The Al Gore Rhythm

It was a busy, on-the-whole-gut-wrenching week for most of us, but we’ll get to all of that shortly. First, and perhaps for the (let’s at any rate hope) final time, I will take this opportunity to pay tribute to a Great American. Scion of an elite political family, Ivy League-educated, accomplished college athlete, legislator, two-term Vice President and top vote getter in a presidential election.

We could, of course, be referring to Poppy Bush, who was laid, amid much pomp and circumstance, to rest this past week. Except we’re not. Instead we pay our respects to the irrepressible, still-able-to-fog-a mirror Albert S. Gore. Unlike Bush 41, he never fought in a war, failed to win his presidential bid, and ultimately divorced his long-suffering, rock and roll hating wife Tipper. Yet he still, somehow, manages to permeate the ionosphere. As everyone knows, he invented the internet, and managed to put himself front and center in the Climate Change debates – while cashing in, among other projects, on his sale of a flailing Cable TV enterprise to the Petro-oligarch-controlled, America-hating Al Jazeera.

Also, if you add the word “rhythm” to his name, you arrive at a homonym for the ubiquitous for model-driven methodologies. The Al Gore Rhythm has a nice ring to it, the double entendre so compelling that (on my immortal soul) without prompting, I suggested to my son that he name his band The Al Gore Rhythm. He rejected the idea, and, in retrospect, I can hardly blame him.

Among other reasons because I was not the only one who came up with this clever mash up of nomenclature. Al Gore Rhythm has even been enshrined in the Urban Dictionary, which defines it as an individual or object with annoyingly stiff, robotic motions. Y’all can decide for yourselves, but as for me, I think the Urban Dictionary nailed it.

I reckon that’s about it with respect to A.G. – except for one thing: his mash up homonym pair – algorithm — is starting, in my judgment to do real damage to the markets. Now, please understand me, I hate to do so, but see no alternative other than to opine that market algorithms are starting to wreak real havoc on investment portfolios. In fact, it may be more than coincidence that these programs, with their heavy reliance on connectivity, actually bear the name of the internet’s self-anointed founder.

I have resisted blaming the algos for market causing carnage for many years now, and this for a number of reasons. The excuse of their presence is just too convenient. Algos are entirely too available as a justification for losses. No one really knows how they operate (including, presumably in many cases, the operators themselves). Most importantly, no one can prove empirically that their presence is problematic.

All of these issues persist, my friends; indeed, they do, but my mind is changing about them. I’m not sure that risk factors would be configured much differently if algos didn’t dominate market proceedings, but I think that a lot of investment pools would be better off if they weren’t around.

But let’s first take a look at the markets as a whole, and acknowledge, yet again that my own particular compass has been way off since before Thanksgiving. After reaching the time-honored state of being unable to choke down even one additional morsel of turkey, I welcomed in the following week with a real concern that equities were going to blow out to the downside. And I was wrong. Dead wrong. As everyone knows, they rocketed up across the entire sequence.

The improbable, insulting assault on my prognostications was due and owing to a couple of heaven-sent catalysts that came our way during the last week of November – ones that ran in direct refutation of my most pressing market concerns. For context: 1) Fed Chair Powell assertively calmed our interest rate fears by stating that his rate hiking work was nearly done; and 2) the Trump-Xi summit concluded with the only positively-shaded outcomes that were feasible – the postponement of the next round of tariffs and a promise to sit down in earnest and begin to hammer out a deal.

Number 2 was, of course, mostly pure political posturing; I have long believed that our trade issues with China are too complex and obtuse for accurate information to be delivered to the public. But there was every chance that the sit-down could’ve produced widely socialized incrementally negative outcomes, and when it didn’t, I felt that a significant short-term risk had been removed from the markets.

The news for the Fed, I felt and still feel, was more impactful. I have believed for some time that we’re in the wrong time and wrong place for rate normalization. Though he’s annoyingly self-serving, Gundlach is dead on when he suggests that contemporaneous central bank balance sheet reduction and policy rate increases is a counterproductive, counterintuitive exercise. Throw unmistakably slowing global growth into the mix, and you really have to wonder about those Fed hawks.

While it was only one speech, I think Powell painted himself into a corner in which unless the economy shows renewed, sustained vigor, he cannot move his policy rate upwards more than a small fraction without looking as unstable as the guy who appointed him. And that, mis amigos, was cause for celebration – the fact that – true to script – Powell and all his minions began immediately walking back his comments notwithstanding.

So by all accounts, we entered last week with two visible, short-term risks having removed themselves from the equation, but what did the market do? It sold off. Hard. All week. When the dust settled on Friday, the SPX closed with in a microscopic ½ index point from where it landed on Thanksgiving Friday – a punishing two-week round trip as ever I can remember. Govies rallied across the globe, with the U.S. 2’s/5’s spread actually negative, and those hard-nosed Swiss now again charging investors 20 basis points per year for the privilege of lending to them until 2028. Given what is transpiring in these economies (and indeed) worldwide, I fail to see how long-term rates anywhere can achieve much uplift.

Private debt was an entirely different story, with High Yield securities selling off in sympathy with their equity brethren to beat the band:

Yes, below investment grade paper is now as cheap as it’s been in two years. But anybody who wants to dive in here is on their own; I’ll not sanction the trade from a risk management perspective.

The dumping of less than impeccably credit-worthy debt obligations is a clear sign of a rising risk premium, and, connecting the dots, it must be acknowledged that over the last couple of weeks, said premium fell when I expected it to rise, and rose when I expected it to fall. I reckon that’s what makes this the great game it is.

Now, clearly, it didn’t help matters that while the world’s two most powerful leaders were breaking bread and drinking toasts to a bright collaborative future, our Canadian friends, at our request, were busy arresting, a nepotistic senior executive of a Chinese technology company long suspected of purloining our technology and using it for various nefarious purposes. But though the long arm of international law reached out on Saturday, the news didn’t break until late Monday, by which time the markets had already begun its week-long descent. Published news reports suggest that Trump didn’t even know this was going to take place, but: a) this is laughable; and b) we should all hope and pray it’s a lie. I shudder to contemplate a domestic governance structure under which while a president was in the midst of perhaps the most important meeting in many years with his Chinese opposite number, he was uninformed that his own G-men were arresting a Chinese executive.

Either way, it’s not the best footing upon which to commence critical trade negotiations. Moreover, while I won’t venture too far into this undesirable territory, I will also suggest that the market may be justifiably spooked by a scene in Washington that appears to be near breakdown. Mueller is starting to drop his bombs, and it’s not pleasing anyone. The adult in the West Wing, Chief of Staff John Kelly, was (as was inevitable) given his walking papers. Meanwhile, the President was busy taking shots at his once-highly lauded/now former Secretary of State. It unfortunately appears, my loves, that the Russia debacle is coming to a head. One thing is certain: Trump is about to receive that punishing sequence of body blows that was always in the offing with this here mess. As a matter of pure substance, it looks to me to be a survivable event – both legally and politically. But it will require careful, disciplined management: a) which was never his strong suit; and b) which whatever meager gifts of this nature the Good Lord bestowed upon him appear to have dwindled to insignificance. I won’t lie: this makes me very nervous.

On a more encouraging note, arrest notwithstanding, the U.S. China negotiators are making encouraging noises, interest rates are trending downward and I don’t see this trend reversing itself anytime soon. While the domestic economy may be feeling some gravitational pull, from what we know, it’s still humming along. Meanwhile, equity valuations are approximately 12% below where they were 2 ½ months ago.

And at least in part, I blame the algos. Sell programs were in full force all week, but that’s just one factor. Open interest in important risk benchmarks like crude oil is bouncing around like they are immersed in a particle collider. Individual, macro-neutral equity names are down 30%, 40% or more – all on no news.

Using deductive reasoning, I think that the quant programs are at their misbehaving worst, and here’s the thing: they’re not even benefitting from the damage they’re causing. My anecdotal information indicates that quant funds are having both their worst quarter and worst year in several. I won’t lie: this frustrates me, because hard experience has taught me that when individuals and entities are doing harm to others, they should at least benefit from their transgressions – at least in the short term. Otherwise, why bother?

Overall, my sense is that equities are pretty oversold here, and I expect them to bounce – perhaps significantly, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. The “sell everything” elements of the algos will certainly take more shots at the market, but I think they’re running out of gas. Moreover, with all of the insanity going on everywhere one cast one’s eye, I believe there’s limited upside to the equity tape over the next several quarters, and if I’m right, then these look like pretty good entry points to me.

Of course, the algorithms may disagree and probably will, but Al Gore and the Al Gore Rhythm abides. According to published reports, the former is now a billionaire, and has reasons to be glad, on balance, for those hanging chads that took him down in ’00. My son’s band picked the name of The Jays (in tribute to the first initials of 75% of their favorite ensemble: Led Zeppelin). But cruel fate intervened and The Jays are no more.

Their surviving members carry on, though, as do Al Gore, the Al Gore Rhythm, and, of course, market algorithms. There’s really not much else to do, now, is there? So hang in there my friends; when good stocks in your portfolios get crushed, when you lose Florida by 500 votes, when problems arise as they always do, if you hang in there, perhaps there’s an Al Jazeera out there for you as well, just aching to take your troubles away. Stranger things, in fact, have happened you know….


Fed-Xi at the Bat

It looked extremely rocky, for the Gallant 5 this week,

The month was almost over, and performance was quite bleak,

With Housing in the dumpster and PMIs all down,

It did not appear, from far to near, that smiles would replace frowns,

A host of stalwart traders, done in by last month’s gloom,

Having not much left to do, packed up and left the room,

Those that remained were hoping “if we could only catch a break,

“Then the risks that we are holding, are ones we’d gladly take”

They thought if only Fed and Xi would play their game and fair,

Performance would recover, and this would clear the air,

But Xi, as was remembered, is one tough old cat,

And what on earth could the Fed bring forth with yields so low and flat?

With the meeting three weeks away, what was a fund to do?

And the dinner at G20, might be just a chew and screw,

But then Powell sung a docile tune at the NY Econ Club,

Said hikes are nearly over; let’s meet up at a pub,

And oh that lovely dinner, where Trump and Xi broke bread,

Or whatever fare the Argy’s served; what matters was what was said,

The tariff hike is now postponed; the two sides soon will barter,

Which might’ve pleased Ol’ Poppy Bush, and even Jimmy Carter,

So November ended strongly, best week in seven years,

And for one brief shining moment, the markets calmed their fears,

There’s still another month to go, in this worst year of the ‘10s,

But as of now, I’m not the guy to foretell how it ends,

… with apologies to Earnest Lawrence (Casey at the Bat) Thayer

Yes, my friends, I do indeed apologize to Mr. Thayer for bitching up his masterpiece, but why stop there? Indeed, my regrets extend to all of you; perhaps to all of mankind.

