the entity to exist . . . forever.

Perhaps despite all of this they should act as if they have infinite time horizons? Let's assume a few conditions: 
  1. Foundations and endowments in at least some cases are the best available option to serve a desired purpose. (If you simply take this for granted, you probably are not thinking hard enough. These entities may not be the best way to accomplish the goals they ostensibly are designed for.)
  2. It is desirable for foundations and endowments in some cases to exist into perpetuity. 
  3. It is possible to design and implement an external and internal governing structure and to craft a mission statement conducive for the first two conditions. (This might be where this entire process deviates too far from reality.)
For those entities where a perpetual time horizon is appropriate, we obviously do not want them to engage in behavior that unreasonably jeopardizes that goal. One quick and tempting way to jeopardize it is to spend too much money.* Another is to invest poorly. Notice that this bad behavior is a bit murkier. Investing could qualify as being done "poorly" in a number of contradictory ways. Defining it as taking the wrong risk(s) in the wrong way(s) doesn't provide any clarity other than to suggest how complex and complicated the error can be. 

Tying this back to the question at hand, should they act as if they have infinite time horizons, begs the question: what exactly does that mean? How would they be different as compared to acting as if they had long, but limited time horizons? Let me describe the difference in terms of a couple of problems I can foresee:
  • Doing too little good now (spending too little!) so as to safeguard sustainability. Yes, this cuts a bit against the grain of what I've said and implied above. But it is a real risk especially for a perpetuity mindset. Doing more now might solve a problem that wouldn't otherwise exist in the future--keep in mind that our descendants are very likely to be extraordinarily wealthier than us with entirely different problems (even if they aren't that much richer). 
  • Investing in a manner that jeopardizes near-term access to sufficient capital. If you have an infinite horizon, what do you care that your 5-year or 10-year or even 20-year returns are very bad as long as the long-term expectation is high enough? In fact, let's tie that money up in illiquid assets if that is the trade-off for above-market performance. Unfortunately, simple beats complex in almost all categories but not in the competition of hope. Which is why a perpetual outlook fosters an esoteric investment strategy. I think these entities should push back against this natural inclination to invest in opaque, illiquid, and non-benchmarkable assets. Any investment that is not accessible (lock-up periods), marketable (secondary market discount), or verifiable (Internal Rate of Return (IRR) is a useful fiction) for a period of time longer than the expected tenure of the investment staff recommending it is highly suspect. I would suggest the same evaluation against the average board member's remaining term. And this is all before we begin a discussion of manager selection and dispersion risk--alternative investing is not about asset allocation; it is about finding the best and avoiding the worst. Good luck with that. 
What about governments? Should they act like they will be around forever? Again, let's consider what this means by jumping to potential problems:
  • A government that behaves as if it cannot fail to be or should not cease to be risks being way, way to aggressive--both to its own people as well as others. 
  • This encourages disruptive experimentation since the government can simply outlast any temporary ill effects. Normally, disruptive experimentation is my jam, but not for government. Government lacks the proper incentives and the rightful decision makers. 
  • Paradoxically this perpetuity outlook also encourages extreme neglect as any problem today will either be solved tomorrow or be some future government administrator's problem.
I think the assumption that foundations, endowments, governments, et al. should behave as if they have unlimited time horizons is sloppy at best and dangerous at worst. Long time horizons are appropriate and very useful for these entities, but there is a big gap between a long time and forever. 

My thoughts for this were spurred in part by listening to this episode of Macro Musings

*I will leave for another day further discussion on the well-debunked conventional wisdom that a 5% or even 4% spending rule is likely sustainable in real terms. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

In The News . . .

A vivid childhood memory for me that I think about every time I hear the phrase "in the news" are the shorts CBS used to run during Saturday morning cartoons during commercial breaks. Here is a long compilation.

Generally these bugged me--I didn't want to hear what they had to say and wanted my cartoon back on.

Something I've been thinking about is what does it take for something to be news.

Perhaps a measure of the relevancy and importance of something that is "news" (newsworthiness) is the answer to this puzzle: Imagine rescuing someone from a desert island. How long could they have been there such that a particular piece of news is still topical and worthy to tell them?

Given enough time anything of great importance in the moment will eventually fade into the background of oblivion. Its relevance will disappear.

I would suggest that 90% of news is entertainment and 90% of that entertainment is to one degree or another proverbial porn. On balance the most popular sources are simply NDDs (nonsense delivery devices), GDDs (gossip delivery devices), or PDDs (propaganda delivery devices).

