After a record drawdown in the first quarter and a record rebound in the second quarter, no one is disputing that the first half of 2020 has been memorable. What is open for question is whether the first or the second quarter is a better portent for the foreseeable future.
There is no doubt that public policy is part of the equation. While overwhelming policy responses to the Covid-19 related lockdowns certainly affected the markets, the Fed didn’t force anybody to do anything either. The key to managing through this is understanding what has happened and why.
A pattern to which investors have become all too accustomed, the Fed pounced into action soon after stocks fell precipitously in March. And pounce it did. In a set of measures that were mind boggling both in terms of magnitude and breadth, the Fed sent a strong signal of its commitment to support markets. In addition, it kept rolling out new policies throughout the second quarter in order to quell any remaining doubt as to its intent.
Not only did stocks rebound, but they seemed to be completely reinvigorated. As markets continued bounding despite evidence of a relatively weak economic recovery, commentators have tried to capture the growing disconnect. Michael Every from Rabobank proclaimed, “Markets are, across the board, totally divorced from reality. Facts no longer matter”. Jeffrey Gundlach chimed in saying, “There’s no price-discovery mechanism”.
A Permanent Distortion Of Markets
Nomi Prins exclaimed, “I call this a ‘Permanent Distortion.’ I have not used this term in prior books, but I am using it because . . . the disconnect between financial assets, equity markets and the real economy . . . has become massive…” Upon leaving ValueAct Capital, the hedge fund he founded, Jeff Ubben declared, “Finance is, like, done. Everybody’s bought everybody else with low-cost debt”.
Other phenomena have corroborated these observations. Retail trading picked up significantly and focused much more on “story” stocks than fundamentals. On the other side of the spectrum, high profile hedge funds continued to close down, further highlighting how troublesome the environment has become.
Criticisms abound and revolve around the same points. The economy is weaker than people believe. Asset prices are disconnected from economic reality. The markets are manipulated. Many blame the Fed. The idea is that stocks have become untethered from reality because central banks have hijacked the capital markets.
What should investors make of this? What does it imply for investment strategy?
These questions can be distilled down into more specific ones. What we seem to be observing is speculative fervor run amok. What we want to know is when it will end. Recent research by Mike Green of Logica Funds provides some extremely useful insights into these issues. A key element in looking for the cause of the problem is to consider sources other than the Fed. He sums it all up in his piece, Talking Your Book About Value, Part 3, by saying, “it’s all about flows”.
“As we have repeatedly discussed, the widespread transition to index products (both futures and passive mutual funds/ETFs) has changed the behavior of markets. Transactions focused on buying or selling all stocks and profitability derived from index arbitrage (again, both futures and the creation/redemption process of ETFs) rather than security selection have irrevocably changed the incentive structure on Wall Street.”
In other words, the widespread adoption of passive funds at the expense of actively managed ones has significantly changed the way the market works. It used to be that Wall Street would make money by executing trades and providing research on stocks. Now, Wall Street makes money by lending securities and arbitraging indexes.
The Inevitable Conclusion
The combination of the inexorable flows of money from active to passive and the new incentive system on Wall Street means that there is a declining cohort of investors willing to make investment decisions based on fundamentals. Just as soon as this intrepid fundamental investor makes a nonconsensus trade, that trade is overwhelmed by the wall of money coming in from passive funds. The investor underperforms by failing to keep up with stocks enjoying stronger flows and, adding insult to injury, loses assets.
“We have reached the inevitable conclusion that no one is standing in the way of insanity. We are seeing this in our social lives where Cancel Culture has raised the stakes for anyone willing to stand in the way of the shaming mob, and we are seeing it in our public (and private) markets where any attempt to express rationality is met with underperformance and redemptions.”
A key element in understanding the craziness of the market, then, is realizing that the key suspect is not the Fed but rather passive investing. Green elaborated on these mechanics in a separate presentation, a podcast hosted by Grant Williams and Bill Fleckenstein.
An important starting point is identifying the marginal investor because that is who establishes prices. Part of Green’s insight is recognizing the owner of a passive target date fund as that marginal investor. This is useful because these investors have unique characteristics. The funds are “balanced” in the sense that there is some allocation to stocks and some to bonds. The bond portion diversifies the risk of the stocks which has allowed for the aggregate portfolio to appreciate fairly reliably.
As such, target date fund owners do not experience volatility in the same way that equity-only investors do. Being insulated from the vicissitudes of the stock market, they don’t really care about Fed announcements. The owners certainly don’t experience volatility in any kind of deep, visceral way. They just keep directing a portion of their paycheck into the fund and the flows are pretty much on autopilot. They do not care about stock prices.