Because, you see, I have transgressed, in last week’s note, serving up the worst market call that I can remember publishing in these typically clairvoyant pages. I hope you can forgive me, and, for what it’s worth (take this as you will), I have forgiven myself. After all, even a stopped clock is wrong 23 hours, 59 minutes and 58 seconds of the day.

For those who may have forgotten this sorry episode, allow me to refresh your memory. Buried among the digressions of last week’s Gravy Boat essay was an unambiguous warning that the market was flashing material, immediate incremental downside risk. As long as I am unburdening myself, I may as well inform you that I was actually even more worried than those who managed to wade through the introductory schtick might have reasonably inferred. I was convinced that investors would persist in their demonstrations of displeasure with both trade and monetary policies, by continuing to trim their sails, risk-wise, and increasing their sales, market-wise.

And you should also be made aware that when equity indices rallied on Monday, I viewed it as nothing more than corroboration of my selloff fears. Indeed, when I woke up Tuesday morning, I actually considered the heretofore shocking breach of protocol of issuing a midweek warning that stocks were about to crash.

But thank God I held my fire, because the stalwarts kept buying. And buying. And buying. And, when the frolicking was over, our mighty indices had registered their strongest weakly gain since 2011.

Yeah, well, like I said, I was wrong. But I’m really glad I was, because: a) the professional investors for whom I toil desperately needed and uptick in performance, and b) thanks to last week’s moonshot, most of them (though to varying degrees) caught the move. As we’ll cover further down the page, this here rally may continue to demonstrate legs, but in the meantime, hedge funds in particular will not now be obliged to report dismal numbers again — until well after the last cork on the last New Year’s Eve champagne bottle has popped, and its contents emptied, across this fair land.

There’s something to be said, in and of itself, about the merits of a respite from what has been the sad lot of the industry for most of this year: reporting losses to investors. And who knows? Maybe they’ll nail the December encore. It is my fervent hope that they do.

But in the meantime, I will try my best to un-see the frightful images that were dancing around my brain had my bleaker prognostications been proved correct. And, of course, we have Fed-Xi to thank for this. Let’s start with the Fed. I will admit to being a tad surprised when Chair Powell took to the podium on Wednesday to share his weariness with this whole rate hiking cycle. I had feared less constructive rhetoric, but by God he crushed it. Given the subsequent success of the G20 summit, I now fully expect him and his crew to follow through with their threatened quarter point hike on 12/19. But now, unless his goal was to set himself up to be made a monkey out of next year, he can’t really raise anymore unless and/or until there is sufficient economic traction to do so. And I gotta say – this is a big relief to yours truly. As I mentioned in last week’s post, I simply don’t see the rush to hike as being a particularly prudent policy.

But within the obtuse world of monetary governance, there were a couple of other odd doings that I believe bear mention. First, it’s pretty clear to me that somebody knew something in advance of his latest address. Both stocks and bonds were bid up all week – not just in this jurisdiction, but indeed across the globe. Wednesday’s moonshot was already underway before the release of his remarks, and their publication, in retrospect, appears to be nothing more than those last retro rockets igniting and empowering that final thrust.

And the thrust lasted all week, as, by Friday’s close, equities were bid up to multi-week highs, and our 10-year note enjoyed sufficient demand to migrate associated yields to levels below the psychologically important 3% threshold. Powell will get another at-bat this Wednesday, by virtue of his semi-annual address to Congress. Here’s hoping he stays on message, because I don’t even want to think about what may happen if he reverses course yet again. From there, we can turn to anticipation of Friday’s Jobs Report, with yet another set of robust employment numbers expected. By that time, and depending on what transpires in the interim, we may well find ourselves in one of those perverse paradigms where strong numbers may be viewed as dilutive, and vice versa.

However, as the affairs of humankind tend to go, Chair Pow’s testimony will coincide with the funeral of Poppy Bush. According to longstanding protocol, the markets will be closed that day. Moreover, presumably, there’ll be some empty seats on Capitol Hill, as some subset of our elected national legislators might see fit to honor the memory of our 41st President with their presence at the ceremony. I’ve always been a big fan of Poppy’s, for reasons that are now splattered across the pages of every relevant publication under the sun. He wasn’t treated all that well when he was still among the quick, though, and that, as always, is a helluva shame.

But Poppy has now gathered to the dust of his forebears, and, while the flags will remain at half-staff in his honor for a couple of weeks, we already have no alternative other than to our full attentions to the struggles of the living. This all began, of course, with the wind-down of the G20 meeting, culminating in the much anticipated culinary summit between President Trump and Chairman Xi. Going into this, I agreed with the consensus view that the best outcome that could realistically emerge from these doings was rhetorical goodwill, a promise to sit down and hammer something substantial/sustainable out in the near future, and (perhaps most importantly), an extension of the menacing Jan 1 deadline for incremental tariffs.

Well, wonder of wonders, all of that took place. And more. The locals on this here Continent used the opportunity to sign a new North American trade agreement, and, flawed though it might be, the need for it to pass through 3 legislatures all notwithstanding, from where I am positioned, all of this is better than the three countries spending the next several months attacking each other’s economies. Further, the entire G20 came out with a statement wishing nothing but Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men. And Christmas is still three weeks away!

Nobody should delude themselves: this whole throw down with China is a major hassle, and the mood could deteriorate to new lows before anything of substance is resolved. The Fed could again get all in our grill. NAFTA-cum-USMCA could fall apart.

But the only real takeaway that matters, after an improbably productive week, is that the elevated risk premium that has plagued the markets for so many weeks should experience substantial gravitational pull – and this should improve both performance prospects and associated investor dispositions through at least the end of the year.

Fed-Xi has indeed come to bat, and, unlike the Mighty Casey (from whose example he was born onto these pages) he did not strike out.

One could even argue that he managed to clear the bases, but the outcome of this game remains still in doubt. For this week, at any rate, I’ve sworn off making explicit market calls, but I will state that we’ve got a lot of wood to chop before it’s all over, and that having chopped it, the time has come to lay some of it on the financial equivalent of spherical horsehide.

Here’s hoping that all of you will see some fat pitches come your way in what remains of the difficult, often bitter and rapidly ending contest of 2018.


Of Gravy Boats and Other Risks

To AMG: Thinking of you, with love, as always, on what would’ve been your 27th birthday.

OK; y’all, so last night I dreamed of gravy boats – big, scary, monstrous, ungainly, non-seaworthy gravy boats. I thought you’d like to know, not only as a matter of general information, but also because as perhaps (along with my well-documented scaffolding phobia) the worst kept secret on Wall Street, I have a fear of gravy boats. Specifically, empty gravy boats. Now, don’t get me wrong; I recognize the sublime utility of these vessels, particularly at this seasonal time of the year. Moreover, I since birth, have been known to be one who has always joyfully punched above his considerable bulk in terms of content consumption. But once they’re empty, they present a considerable problem for yours truly.

Because what do you do with them after you pull them out of the dishwasher? Trust someone who knows: they don’t stack well with the plates/bowls, nor do they as a rule hang comfortably with the teacups on those cute little hooks. The silverware drawer does not even rise to the dignity of being a viable option. I’m sometimes tempted to put them in the cereal box cabinet, but that, alas, is at best a transient solution.

My wife knows where to put the gravy boats, but she won’t tell me.

Other than that, though (i.e. the nocturnal hauntings of the sauce urns), it was a pleasant Thanksgiving, as I hope it was for my readers. I dug the parade as I always do (even if the balloons were hovering at fearfully low elevations) and the Bears won their 5th straight. But now it’s time to focus on bringing a constructive end to what has thus far been a real turkey of a November. We’re all stuffed to the gills, the gravy boats are empty, and now, we’re faced with the daunting task of clean up/storage.

And indeed, about the best thing I can say about November is that it isn’t October – yet.

But it’s getting close, and, with the looming turn of the calendar, I can offer not much in the way of hope that those infernal screens are likely to flash from red to green.

As matters now stand (slightly beyond the sad intersection between prospect and retrospect), it occurs to me that from the outset, this particular month set up very badly for the mouse-clicking wretches of the trading and investment game. We have covered at length the reality that the interval from January to September featured the worst year-to-date fund performance of the decade. Then came October, which brought about the worst performance month over the same interval. Professional investors were certainly reeling, but the advent of All Saints Day offered little in the way of relief. At that point, all eyes turned naturally towards the election, and let’s face it: how constructive could the outcome possibly have been for the investor class?

Well, it wasn’t. Constructive for the investor class that is. The headline results were by and large in line with expectations, but nobody was satisfied, and from where I was positioned, it appeared that the newly re-ascendant progressive class was beginning to prepare that (gravy boat bereft) dish that is always best served cold: revenge.

So my hopes for a post-midterm interval of calm quickly evaporated, as did the punishing 45-day hedge fund redemption window. All of which brings us to the back half of November, and the truly ghastly return prospects it portended. It all began this past week, which, holiday shortened though it was, featured high volume de-risking. It was, I think, Wednesday when we were treated to a quintuple whammy: a rare day where stocks, bonds, commodities, credit instruments and (improbably) the USD all sold off in unison.

As predicted confidently in these pages, all U.S.-based risk factors were flat on Thursday, but that’s about as thin a gruel as ever dared fill a gravy boat. Friday, as was widely reported, evidenced the worst post Turkey Day pricing patterns in many years.

All of which brings us to the upcoming week: where we can focus on two less-than-ethereal market catalysts. This Wednesday (ironically the one-year anniversary of his confirmation hearing before the Senate) Fed Chair Jerome Powell, will offer his penultimate address – to the Economic Club of New York – prior to a rather important FOMC meeting on 18/19 December. The smart money suggests that: a) he’ll telegraph very little; and b) the Fed is still overwhelmingly likely to raise rates – for the 4th time this year – at its December session.

But I’m not so sure about b), and partly this is because I believe that the pathetic showing for everything from equity valuations to crude oil prices to credit spreads, etc. is in part a message to Chair Pow to cool his rate hiking jets. Though the financial press rains on this parade, I think the strategy may be working. The equity markets are a hot mess, credit spreads are widening like America’s post-holiday waste lines, and the housing market is dying like it’s 2007. To the extent that there were data flows this past week, they were pretty wretched, with Durable Goods Orders and Consumer Sentiment leading the flop parade. Midweek this week, in fact a couple of hours before Powell’s noon enlightenment session, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its revised Q3 GDP estimates, and then those friendly folks at the Census Bureau will announce September New Home Sales.