Consider this a corollary to this post.

Another Newspaper Makes Its Inability to Turn a Profit an Asset

I was recently asked my opinion on the announcement of the Salt Lake Tribune being granted approval to become a nonprofit by the IRS. Specifically, the question was "What do you think of this model for newspapers?"

My quick answer:

For newspapers it is a lost cause—like all you can drink water for someone drowning in a river. Newspapers are a dead medium. Journalism is potentially a different story.
This is an old idea as indicated in the story. I think Tampa [Bay Times] went this route about 10 years ago. The Poynter Institute has advocated this for longer than that. On the one hand I like it from the standpoint of independence; however, I don’t think pragmatically it can be sustainable. It is just too expensive to fund journalism without advertising. And it doesn’t sound like they have any intention of giving up advertising.
On the other hand I don’t like it because I don’t think we should have a tax system that plays favorites (non-profit versus for-profit).
Here is a little more coverage from Nieman Lab. Unlike previous versions, this move to non-profit status is somehow more completely nonprofit. I am not quite clear if there is a material difference. I do find the appeal for charitable donations interesting in a kinda gross sort of way. Remember that every time you grant one entity tax-favored status, you increase the burden on all other tax-paying entities. Undoubtedly, many find this to be just fine.

In the religion of journalism, newspapers are a metaphorical holy land. There is a great sense that without them we cannot have credible news. Within this belief is a zealotry proclaiming local newspapers as the glue binding local society together. This like so many things in religion is not based on fact.

Our access to vacuous gossip and shallow conjecture is greater now than ever--we just don't have to pay so dearly for it and wait for it to be hand delivered to our doorstep. Newspapers like most of "professional" journalism have always delivered an array of facts that deserve more scrutiny and a biased narrative. That bias comes in one of three varieties: intentional slant to protect a powerful interest, unintentional slant repeating mistaken conventional wisdom, or simple ignorance introducing the ailment knowing enough to be dangerous.

I'm not saying non-professional journalism is better in any of these regards. I'm just pointing out that the only difference by and large is that being a professional really just meant you could (in some cases still can) get paid for it.

Friday, November 1, 2019

On The Cusp

In my experience some of the greatest happiness is found on the cusp of new plateaus. 

These are pictures of my kids in the Lufthansa lounge of Houston International Airport from our vacation in the summer of 2018. We were on our way to New York City and Washington, D.C. This was their first time in an airport luxury lounge. 

I’m glad my kids don’t feel entitled to that treatment. And I am glad they aren’t so used to that luxury that they can’t find the enjoyment in it. They felt like they were, at least for that moment, “big time”. 

One way to help others feel loved and important is simply to find ways to give them the feeling of being "big time". I am thinking in particular people who are in a position to really appreciate it meaning it, whatever "it" may be, is out of the ordinary for them. 

It's hard to appreciate what we see every day. I want to do more to feel and appreciate the amazement of the world around me. I want to be amazed and I want to help other people be amazed. The downside of progress is that a world more beautiful than the one we just left eventually becomes banal. There is an ever-present tension between reaching new heights and the last ratchet up not being enough. Once luxury becomes ordinary, there is much less if any room for more excitement--the thrill is gone. One way to recapture the thrill is to increase the luxury. But I’m not sure that’s the best choice. 

The best choice from the moral or ethical consideration might rather be to bring that same luxury to someone else. Rather than try to capture the joy all to myself, I should find joy in seeing someone else experience the same first thrill that I had experienced. And of course this is more of a gift when it is not one's own kids who are receiving the new-found joys--this is just my example. This is the virtue and the selfish pleasure in sharing, and I’m sure I don't do enough of it. I am not entirely to blame because the world is not quite effectively set up to enable that sharing. There are too many institutions and norms and attitudes that serve as obstacles to the sharing I describe. 

A new goal for myself is to try to do more to increase my sharing. This is not limited to sharing stuff, although that is usually easiest, but it also includes experiences. Some of this will be charity, but a larger portion will just be finding ways to expand opportunities and extend courtesies. And make no mistake; this is all apart from the very important question of how to add meaning to peoples' lives. Generally I think the answer here is simply to get out of their way. Help them by not helping. Let them do as they want as long as it is peaceful. If there is something for you to do, discover it with them not for them. Trust and respect their decisions.