Change Of Affairs
As a result of this behavior, however, they become an important enabler of market craziness. But it is not because of what they do. It is because of what they do NOT do. They do not police prices, nor do they make any effort to “stand in the way of insanity.” They do not sell because stock prices seem too high.
What could change this state of affairs? “The minute 10-year bonds in the United States offer a negative yield or are at zero … I think that’s the endgame,” is Green’s ready response. The reason is at that threshold, bonds no longer offset the volatility of stocks. When that happens, a number of investment strategies stop working altogether. Volatility targeting funds shut down. Risk parity is forced to liquidate.
Further, the target date portfolio takes on completely different characteristics. All of a sudden, that retirement nest egg starts bouncing around all over the place. It can even drop by a lot. Absent the protective diversification of bonds, these passive investors suddenly become fully exposed to volatility. It’s like someone turned a light on and now all the ugly volatility is visible.
It’s actually worse than this though. Once passive investors decide to start selling, who will be the buyer? The remaining active investors aren’t touching stocks at anywhere close to current valuations. Newly unprotected passive investors just want out. As Green describes, liquidity becomes the thing to watch out for: “When the scale [of selling] that hits the market is incapable of being absorbed by the market … that’s where chaos occurs”.
While there is a lot to unpack from this analysis, there are a couple of general lessons that stand out. First, inordinate focus on the Fed creates an unhelpful distraction. Yes, it is certainly true that the Fed massively expanded monetary policy. Yes, it is also true that some of these expansions are effectively fiscal policy. And yes, all these things affect expectations and make it easier to speculate. But only in the context of a market structure that has no mechanism to stand in the way of insanity can craziness proliferate the way it has.
Second, the environment for much of traditional active management is brutal. As long as money keeps flowing into passive vehicles, there is little point in selecting securities. As Green makes clear, “The opportunity for traditional active management to outperform … is radically reduced in this environment as security selection becomes largely irrelevant.” The message for stock pickers is, “this market is just not that into you”.
Active Management Lives
Importantly, however, this does not mean that there is nothing for active managers to do. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As Green sees it, “Regulators have encouraged a process of consolidation in the name of ‘efficiency’ that has left us with nearly unimaginable levels of systemic risk.” Arguably then, the single biggest investment priority is to manage that systemic risk.
Although Green’s answer for dealing with current market dynamics is fascinating and intellectually stimulating, it is also designed for ultra high net worth investors. Nonetheless, there are important takeaways for everyone.
One is that exposure to the market is much more of a Faustian bargain than a reliable route to retirement riches. Exposure to risk assets may very well provide attractive incremental gains for some period of time, but that exposure is also likely to lead to substantial losses at some point.
This is especially important to remember since there are several compelling arguments that favor exposure to stocks. For example, the increasing liquidity from central banks does provide a tailwind for stocks. Stocks can also help reduce vulnerability to rising inflation since companies can increase prices. Further, bonds are so stretched at this point that stocks offer relative value. Finally, US stocks can be attractive assets for foreign investors at least partly because they are denominated in dollars. These arguments do have at least some merit, so don’t forget that stocks also come with “nearly unimaginable levels of systemic risk”.
The Silver Lining
Another takeaway is that this new market structure puts a fresh perspective on value investing. A key tenet of value investing is reversion to the mean which essentially means when things get out of hand, they will eventually normalize. This key tenet is undermined by passive investing, though. In the current market structure, the mechanism by which adjustments have been made in the past is disabled. There is “no one is standing in the way of insanity”. Until the market structure changes, the success of value investing is likely to be episodic at best.
In addition, investors should keep an eye on 10-year yields. If they remain comfortably positive, there is no reason to believe that things should change much. If those yields close in on zero, however, that could set up for a huge change in market action.
Finally, for those of us who have invested a great deal to develop skill and expertise in security selection and value investing, we need to recognize the limited usefulness of these tools in this environment. That doesn’t mean these things won’t be incredibly valuable at some point in the future; I believe they will be. I also believe risk management matters like it never has before. However, it is also important to respect the distinct possibility that there is no necessary reason for environment to change soon.
In conclusion, this market has been far more resilient than I, and many other value-oriented investors, ever thought possible. Passive flows go a long way in explaining this phenomenon. They also suggest whatever craziness we have experienced can continue for some time. Fundamentals really don’t matter much in this environment and as result, stock prices have little information content.
While this establishes a less than satisfying prospect for investors, there is a silver lining: We won’t have to keep wracking our brains trying to understand how in the world prices can become so crazy. So, at least we have that going for us.