All I know is that if I were on the FOMC, I might just be asking: “what’s the hurry?” I mean, after all, it’s not as if a Fed Funds increase is likely to do anything at the moment other than flatten a yield curve that is already at pancake viscosity, if not invert it altogether.

But all of that is beside the point; more pertinent to our purposes is the likelihood that to whatever extent investors are using their capital in an effort to impede the timelines toward rate normalization, this behavior is likely to continue – not just through that cozy lunch on Wednesday but all the way through until the pre-Christmas FOMC party.

One way or another, we’ll then move on to even more pressing matters, most notably the upcoming G20 meeting and the much-anticipated coffee clatch between Trump and Xi. Le Grand Orange could really do the Wall Street crowd (whom he routinely stiffed during his private sector days) a major solid by coming away with some rhetorically tangible good news from this meeting. But is this likely? I think not. Trump has his heart set on teaching the world’s largest nation a lesson he must’ve learned at Wharton — about whose boss on this here planet. And, if this requires taking actions that work against the short-term interests of the global capital economy, then so be it. After all, he can always point the blame at Mnuchin. Or Powell. Or Roberts. Or Kelly. Or Tillerson. Or Pelosi. Or Sessions. Or even my old buddy the Mooch. In fact, he already has.

Still and all, I will hold out some hope that interests are sufficiently aligned across the Pacific to evoke the possibility that the world’s two most powerful politic leaders can emerge from the Buenos Aires summit with some glad, pre-holiday tidings — to constituencies that could really use some holiday cheer. If this happens, then risk assets should recover in gratifying fashion. It’s more likely, though, that the tete-a-tete will offer no further clarity as to how this whole trade war will play out, that it won’t impede the Jan 1 timetable for the next round of tariffs, and that, on the whole it will render the quest for returns in the final month of a difficult year a somewhat quixotic enterprise.

Though it pains me to suggest it, there is a third possibility that we hadn’t even counted upon (Obligatory Thanksgiving reference to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”)  and that is that the two parties depart their sit-down with daggers pointing at each other. If this comes to pass: a) you can up the odds that the Fed will stand pat; and b) well I don’t even want to think about b).

It’s all, on balance, an awful shame, I think. Because absent the infantile shenanigans of politicians around the world, there is ample reason for optimism – particularly for us beneficiaries of lands stolen from native tribes all those years ago. Early returns are mixed, but clearly, millions of intrepids braved record cold on Friday to stomp over one another in quest of discounted clothing and consumer electronics devices. Cyber Monday ought to be a real barn-burner. The pace of technological innovation is, if anything, accelerating. America is producing so much oil that we don’t even know what to do with it.

So, on this holiday weekend, I can offer some hope that somewhere, someday the agita will decrease, and at that point, there may very well be some bargains to cop in the world of investment. I’m still looking at Alphabet/Google (an enterprise that may carry more economic power than any organization this side of the East India Tea Company) trading at 25% off its highs. Apple is down more like 30% and no one as yet has been able to convince me that its current valuation reflects the fast-approaching migration to 5G, and the near-certainty that each and every one of us will be compelled, like it or not, to suck it up and buy new phones to avail ourselves of its wonders.

Global credit, on the other hand, is indeed a problem, and one that is likely to get worse before it corrects itself. But anyone who tries to compare the current threats of insolvency to those episodes of the last decade is just playing you, and, most likely, themselves. Financial leverage is a fraction of what it was in the intervals leading up to the crash, and if all else fails, don’t doubt for a second that if forced to do so, governments will again buy up any unpleasant excess of bad paper that will cover their widening posteriors. It’s either that or the politicians will get thrown out on their collective ears, and that, as we know, is unthinkable.

Let Chair Pow and his minions do their worst: interest rates, across a slowing global economy, are not likely to rise above levels that imply essentially cost-free financing for capitalists in the coming quarters. It says here that corporations will continue to use this bounty to make acquisitions and/or buy back their own stocks – in the process removing scarce inventory of private securities in a world that does not, even as I write this, feature sufficient supply to meet the needs of the global investor base.

It is the last of these observations that convinces me that these difficult times will run their course. Unfortunately, I do see incremental downside in the short term for investment assets, and again, I don’t think they stand much hope of putting in a V-bottom. Nope, prices will have to reach a capitulation level (probably not too far from prevailing thresholds) and flat-line for a bit. All of this could take weeks and maybe even bleed into next year, but when this moment arrives, there’ll be plenty of room for smart shoppers to take action.

And, if history is any guide, they won’t have to suffer the indignities of climbing over one another to claim their objects of desire at favorable prices. I think, instead, they’ll be alone in the aisles. Indeed, there’s already some indication that the buyers are becoming lonelier by the hour:

I threw in the SPX graph over the same time period to demonstrate the uncanny correlation between equity de-risking and market lows. Indeed, the last time that net exposure hit the ~20% level was that horrible start to 2016. Then, the Gallant 500 hit its cyclical bottom of 1865, but over the subsequent 2 ½ years, it rose to a Summer of ’18 high that was an astonishing 57% above those putrid depths, and of course, investors got longer across the course of the rally.

Needless to say, this ain’t the winter of 2016, but pattern recognition abides. Whether on Cyber Monday or some of these days hence, investors may very well take a shine to some bargains and begin shopping again. When this happens, I’m gonna screw my courage and get me a new gravy boat, because, daunting as the task may be, I actually need one. I won’t, however, share what happened to its predecessor.

After all, some matters are better left, on a holiday weekend, within the bosom of one’s own family. So my final advice as the game commences in earnest again is to stick that gravy boat wherever it suits, gird your loins, and, as always….


Confessions of a Three-Handed Economist

Harry S. Truman, 32nd President of the United States, is said to have spent much of his ~6-year tenure in the White House in a futile search for a two-handed economist. Presumably, he never found one, but hey, he was busy. When he was forced had to take over, with little preparation and somewhat unexpectedly, for a guy who still holds the record for tenure in the office, he’d been Vice President for all of three months. The transition transpired just as our boys and our allies were mopping up matters in Berlin, and beginning the process of splitting up Germany between the Yanks and the Russians. He then turned his attention to the Japanese, still menacing our troops in the Pacific, but made short work of them, as everyone knows, by dropping “Little Boy” on Hiroshima and “Fat Man” on Nagasaki.

Shortly thereafter, he set up NATO and established the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. On May 14, 1948, 11 minutes after Israel declared itself a sovereign nation, Truman officially recognized its status and independence. This of course, was an election year, and though he was widely expected to go down, he pulled off the most surprising victory this side of, well, this side of that interesting contest in 2016.

Less than two years later, he’d entered us into the Korean War, a conflict that: a) has not to this day officially ended; and b) bears consequences with which we are still contending – nearly 70 years later.

So let’s just agree that Harry was not in a position to focus his full attentions on his ultimately futile search for a bi-manus (This is the only technical term, albeit a tortured one, for a creature with two hands) practitioner of The Dismal Science. But I’m not sure that even absent myriad distractions, he would’ve ever found what he was looking for.

Because, in economics, there is always a second hand. Those of us who have studied the discipline will tell you that this is because the whole thing is based upon tradeoffs. An economic agent must choose, in almost all instances, between two sub-optimal set of outcomes. You can have one from Column A or one from Column B, but not both. It’s either paper or plastic. Chicken or egg. You can’t eat your cake and still have it (unless of course you are the lady Bob Dylan is trying to lay in “Lay Lady Lay”). One cannot wash one hand without the other, and as for washing the face without both? Fuggedaboudit.

Examples of these trade-offs also abound across the current human comedy. There, is, on the one hand, fire on the West Coast, and, on the other, ice on the East (the latter condition to which I bore personal witness when a one-hour commute home on Thursday stretched to seven).

These disparate conditions on each coast would suggest to any economist worth his or her salt that on average, conditions are pretty comfortable. However, unless you have the bad taste to live in flyover country, you must pick one or the other (though neither of them are to be what they claim).

Such dichotomies are the conceit of the econ game, but it all got me to thinking that while a one-handed economist might be harder to find than a penguin in a clover field, and while they grind out two-handed economists out of the world’s leading universities like link sausages, a three-handed economist, readily available, might come in pretty handy in these troubled times. So that’s what I’m going to designate myself. (With a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan) a three-handed economist I, a thing of dubious forecasts, thinking the future will look like the past… And no one can stop me, because in a world where selfdefinition of gender, race and even age identity (y’all probably saw the news item of the 69 year old Dutch guy who has petitioned for the legal right to identify as being 49) has become an inalienable right, I hereby proclaim myself to be a tri-manu evaluator of all matters of supply and demand.

But know, my loves, that all of this changes nothing. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve always done, which includes laying my unique form of madness on anyone who cares to observe it, each week. And this time ‘round, there’s no shortage of madness to share.

I’d say that on the whole, and after as difficult a month and a half as my dimming memory can recall, the markets and their participants have earned themselves a holiday. It was, of course, another tough week in equity-land, which ended with a modest two-day recovery that offered little respite in terms of portfolio performance. On the other hand, we did manage to turn the calendar from the 45-day hedge fund redemption window, in the process removing one glaring uncertainty from a roster of issues that have plagued investors pretty much all year. However, on the third hand, the early returns of the cycle suggest that it is going to be a pretty lean Christmas in Hedge Fund Village, and that many funds might not make past New Year’s Day.

We’re now 92% of the way through Q3 earnings and overall, they show the strongest quarterly performance since 2011. On the other hand, the return-essential tech sector laid a big fat egg, with lessfollowed but vital chip makers NVIDIA and Applied Materials both missing and missing badly on Thursday. Finally, On the third hand, it may very well be that the worst of the tech news is already built into valuations, and that any incremental strength in the holiday cycle and capital spending paradigm would catalyze some justifiable upside in the coming months.

On undeniably plausible cause for concern is burgeoning issues in the credit markets. Though it is now a number of years back, and though memory inexorably fades, I do remember a credit crunch last decade causing some pretty serious and widespread mischief for the global capital economy. This week’s headlines – from the FT to Drudge — proclaim that household debt has reached a new aggregate record — $13.5T according to the New York Fed. On the other hand, the same study shows an encouraging downward trajectory/magnitude of associated delinquencies:

On the third hand, I strongly suspect that while household debt – when taken to excess – is most certainly a problem, it is corporate debt issues that are most likely to vex investors — first and most deeply.

The attention-grabbing news in credit markets this week is the spiraling decline in the price of obligations for the once-iconic General Electric Corporation, which owes approximately $120 Billion in total, 1/3rd of which takes the form of revolving credit lines with pretty much the entire bulge bracket. The rating agencies, even as I pen this, are issuing menacing threats to lower GE’s credit rating to junk, and no one should wish this outcome – not even short sellers.

Because a significant portion of this paper is held by institutions, which, as a matter of fiduciary constraint, cannot retain securities below investment grade in their portfolios. So, if Moody’s, S&P, Fitch or other ratings wannabes do lay that next downgrade on GE, tens of billions of high yield bonds and notes will be immediately offered on the tape – at a time, when, as illustrated below, the lower grade credit markets are already suffering their worst interval since in a couple of years:

I’m not gonna lie: all of this has me wringing all three of my hands – particularly because when high-yield investors hit the sell-button in contemporaneous fashion, it can be about as ugly as any spectacle you might ever care to witness in the markets.

Unless entire economies unravel, buyers do eventually emerge, but only at prices that are unthinkable even under impaired market conditions. I don’t think that politicians can withstand the rout, so I do hold out hope that even if the worst happens, somebody (read: taxpayers) will come in to stem the bleeding.

Meantime, with the midterms over, and with some clarity as to who rules the roost in Washington, perhaps we are now in a position to dial down the agita on that score. As indicated last week, the prognosis for a split government is one that is typically constructive for market securities. In fact, dating back to my undergrad days of 1906, the average return over the 3 quarter interval that includes the election itself, combined with the subsequent two, is 14%. Speaking for myself, I’d be pretty happy if the equity markets followed script here, and were trading around, say, 3100 at the end of next June. And I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in these sentiments.

However, brothers and sisters, we have a good deal of wood to chop between now and next summer, and just getting through the end of November is likely to be a high-drama exercise. I do suspect that the upcoming week will be a quiet one, with a combination of holiday disengagement and – let’s face it – volatility fatigue — putting something of a speed bump on the action. But then all eyes turn to the G20 meeting, and, more specifically, to the big November 30th summit between Trump and Xi. By all accounts, both sides appear to have something to gain if the meeting goes well, and a great deal to lose if it doesn’t. I truly think that Trump, more than any time in his, er, glorious tenure as president, can use a win here, and I suspect that he aims to get one. On the other hand, if he doesn’t, and both sides come out of the conference at long daggers, then I would anticipate something of a “risk off” rout in the markets – for year end and perhaps beyond. On the third hand, the latter scenario is so unthinkable that I’m going to assume that interests are sufficiently aligned here to evoke the strong probability that the principals will gather themselves and throw a bone to their good-news-starved constituents.

So, in summary, one hand says it’s very risky out there and not a good time to load the boat, while the second hand thinks that some good bargains abound in the investment universe. The third hand doesn’t know what to think about risks in these crazy markets.

And this is the worst confession I have to make as a three-handed economist: that I’m just not sure. So, one way or another, I couldn’t have offered much in the way of help to Harry. But Harry was a no nonsense type of cat, and his own common sense would suggest the following: if you’re not sure, then don’t act assertively. So don’t. Act assertively here, that is. Let’s just wait and see what happens.

That’s about all I’ve got for now. I’m on my way to a long anticipated, hard-earned mani/pedi. And, with trademark holiday spirit, my manicurist is offering me a five for the price of four special. So I’ll take my leave, wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving, and, as ever, a heartfelt…


Chalk One Up for the Chalk (Sort of)

“When I was a boy, all of the people of all of the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred eighteen that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on the battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God clearly spoke to mankind.

“Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things. What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance. And all music is.”

— Kurt Vonnegut: “Breakfast of Champions”

Happy Veterans’ Day y’all. Or Armistice Day if you prefer. Know that I am not necessarily endorsing Mr. Vonnegut’s above supplied sentiments, nor do I expect my readers to glom onto them en masse. But there’s a point in there somewhere, and it bears mention that the conversion of AD to VD came after, and arguably as the result of, WWII. KV was not only a veteran of the latter, but a prisoner of war to boot, so I reckon his sentiments ought to count for something. But KV is dead, as are all the men who heard the soundless Voice of God on that autumn day in France, a century ago. This leaves us, as always, forced to decide for ourselves.

Today indeed is the Centennial of the cessation of hostilities in the War to End All Wars. It was an odd, hollow ending to a horrible, horrific contest. Russia had left early to deal with its own revolution. The German army, not quite defeated (and in fact still well armed and ensconced in France), got tired and went home. Maybe they felt that America’s late entry into the hostilities rendered their efforts futile, but the Americans were green, under-trained and ill-equipped. At the end of the day, everybody just walked away. But ensuing events were not particularly pleasant. The tragic over-reach of the Versailles Treaty is well-known: it turned Germany into an economic and political dumpster fire. Angry, perhaps justifiably so, at the reparations imposed by their erstwhile foes, the Reich paid their debts by printing worthless paper. At least in part because of this, the world soon fell into the Great Depression. Deutschland remilitarized and became rabid nationalists. We had to take to the battlefield again to resolve matters in a more gruesome, more permanent fashion. More than 100 Million perished in the effort.

I have long felt that the first half of the 20th Century was simply a two-generation-long exercise in reorienting the world order, taking multiple forms, and featuring some interruptions that would not, could not, last. But this much is certain: since the end of WWII, Americans in particular but the Western World in general have enjoyed an interval of peace and prosperity that is virtually unprecedented in terms of its scope and longevity. In contrast to the previous hundred centuries, wars, famines and plagues have been the exception rather than the rule. This is the lifetime experience of almost every adult on the planet.

How much longer can this magnificent run last? This is the question that keeps me up at night.

But let’s lay the wreath for our patriotic dead and move on to more pertinent matters. With respect to the Mid-Terms, you can indeed chalk one up for The Chalk, which, for the uninitiated, refers to The Favorite in a sports betting context. It originated in horse racing but is most typically associated with the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, also known as the Big Dance and/or March Madness.

But The Chalk to which I made reference in last week’s edition reflected the likely outcomes of the United States 2018 Mid-Term elections — specifically the probability that that the Dems would win the House while the GOP would retain the Senate. And so it went, sort of.

At the moment, though, it all seems rather unsettling/unsettled, and, though I do not search, I nonetheless find eerie parallels – writ small, to what life must’ve been like for the developed world in the times leading up to WWI. Everybody’s on edge. Allied nations are very distrustful of one another. Technological breakthroughs (back in those days taking the form of assembly lines and the horseless carriage, vs. the current miracles of the 5G, The Cloud, Artificial Intelligence, etc.) evoke images of untold human discovery. The economy is strong, but shows unmistakable signs of gravitational pull.

A century ago, it took nothing more than the murder of a back bencher politician to unleash a series of treaty obligations that took us down the paths described above. These days, embedded ire rests on a similarly wound hair-trigger. My own personal wish is that everyone would just dial it back.

But in the meantime, we’ve got a very troublesome market on our hands. Yes, The Chalk got it right in terms of the headline outcomes of the Mid-Terms, but, after (as prophesied in these pages), the run-up caused so much agita, said Chalk dictated that matters would calm down a bit.

But they haven’t. Calmed down a bit that is. And now, I don’t think they necessarily will – for the next few sessions and perhaps beyond. Following the script down to the last punctuation mark, equities rallied hard on Wednesday, and one could be forgiven for taking this as a signal that the menacing cycle of volatility had run its course. But a closer look at that short-lived melt-up gave rise to further concerns. Stocks don’t typically shoot up in that fashion without being abetted (if not driven) by short squeezes, and the mid-week rally appears to be no exception.

Further, it does not appear that the political psychodrama in the lead-up to the voting cycle has run its course; quite to the contrary, one could argue that political fevers are running even higher than before. Broward County, FL is up to its old shenanigans, and, abetted by the stone cold baller partisan lawyers that have descended on the state, we may be looking at a minor redux of the hanging chads of 2000. The House Leadership for the 116th Congress is taking shape, with its policy contours coming into view. We can expect amped up investigations, hostility across the board, and brinksmanship, to rule the day.

On the other side of the aisle, all (well, most) of the checkmarks on the election map had barely been filled when (as I believe was inevitable) Attorney General Jeff Sessions was abruptly shown the door. The post-results presidential news conference nearly descended into violence.

And, outside of the world of Beltway plebiscite battles, other risks begin to emerge. The FOMC met last week and indicated its intent to stay the course with respect to interest rate normalization. A gargantuan Treasury auction cycle yielded mixed results. As illustrated below, demand for our 30-year bond was dismal, with yields hitting 5-year highs and the bid-to-cover being the worst recorded in a decade:

Now, I have a confession to make: I find this whole “bid-to-cover” thing a bit confusing. Press me and I think that I could summon up a plausible definition. But my heart would not be in it. Mostly, though, I like to discuss “bid-to-cover” because: a) it trips off the tongue so elegantly; and b) I think it makes me sound smart.

Let’s just agree, though, that if we extrapolate the demand trends for our long-dated paper, it could mean that much higher rates loom on the horizon. On the other hand, The Chalk suggests that these would need to be accompanied by higher inflationary expectations, a concept to which the following little bit I pulled down from Bloomberg gives the lie:

And as for me, I’m rather inclined to go with The Chalk here and suggest that ginning up inflationary expectations sufficient to catalyze a material, sustained rate rise will be a heavy lift for the markets. I am particularly biased in this direction because: a) global growth appears to be trending downward; and b) I could really use those higher rates, and I have found that the markets, seldom, if ever have acted in a manner that supports my personal agenda.

It is, though, clear that our Treasury will have to issue a passel of paper for a long time into the future if we’re to fund the obligations we’ve assumed, and about the only blessing I can find here is that we won’t have to deal with another debt ceiling episode until next March. I have no doubts that this will add a nasty elements to March Madness ’19, but hey, it’s 5 months away.

And now we’re in looking at the back half of a 4th Quarter that has been a nightmare for investors across most every strategy. Earnings are functionally over, and our attentions now likely turn to the big G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires on November 30th. Trump and Xi are expected to meet, greet and exit with happy tidings for the rest of us. Let’s hope for the best.

The stock market has a magnificent record of rallying into year-end after mid-term election cycles, and perhaps this time will be no exception:

All the same, though, I expect that this cycle it will be a bumpy ride. For professional investors, it again has been the worst year of the decade, and, with nine short weeks until it (mercifully) ends, I continue to warn that there are a lot of desperate operators out there.

And it is my considered experience that desperate operators cannot be relied upon to make rational investment decisions. This is a problem.

Because desperate operators can wreak havoc on even the most rationally oriented of portfolios. But the Chalk says we’re likely to rally, and I will admit to hoping, in this case, that The Chalk is right. Lord knows, the investment community has suffered enough across this long, grueling year. But one way or another, I continue to urge caution.

Because just when you’ve let your guard down, some obscure Archduke can get taken out, Whitey Bulger style, and the world can, as a result, suffer two generations of unimaginable carnage. It all began with WWI, but the Armistice didn’t resolve matters, and soon the world decided that a minute of silence on 11/11 at 11:11 was no longer required. Maybe they knew what they were doing; maybe not. But as for me, with 11:11 on 11/11 fast-approaching, I think I’ll keep my yap shut – for a single minute anyway.


The Whitey Bulger Market

So, somebody finally did Whitey. And though I search high and low, I find it difficult to identify a single tear being shed in his memory. On the other hand, you gotta hand it to Ol’ Whitey; he was truly one of a kind. Brother of the President of the frogging Massachusetts Senate, Boss of the Winter Hill Gang, Serial Murderer, Enforcer, Drug Dealer, Arms Dealer, FBI Informant, and successful fugitive from justice for 25 years, he was clearly cut of a different cloth. He double crossed partners, double crossed the government, ratted out his cronies, ratted out rats, and even ratted out the Feds. And then he ran out. And no one could find him. But for more than 50 years, no one ever ratted him out, and anyone who tried didn’t live long to tell the tale.

Whitey may very well have been the GOAT of the modern thuggish class, but, inexorably, the fates and furies caught up with him, and, in what looks to be an inside job, someone finally got him. We’ll return to this theme a little bit later in this edition, but first a word from our (market) sponsor.

Because to me, the market action over the last few weeks looks like something directly out of the Whitey Bulger rap sheet. Investors, on a high octane volatility tape, got took, presumably, at least in part by short sellers, and then the short sellers themselves got whacked. The last couple of days of the October were much more Treat than Trick, but then we moved on to All Saints Day, and the action, yet again, reversed itself. Everyone paid the price, and the more “connected” you were, the bigger was the toll. Entering last week’s proceedings, there was little that the “made” guys: the friends of ours in the hedge fund industry, could do to offset the reality that October was going to be the worst month of the decade in terms of performance, but you’ve got to give them credit for fighting to the bitter end. Heroically (albeit on a deeply oversold tape), they ginned up a rally, managing in the process to mark up their positions, and some of them may have even staved off their own toe-tagging for another day.

In seasonal fashion, earnings came at us fast and furious, and, for the most part, they came in strong. Factset has the aggregates at >24% for the quarter, and ~6% revenue growth. Q4 guidance is not as bad as I anticipated, and, when viewed in aggregate, few earnings followers have reasons to call for a sitdown and/or to initiate a beef.

Except for this: the capos in the equity mob have almost unilaterally let us down. After last week’s misses by AMZN and GOOGL, we received FB’s tidings, which might’ve been viewed as a disappointment had it not been that Zuck and Company tanked last quarter’s report so thoroughly that anything they said which didn’t feature a padlock on the front door of the firm’s glittering new headquarters in Menlo Park, CA was likely to be viewed constructively.

OK; fair enough, but then, Thursday, after the last apple had been bobbed upon for Halloween, AAPL turned the tables bobbed upon us. It missed profits by nearly 20%, reported barely pulse-registering iPhone sales growth, and guided down on holiday revenue expectations. Somewhere in there, it also pulled a stunt that must have Godfather Jobs rolling in his grave: the announcement of a discontinuation of the reporting of unit phone sales on a going-forward basis.

The confluence of these events caused this long-time capo di tutti capi of the equity markets to experience its worst performance day in about 5 years. Even more unthinkably, the Company’s valuation slipped below the $1 Trillion level, and at the point of this correspondence resides at a beggarly $986.5B.

And, just as we were absorbing the blow, we were forced to confront what turned out to be something of a betrayal from our own Bureau of Labor Statistics: the October Jobs Report, which showed such unilateral strength across the board that it made investors weep. And hit the sell button. Non-Farm Payrolls, Average Hourly Earnings, Labor Force Participation Rate, etc., all demonstrated remarkable vigor.

Apparently, Whitey or no Whitey, any longshoremen out there showing up for duty at the Boston Harbor are not likely to be turned away.

But investors viewed these tidings with a combination of disdain and anger, selling off both stocks and bonds in the ensuing closing hours of the week.

But wait, there’s more. In case you missed it, there’s something of a trade war going on, and the rhetoric surrounding it is moving the markets with every twitch and tweet. I find this utterly vexing, because as I’ve stated on previous occasions, I think that whatever is being reported publicly bears very little resemblance to the actual negotiations between the U.S. and its trading partners. They’ll spoon feed us the rhetoric they believe it appropriate for us to imbibe, while the real action: a) is taking place behind closed doors; and b) particularly with respect to China, will probably not be clarified for years.

There is a G-20 meeting at the end of this month, with the current presumption being that President Trump and Supreme Leader Xi will indeed be sitting down to talk turkey. Of course, this will take place a week after Thanksgiving, at which point, if you’re like me, even the mere mention of turkey (much less the prospect of choking down another bite of the noble bird) will be sufficient to turn your stomach. On the other hand, there is the slight chance that the rhetoric could spin out of control, which would almost certainly cause indigestion for investors of every stripe.

Finally, and hopefully for the penultimate time (I reckon I’ll have to include some recap commentary next week), the much-anticipated, much-feared Mid-Term Election is now upon us. I won’t contribute much to the overwrought erudition here; I reckon it’s now just a matter of waiting and hoping for the best. I suspect that from a market impact perspective, it will be a non-event, but I encourage everyone reading this to remember the horrific run-up to the cycle, which was, well, eventful. I did, as you know, prognosticate that the Mid-terms would catalyze a significant vol increase, and as of now, the pictures tell the story:

Vol for every index is at least a double relative to its longer-term equilibria, and I attribute this in part to a delayed reaction to the highly surprising outcomes of the last two critical voting cycles: Brexit, and of course the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. In both cases, the “chalk” came out very assertively, and in each case the “chalk” couldn’t have been more wrong. I suspect that especially with everyone so amped up and all, it has been the possibility of unlikely outcomes that has given investors such chronically happy feet, and I think that they can be forgiven for this reaction. And yes, something very strange could happen on Tuesday, but I’m not prepared to predict what form that might take.

If something weird indeed transpires, the hyper-volatility will, of course, continue; otherwise, we probably calm down a bit. In the event of the latter outcome, I’d say that U.S. equities are perhaps a titch undervalued, but have limited upside in these troubled times. However, if the dust settles a bit, then the development which encourages me the most is IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat. It doesn’t matter that they overpaid; they are removing one of the most actively traded, actively invested stocks in the universe from the investment equation.

Investable names are indeed dropping like foes of Whitey Bulger in 1980’s Boston, and again if the vol subsides, I will remind my readers that there is a visible and growing shortage of securities to trade and own in this world. The inventory that is not rubbed out entirely by merger/acquisition is being kneecapped by buybacks (heck, even Buffet is buying back his own shares, and when has he ever been wrong?). This should, at minimum, place a floor on valuations for years to come.

However, I suspect that this game, too, will run its course. After all, even Whitey’s bag of tricks eventually emptied. Admittedly, with winning Mob wars, taking over Southie, turning State’s Evidence, murdering associates, sending guns to the IRA, and, disappearing for a generation, it was quite an impressive arsenal. But eventually he used it all, and acquired too many enemies in the process. When his time came, it’s pretty clear that the government-run prison system not only looked the other way but actually facilitated access for mob hitmen to complete their destiny. And now, James J. (Whitey) Bulger has gathered to the dust of his forebears.

There is indeed a lesson in here somewhere, but on this, my 59th birthday, I’ll be switched if I can figure out what it is. But before blowing out the candles I can at least wish you a sincere….



Zen and the Art of Capital Preservation

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at

where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

— Robert M. Pirsig: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

After yet another difficult week, arguably the most difficult week in a string of difficult weeks, and in light of the gratifying reception of last week’s “Hitchhiker” piece, I really have no alternative other than to continue on with what appears to be a winning formula. So I draw this edition’s inspiration from a book whose binding I’ve never even cracked: Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. It was written in 1974, more or less at the outset of my, er, coming of age. Like the “Hitchhiker’s Guide”, reading it was something of a rite of passage for my generation. One could hardly walk through a late ‘70s/early ‘80s college quad without seeing dog-eared copies of the original’s pinkhued cover in partial view within backpacks, or bulging out of back pockets of cargo pants.

But I never bothered to read it; never even tried. Don’t ask me why.

But now I’m not so sure I made the right choice. Consider, if you will, the purloined quote under this week’s headline. It kind of has a ring of authenticity to it n’est ce pas? In fact, one could argue that with respect to the trail of tears upon which investors currently travel, Pirsig was right on the money.

The major drivers of anguish and anxiety in the capital markets hardly bear reiterating, but reiterate we must. Our equity indexes were crushed this week, and even the ~4% drop in the SPX fails to document the portfolio carnage. Those with finite intestinal fortitude should certainly avert their eyes, but for the few that can bear it, I offer the following chart:

While the underlying math is a bit sketchy, the bottom line is that the contributors to the massive performance databases collected by Hedge Fund Research Inc. (HFR) have combined to manifest an 8.3% drop in performance this month.

And, for better or for worse, there’s still three days left to endure before we take those adorable little ones in their Firemen and Cinderella costumes out for trick or treat, and close the book on this horror show of an October.

I’m not sure, however, that the ushering in of November is going to bring much relief. More likely, and in keeping with my consistently documented prognostications over the last several weeks, the volatility bands – at least for the equity complex– are likely to remain agonizingly stretched — through at least the first full week of the fast-approaching month, and perhaps beyond.

The big question, of course, is why? If Pirsig is indeed correct (and I think he is), we can only truly identify patterns by looking in the rear-view mirror, but: a) that never stopped us (or me, at any rate) from spitballing in contemporaneous time; and b) we’ve probably travelled far enough down this lonesome road to draw some retrospective inferences.

As I stated last week, it’s not terribly difficult to find catalysts for the carnage, but for me, it all boils down to one concept: risk aversion has set in, the risk premium has risen substantially, and it has become very difficult for all but the irrational (or the irrationally lucky) to invest with even a modicum of confidence. Moreover, in a world where the blessings of stasis seem to have been lost upon our forlorn species, lack of investment, almost by definition, means divestment.

October ’18 was always destined to be a wild ride, and certainly, on that score at least, it can hardly be said to have disappointed. I think this was inevitable, particularly because of the deep instabilities that have bled from the geopolitical into the realm of the capital markets. Tensions associated with the former are as high as any time since 1968, and also are giving the years 1938, 1918 and even 1858 a run for their money. Public opinion – in this country and beyond – is both divided, and, paradoxically, set in stone.

Oh yeah, there’s an important election coming up in 10 days, and we’ll just have to hope for the best. I reckon when the dust settles, not much will have changed: the House will probably flip while the Senate stays red. This would be about the best realistic outcome for the markets that I can currently envision.

But as I suspected, the run-up to the election has been a risk management disaster. The investment community, and, for that matter, the electorate, has had its senses assaulted by matters too numerous to inventory, including dubious trade wars, outright warfare on judicial nominees, attempts – both successful and otherwise, at small-scale genocide. And a desperate struggle on each side of the spectrum to see which can outflank the other in terms of hysteria.

It’s all highly political, and very difficult to swallow, but if I had to point to one catalyst for the disintegrating investment environment, it would be the one-sided war of words between our Commander in Chief and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States. Apparently at a loss for other demagoguery targets, Trump decided to add his own appointee: Jay Powell, to his list. To the best of my recollection, this little took hold began early in the summer, and from that point on, the effort to turn investor capital into investor returns has, for the most part, come up empty. While I won’t reprint it, the HFR index captured on Page 1 has been pretty much a one-way ticket down since that time.

Now, understand me here brothers and sisters: Trump may be right or he may be wrong with respect to his economic analysis (he is, after all, a Wharton graduate, which could be taken either way), but I think his modes of expression have been highly destructive to valuations. The Fed is organized to be independent and apolitical. No good can come of it being viewed as either doing the President’s bidding or working against him. By adopting the rhetorical course he has taken, he has cast doubt upon the indolence and tactics of domestic monetary policy, and whatever Powell decides to do – particularly in December – through no fault of his own, will be viewed by investors with a jaundiced eye.

And again, slapping multi-hundred billion tariffs on key trading partners, their retaliation in kind, irreconcilable viewpoints on economic policy are all, shall we say, less than helpful. But if you ask me why, as a mid-term election approaches, investors don’t know which way to turn, I point, first and foremost, to the White House/Fed squabbles. And I should point out that all of these views are coming from a guy, who if not an outright MAGA-ite, at least roots for the success of the Administration.

So I believe that investors can be forgiven for viewing the upcoming election as the monkey wrench in the spokes of the market motorcycle. And I’d also point out that the 2016 voting outcomes were such a statistical improbability, it is perhaps wise of risk takers to consider the tails of the electoral outcome distribution, and travel light until the results are known. Because, truly, anything could happen Tuesday week.

But in the meantime, we’ve been forced to endure an exceedingly unpleasant cycle of downward-biased volatility, not just in the U.S., but around the world. Contemporaneously, a great deal of capital has migrated to the safety of government bonds, again not only those issued by our Treasury, but also by the Bundesbank, Bank of Japan, and even the stalwart but tottering Bank of England.

For similar reasons, and perhaps also owing to the very pleasing 3.5% Q3 GDP print, capital is flowing noticeably into the warm embrace of our Dead Presidents:

My guess is that these flows will continue — again until we gain a little bit of clarity as to how the latest round of political battles resolve themselves.

Because truly, there’s no other place to hide. With investors justifiably acting like scared rabbits, why on earth would anyone want to load the boat on riskier asset classes?

Answer: they wouldn’t. At least not here. Not now. And not yet.

We are, of course and in addition, in the midst of the Q3 earnings cycle; halfway through the sequence, while the numbers have been strong, they haven’t been strong enough to offset the other nonsense plaguing our senses. I will cop to being among the crowd that in the wake of the unfolding equity selloff, half hoped and more than half expected that the market would be bailed out by tech leaders. But it’s been a mixed bag thus far. In a touching nod to the nostalgic days of dog-eared copies of “Zen”, the positive hit parade was led by two old school tech companies: Microsoft and Intel, but even here investors weren’t overly impressed.

Then those new-age darlings, our current objects of infatuation: Alphabet and Amazon, took to the podium on Thursday and managed to disappoint. Both stocks sold off hard on Friday, giving the lie to the false bottom hopes that manifested in the preceding session.

Next week brings further profit tidings, including those from Zuck (FB) and Cook (AAPL), but unless they blow the doors off (doubtful), investors are more likely than not to view the slightest blemishes as further reason to bail – on these names and on the market as a whole.

If you want further visuals of what this looks like in micro pricing terms, I give you the following:

Suffice to say that for now at least, investors are in no mood to view beats or even positive guidance with a great deal of enthusiasm.

For all of the above, the market seems unambiguously oversold here, and I’ve not much doubt that by mid-week at latest it will have experienced one of those melt-ups that bring hope to every risk-taking heart. But just like Thursday’s encouraging rally, I would caution against extrapolating the bids. Among other matters, any rapid-fire rally will feature a healthy dose of short squeezing.

I think that recent events have probably lowered the multi-quarter ceiling on valuations, but overall, they should trend upward. However, they are unlikely to V bottom; the next sustainable rally cannot, in my judgment, take hold until the volatility subsides. At that point, the prudent among us are likely to identify good entry points and load in.

But we’re gonna have to wait a spell for that happy contingency. In the meantime, I’d recommend that you take a zen-like approach to portfolio construction, reducing grosses wherever possible (like the Buddha living on rice), and holding fast to the core themes in your book that represent – let’s face it – you’re best if not your only chance to get paid.

I might have more to say on this topic further down the road. But not now. First I’ve got to read Pirsig’s book. And, for what it’s worth, I also need to do some work on my Harley Hog. The engine won’t kick over no matter what I try, and, for neither love nor money can I figure out the reason why.


The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Volatility

“Don’t Panic”

— Words Inscribed in Friendly Letters on the Fictional Cover of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

“No regrets, Coyote, I’ll just get out up a-ways,

You just picked up a hitcher, prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”

— Joni Mitchell

Nope; Don’t Panic. I’m not. Panicking that is. It was a difficult week, and it didn’t end particularly well for me. As prophesied in these pages, our equity indices did begin the sequence by recapturing some lost ground from the previous 5-day rout, but they couldn’t hold their recaptured ground, and, by Friday’s close, the Gallant 500 had managed to add a microscopic half an index point (1.8 skinny basis points) onto its valuation tally. OK; fair enough, but then, Friday afternoon, I paid a visit to an old comrade of mine – perhaps the best macro trader I ever had the pleasure for whom to serve as risk manager, and he did not share glad tidings. Inflation, though latent, is on the visible horizon, rates must go up, and this will put us into recession. Extrapolating an attendant ~30% hit to earnings, along with an approximate 20% multiple compression, he’s looking at a potential stature slicing of the SPX by nearly 50%. Overall, though, the conversation was pleasant enough, and ended on an encouraging note: the debacle won’t hit right away, and there may be some compelling opportunities in regions such as Europe. Or so he told me.

I managed to gather myself, but it wasn’t long after my equanimity returned when, Friday night, a guy I have known for even longer predicted that Monday – this Monday – will be a Black Monday. He and I endured the 1987 version of this together, pulling our traders out of the quaint but anachronistic 30-Year Bond and S&P 500 pits– so as to avoid incremental gratuitous violence to the under-capitalized floor trading group that we managed at that time. And it worked. The group lived to fight another day, and, somehow, more than three decades later, is still at the game (albeit in modified form).

So I got to thinking: is there a crash on the horizon? Well, I highly doubt it and told both my friends so. But crashes, like volcano eruptions, black holes and other singularities, are part and parcel of life in this here galaxy, so, at least on paper, it pays to be prepared.

And lord knows that if a crash were indeed to transpire, we’d have no shortage of rear-view mirror root causes upon which to cast blame. That great engine of domestic and commercial prosperity – the American Housing Market – is showing multiple signs of being gassed and needing a blow. Economists, though, are at a loss to explain why this is happening. And I am particularly skeptical whenever I read tortured analyses that include both the demand suppressing forces of rising mortgage rates, and a shortage of inventory. Guys. Please. It can’t be both. While economic forecasting may be the most dubious intellectual discipline on the planet, we have it on pretty good evidence that price drops tend to derive from a decrease in demand, an increase in supply, or some combination of the two. My guess is that the Housing Market is probably a bit overvalued (which will happen after an 8-year run), and that the higher mortgage costs are not helping. But I promise you this: if the buyers were there at appropriate prices, sellers would indeed materialize – in force.

But there’s ample reason for concern across the macro galaxy, and they extend beyond the narrow part that our humble homes comprise. The Brits seem really confused on this whole Brexit thing, and if they’re perplexed, where does that put the rest of us? Italy continues its shenanigans, so much so that the demonstrated-to-be-infallible credit analysts at Moody’s Investor Services cut the country’s credit rating to Baa3 – one level above junk. We know, but hardly need to inventory, the problems plaguing the Chinese economy. It’s equity indices, for what it’s worth, are now in the grizzly realms of a > 35% correction. Trade wars rage. The redoubtable Ned Davis’s economic models now indicate a 92.7% probability of a global recession:

But let’s return to the land of Amber Grain Waves, shall we? Well, here, a number of factors do concern me, and one that has drawn the attention of the risk-taking classes is the sustained rise in 3-month LIBOR, now clocking in at levels last seen in 2008:

Sharp-eyed observers will note that the last time this borrowing cost benchmark hit the lofty level of 2.469% was Q4 of 2008, but at that point, it was coming careening down and would soon reach the economic equivalent of 0.000%. It says here that high and rising interest rate glide paths are another matter entirely, and not a particularly pleasant one at that.

But while short-term rates continue their heavenward climb, the long end of the U.S. curve remains fairly stationary, thereby proving my macro mate’s point about cross asset correlations (see Paragraph 1, above).

As a public service, and by way of putting this in perspective, I offer the following visual tidbit that provides at least anecdotal evidence of what happens when free financing disappears, and borrows must pay a cost to fund their dreams and aspirations:

For the uninitiated, the blue line is a mash up of the costs associated with debt-based finance (credit spreads, interest rates, FX impacts), as brought to us by those well-endowed purveyors of truth at Goldman Sachs. The white line is the SPX. Goldman too is predicting a slowdown. Or was that Morgan Stanley?

No, now I remember: it was Jamie Dimon over at JPM. But whether he’s right or wrong, we can be fairly certain that he’s not panicking.

In addition, we do have a bit of a political mess on our hands, with the infantile mud-slinging reaching, nearly every day, a new, improbable high, and an important election now a short two weeks away. Our President is trading zingers with pole dancers, and, while 1,000 people a week are dying of opioid overdoses, the cameras are trained on menacing looking caravans heading northward from Guatemala. Public attention is also transfixed on the murder of a journalist by a country that has used this as a form of governance, like virtually every other nation on earth, since time immemorial. It is the biggest crisis between the U.S. and the House of Saud since the OPEC Oil Embargo, but it I think that like the Las Vegas massacre and so many other tragedies, it will pass into obscurity very quickly. Unless it escalates under the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand paradigm, at which point I’ll be forced to reassess its implications.

In the meanwhile, on the other side, the once and likely future Speaker of the House warned of collateral damage to anyone in dissent of the righteous dreams that fit her side gig of being married to a billionaire San Francisco real estate developer. Her party’s most recent standard bearer leaped from grandstand to spotlight with her observation that civility can be contemplated by her minions only after political victory has been secured.

It’s no wonder that everyone in investment land has a case of the willies, but I suggest that a better course is to continue operating like you would if the world weren’t showing signs of madness. We remain at the lower end of the range which I described last week as offering favorable entry points, and I’ve really no choice but to double down on this call. The names I quoted as being “cheap” are still on their heels. None have reported yet, but their earnings announcements are just around the corner. There’s plenty of room for upside in those securities, and if they do rally, then they’ll take a lot of other stocks along with them for the ride. One way or another, earnings growth remains robust, real rates low, and, while the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now tracker has slipped to a beggarly 3.9% for Q3, that wouldn’t be such a bad print, now, would it? We’ll find out on Friday, when the introductory estimate is actually released.

None of this ensures that we won’t be making new lows over the next little while, and for all I know, my pit manager buddy may be right. Monday may bring Armageddon, but I kind of doubt it. Further, if the market does crash, and this crash is not caused by a military coup led by the XX cabal of Pelosi/Clinton and Warren, then anyone with any cash left should probably load the boat.

One way or another, the volatility spike is likely to continue, and I reckon we’ll have to live with this. Again, I don’t see a breakout from SPX 2750-2900 under any circumstances, but odds on likelihood is that we’ll bounce around between these levels pretty aggressively over the next couple of weeks.

And my best advice, in terms of volatility management, is that contained in the Hitchhiker Book within the Hitchhiker Book: Don’t Panic. Keep doing what you’re doing; cut risk if you must but preserve core investment themes. But in the interest of full disclosure I must inform you that I have never actually read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. I started it a couple of times, but it never took hold. I’m not proud of this, and as long as I’m unburdening myself, I should inform you that the same goes for “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and (perhaps most shameful of all) Kerouac’s “On The Road”.

I am, however, intimately familiar with Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, and can more confidently assert that yes, we’re all hitchers, each of us is a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway. For now, our best moves involve staying within those painted path markers. Those that do are likely to come out of this not much worse off for their troubles.


Go Ogle (If You Dare)

I thank Dave for this week’s elegant and timely thematic nudge. I have known Dave for 50 years, and though we reside on opposite coasts, when we do connect, he can always be counted upon to bring his singular brilliance (induced by a tinge of madness) into our conversations. He doesn’t move around as quickly as he did when he was 12, but his eyes and mind are as sharp as ever.

I hadn’t spoken to Dave in a couple of months, but we managed to catch up mid-week, just when a stock market rout that you may have noticed was setting in. Recently, Dave has transferred some of his formidable analytical skills from Rotisserie League Baseball to the stock market, and, as the subject – inevitably — turned to Google, he mentioned that he thought it was a dreadful name for a search engine. I didn’t immediately catch on – replying with the obvious: that math nerds Serge and Larry selected the name on the basis of its numeric equivalent: 10100: or the number 1 followed by 100 zeros. The idea, of course, being that having gone to the trouble of being the first to have indexed the entire internet, their engine would generate a great deal of content for any given generic search criteria. As further evidence of pointy-headedness in Mountain View, I pointed out that at the time of its IPO the company issued a number of shares that when divided by a million, equaled the 2.718 – a close approximation to the eternal mathematical constant e – the only number in the world that is its own logarithm.

But Dave challenged. First off, he said, they didn’t even spell the term 10100 correctly; it’s actually googol. His main argument, though, was that if you insert a space between the 2“o’s” in the middle of the its name, you arrive at the term “go ogle”: an apt description of how a big portion of the Company’s ubiquitous service is used by the masses. I never thought of this, but had they? Dave is sure they had. Of course, I had to check this out on my own, and I can report back as follows: if you type the words “go ogle” into the google search engine, you come up with zero, goose eggs; for math geeks that’s 0100.

Again, all of this is timely, given the outright rout of the tech sector, which has not spared Team Serge/Larry. So I begin the market commentary portion of this week’s installment by offering my readers a chance to “go ogle” the recent performance of the Mountain View Colossus stock prices action (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT):

Let’s all agree on one thing, shall we? If this truly gruesome plunge in the Company’s price fortunes extends itself, it is a sign that the market as a whole is in a mess of trouble. It’s market cap plunged by >$100B in the stretch of a handful of sessions — before recovering a bit on Friday. At its lows the preceding day, overall valuation had plummeted to a beggarly ~$750B. Pretty much everyone, directly or indirectly, felt the pinch.

So I hold forth that if the attendant head and shoulders configuration reaches the depths of the left shoulder, the market as a whole is indeed in deep sushi.

But that’s just my point: I don’t think that the selloff is sustainable, and in fact am hard pressed to understand why it transpired in the first place. Lord knows there are arguments to be made that: a) the correction was overdue; and b) it stands, perhaps, over an intermediate time horizon, to do a world of good for the health and well-being of the markets in general.

I’ll have more about this further down the page, but first back to Google. It will report earnings on 10/25, at which time it is expected to announce >$27B in Revenues, nearly $9B in profits, at growth rates of 22.7% and 6.5% respectively. 37 out of 42 of the wise sages who officially cover the stock for their brokerages rated it as a BUY — before last week’s puke and the other 5 have it no worse than a HOLD. The consensus one-year target price clocks in at 1384 – a nearly 20% premium over current valuations. For a company ranked Number 4 on a worldwide basis in terms of valuation, that’s not too shabby (did I really just write “not too shabby? Please tell me I didn’t).

But to my way of thinking, the mad love of analysts for Google simply demonstrates always-impeccable sell-side wisdom. No, I mean it this time; seriously. Because it’s time once and for all for us opposable thumb bearing-bipeds to acknowledge that Google is perhaps the most powerful, undivided force in the world; maybe the most awe-inspiring one this side of Genghis Kahn’s Golden Horde. At this point, without Google, our lives as we know it would change dramatically. Consider, if you will, what would happen if The Great Capitol Allocator in the Sky took his enormous eraser out, and disappeared all 100 zeros (not to mention the 10). Traffic lights would immediately stop working. Air Traffic Control Screens would go dark. Our Army, Navy, Marines and even the Coast Guard would be rendered sitting ducks. Hospitals would not have the ability to monitor patient status; your pharmacy could not fill your prescription. The Electric Power Grid would not function. Scientific Research would all but shut down. Much of the world’s most important information would simply disappear. The NFL would probably have to cancel the season, and I personally would be driven to despair by my inability to source old episodes of the Yogi Bear cartoon series (or anything else I might want to stream on a private device).

I’d go so far as to suggest that if we all woke up one morning and every communication device showed nothing but an announcement that Google had taken over completely, that America was now the United States of Google, there’d not be much we could do about it but accept it, carry on and try to smile.

Now calm down; as a trained risk manager, my models say the probability of such an outcome is extremely low, but they also indicate that the Company’s reach and influence can only grow from here. Don’t mistake their silence on blockchain to be a sign of indifference; I suspect they’re working hard on the concept and will eventually own it (perhaps allowing a few No Cal crony enterprises to accompany them on the ride). They are publicly known to be the leaders in Quantum Computing – a concept just on the horizon, not much talked about, but which will inexorably increase the power and speed of computer processing by millions of orders of magnitude. Artificial Intelligence? The Internet of Things? They have gargantuan edges in all of the above. I’m not sure they’ve cornered the future cannabis investment market yet, but I wouldn’t sell them short on that score either.

My point here is that if the pricing action in the markets, as evidenced by names like Google, is really, as has been posited, a sea-change that ushers in an era where the Company’s run is over, that it will start to trade like Johnny John, selling baby powder-like products that are essential but uninspiring, then it probably is time to sell everything in your portfolio and abandon any hope of investment returns anywhere. But the concept of course is ridiculous, and because Google’s run ain’t over, and if so, the name, and the market as a whole, are cheap right here – Friday’s reversal notwithstanding.

So whatever caused the Gallant 500 to rudely and unexpectedly shed nearly 700 basis points – over a rolling 6-day period that began a week ago Thursday and ended (though it could resume) this past Thursday, the normalization of tech leader valuations to public utility levels hypothesis is the ones that ring the hollowest to me. Facebook cannot seem to get through a day without soiling itself, and I’m always skeptical of Netflix, because I think pulling content rabbits out of hats into perpetuity is a tall order. Apple may have overpriced its latest yak devices and could also feel the Chinese tariff pinch. But if we’re talking about Amazon, Microsoft and… …Google, I’m pretty convinced that they have higher elevations to climb ere they are brought down to terra firma. If so, the market as a whole should recover, and quickly.

But what of the other catalysts that across the carnage have been on everyone’s lips? What about, for instance, macro-y stuff? Well, it is indeed worth noting that the start of the above-referenced 6-day puke transpired at a point contemporaneous to an incremental divestiture of our longer-term notes. This took me by surprise, but that will happen from time-to-time. However, I would hasten to point out that the teeth of the horrifying selloff were biting hardest mid-week this week, during a time when our longer dated paper was actually rallying. Meanwhile, the CPI/PPI Reports, contrary to the endless squawking of Chicken Little Inflation hens, came in exactly where they’ve been every month for longer than I remember: 0.1% core, 0.2% overall, 2.7% year-over-year, yada yada yada. In addition, GDP estimates continue to rise with the Atlanta Fed now projecting out a spiffy 4.2% for Q3.

So I really can’t find an economic justification for the big scary correction, and this concerns me. After all, eventually we do, at some point, need to connect the dots between the market and the economy, don’t we? I suspect it was a technically driven culling of the herd (perhaps orchestrated by those evil quant models). And, given that we can expect high-vol conditions to persist, there is every chance that the Chauncey Bear of a selloff could extend itself. But I will stick to my guns here and state my belief that particularly for certain names, and perhaps for the market in general, favorable points entry points are available in abundance. If they continue to go down, my conviction in this regard is likely to increase.

But it’s going to be a rocky ride. While, as indicated above, there’s no reason at the moment to conclude that the recent action is not a healthy correction, it wasn’t and won’t be healthy for everyone in terms of outcomes. Its timing can be viewed as sub-optimal in light of a few unpleasant realities: most of the volatility inducing catalysts (earnings, GDP, etc.) are in front, rather than behind us, and the election psychodrama is likely to increase over the next couple of weeks. Beyond this, I should mention that based upon the numbers I see, 10/10 and 10/11 were the worst P/L sequences (though not, blessedly, to the 100th power) for fund platforms since that VIX debacle in February. 2018 is shaping up to be the worst hedge fund performance year of the decade and there’s only 10 weeks left. Some groups are the walking dead; others are clinging to life. Their continued presence in the markets only adds to the hazard level, and, no matter how sure-footed we are, their death throes present a threat to all of us.

If you’re hanging in there, and, like me, believe that this bad patch will pass sooner rather than later, I’d offer the following advice. There’s no need to try to catch a bottom here. If the market continues to bleed, be patient; buy on the way up. Google’s not going towards 1,400 without providing investors multiple opportunities to jump on board for the ride. If you need to cut risk to preserve capital, as always, I’d also try to protect core themes – even if you must do so at smaller sizes. Shorts are in configuration to be squeezed like grapes and are unlikely to help you if a problematic tape persists. Option hedges are ridiculously expensive at the moment, and never a particularly good bargain even when they’re cheap. But if you wanted to discuss buying those 10% OTM puts, you should’ve called me three weeks ago.

So if you’ve got to cut risk, I say embrace change and sell some longs. After all, to mash up platitudes, nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our main task is to live to fight another day. If you can, channel Google here, which isn’t even Google anymore, but rather is something called Alphabet. The plan for global hegemony presumably marches on. Affiliating with them is no longer a suggestion to “go ogle”, but now evokes images of speculations (“bets”) that outperform Expected Return (“Alpha”). I’ll have to ask Dave if this passes the Dave Test, but one way or another, for now it’s the best I can offer.


Supreme Court Justices Should Be Seen and Not Heard (and Not Seen)

I truly hope that everyone survived the Kavanaugh confirmation madness. Yes, this is my hope, but not my sense, of our current collective mindset. Because whatever side of the fence one occupies, perhaps we can all agree that the spectacle was not the finest visual that this great nation has ever offered. More has been written about this than the rational brain to absorb, so I promise to go easy here. As I mentioned last week, the uber-political timing of the Ford bombshell was in its own way, sublime. But in the end, it probably sunk the opposition. Bringing charges from >35 years ago, that can neither be proved nor (importantly) disproved, was arguably a bridge too far for the hard pressed populous.

More to the point (or my point, at any rate), the sequence generated an inarguably excessive amount of screen time for BK. Here, I will cop to being pretty skeeved out by his multi-hour star turn, which – let’s face it – generated too much information. I did NOT wish to know that he maintained his virginal status well beyond his reaching the age of majority (whether it’s true or not), nor do I believe I benefitted from his forced, tortured definitions of terms like “Boff” and “Devil’s Triangle”. He had many strong moments, but some of his whimpering and self-pitying attacks will be difficult for any of us to un-see.

And all of this got me to thinking that there’s a reason why Supreme Court Justices generally remain out of the public eye. Admit it: other than perhaps Clarence Thomas (who had his own Star Chamber Inquisition over a generation ago), and the inimitable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, would any of you recognize any current members if you bumped into them on the street? Stephen Breyer? Elena Kagan? Samuel Alito? C’mon!! They keep quiet and stay out of the public eye for the holiest of reasons, so we really don’t know them as human beings.

In addition, though it pains me to state it, very few of them are, or ever have been, particularly easy on the eyes. Consider if you will, William (Cue Ball Comb-over) Rehnquist – a fine jurist but hardly a movie matinee idol. The same can be said of Thurgood Marshall, Warren Berger, Melville Fuller, etc.

I’ve done my due diligence here, and have learned that these protocols of demurral began with one Roger Brooke Taney, who held the “first-among-equals” post from 1836 to 1864. History has not been kind to Jolly Roger, and perhaps rightly so, due ng to his unfortunate role in the Dred-Scott decision which as much as anything placed us firmly on the path to Civil War. But we do owe a debt of gratitude for him for being so homely that nobody ever wanted to look at a Supreme Court Justice for the last 15 decades:

Just pipe those jowls – why they are gruesome enough to make Richard Nixon (not exactly a jowl lightweight) green in his grave with envy.

So whatever else happens now that the Supremes are able to take the field with a full line-up, let’s agree that while we can expect them to do important work and write soaring opinions/dissents, they should, by all that we consider sacred, avoid the cameras at all costs – including or maybe even especially BK.

But now this is over, and we can turn our attention to the vast and vexing problems of how to trade these maddening markets. And make no mistake – this is a BIG issue, as, from my perspective, this rapidly elapsing year has been the most difficult performance interlude in this rapidly elapsing decade.

As predicted in this space for several weeks, the volatility bands across almost all tradeable instruments have widened considerably, and I’ll remain perched on the limb I have placed myself by stating my belief that this will continue. It was, of course, a very difficult week for global equity indices, which, after something of a rousing start, came plunging towards terra firma in rather rude fashion over the last couple of sessions.

Maybe some of this is despair over the undignified doings in Washington, but the handiest catalyst was the alarming selloff in global bonds. The puke in our govies actually continued across the entire sequence, and I will cop to some surprise at the vigor and sustainability of the selloff. While everyone was obsessively focused on the 10-year note and 30-year bond, my own attention was also fixed on the 5- year, which not only breached the unthinkable barrier of 3%, but, at 3.06%, resides at levels last seen 10 years ago — almost to the day when the investment world was just waking up to the horrific short-term problems ensued from the Lehman bankruptcy.

Of course, it’s been quite a while since the Big 3 Central Banks all came out as aggressively hawkish as they have been over the last few weeks, but in the U.S., this is nothing particularly new. The FOMC has already raised overnight rates more than a half-dozen times, and everyone knows they’re not done. Yes, the Fed is rolling down its Balance Sheet, but at a very moderate and civilized rate. Over the course of the somewhat unexpected upward shift in the yield curve over the last rolling month, I count a reduction of holdings on the order of less than 1%. And, for what it’s worth, we’re still above the austerity threshold of $4T. Similar moves in Brussels and Tokyo are, at present mostly rhetoric.

So with respect to the big bond selloff, I’ve been asking myself the following question: why now? And I can’t come up with an answer that satisfies me. And as such, I wonder if it is sustainable. Of course, I can point to any number of glib, rate-rise supporting catalysts, including a strong Jobs Report (particularly Hurricane Charlotte-adjusted), an impossible-to-ignore rise in Crude Oil prices, Amazon’s cheesy, politically motivated minimum wage move, and, of course, the encouraging and somewhat surprising surge in Q3 GDP estimates:

If the Bulldog government economist forecasts from the Atlanta Fed are correct, and Q3 clocks in above 4%, it would be quite a coup. And there are some corroborating data points, perhaps most notably those tied to Jobless Claims, Non-Manufacturing ISM and Factory Orders.

We’ll have more information by next week’s installment, particularly after the BLSt releases September inflation numbers. I don’t think they’ll move the needle much, nor do I believe that a p-less 4% is much of a justification for a bond fire sale .

So I’m not entirely convinced that the bond selloff is sustainable, and on a personal level, I’m sorry to offer this prognostication. As my 59th birthday approaches, I find myself with no debt (not even a mortgage), but with enough money in the bank to wish for yields above the 0.00001% that I am currently amassing in my savings accounts.

But I’m just not sure that rates can hold at this levels, much less climb to thresholds that would represent material comfort to me during my rapidly approaching dotage.

Because while I haven’t written about this in many weeks, I continue to believe that there is a shortage of supply of investible securities on a worldwide basis, and this includes both equity and fixed income instruments. Too much QE cash is still sloshing around, and a lot of it needs to find a home. At current levels, to say nothing of yields much higher, government bonds look like cozy landing spot to me.

The same can be said of equities, perhaps even more so. The world has fewer stocks to own than ever before, and while the available inventory is expensive, it’s likely to remain so, because there’s just not enough supply to feed ravenous investment portfolios. I therefore counsel that at levels much below Friday’s close, or, heck, even at current valuations, favorable and elusive entry points are now available.

Yes, it’s going to remain volatile. Among other matters, for the first time this year, the growing chorus of concern about excessive debt levels are starting to reflect themselves in the credit markets, and this across the lending quality curve:

A passel of this paper is coming due over the next couple of years, and refinancing it is likely to be a sloppy exercise. But hey, why worry about what might happen in a couple of years? What I foresee that is within my field of vision is an extension of the mean reversion cycle that we’ve been enduring over the last rolling quarter and beyond. If I’m right, somewhere in here, there’s a bid for both stocks and bonds.

But that’s my secondary call; mostly I think we’re in for a sustained set of sessions characterized by high vol. There is a truly formidable amount of information on the horizon to assault us, and it is likely to bring a mix of delight and despair. Earnings look remarkably strong, and the macro data appears to be, at minimum, solid. But we do have a critical election on the horizon, and I think that qualitative information may be politically and financially impactful. I won’t inventory all of this, but it’s obvious we need to keep an eye on China and even Iran; pretty much anywhere that political rhetoric might move the polls.

I’m going to close with one last shock-worthy prediction: I have a vague hunch that Mueller (remember him?) might drop some type of interim report over the next few days. In general, I applaud him for his reticence, but if he’s the political animal that I suspect he is, such timing would fit the script perfectly. He wouldn’t need to go beyond innuendo to do a great deal of damage.

So it’s tricky out there and I must urge caution. Of course, I’m here to help, but you won’t find much of me on any media forum. After all, who’s to say that someday they won’t call my name to serve on the big bench? If so, I don’t want to blow my chances through over-exposure. I’m not a virgin, am mostly a teetotaler, and don’t think I resemble either Kavanaugh or Taney. But if I am to urge caution upon my readers, I must lead by example. BK: if you’re out there, I suggest you do the same.