Don’t Panic

Snip20160327_1OK, so the other week everyone who was anyone was banging on about the AlphaGo programme from The Google’s DeepMind that can, so far, beat humans at Go. Baruch’s understanding is that this was a different type of AI than we’ve seen with Deep Blue and Watson kicking human butt at chess and Jeopardy. Both of those deployed the main trump card that computers have against human minds — the ability to scan, prioritise, sort and rank huge databases extremely rapidly to come up with statistically likely solutions to well defined questions. All they needed to defeat the humans were mega amounts of computer processing, clever coders, a ludic fallacy and a large, cold room to keep the servers in.

DeepMind, so far as I am told, uses something more akin to analogy in its core processing, with a feedback loop that keeps the focus on a narrowly defined and therefore manageable number of moves. Words Baruch pretends to understand but probably doesn’t, like “neural networks” and “deep learning”have been bandied about. To play Go well, you clearly have to be able to program smart. That said, AlphaGo doesn’t seem terribly parsimonious in its use of processing grunt: a “mere” 2000 CPUs, as well as 280 high end GPUs using what we experts* call parallel processing, so perhaps it’s still just the typical thing of throwing Moore’s Law at something until you have enough computing power to make it work eventually. But it probably isn’t, in which case chapeau, DeepMind.

So overall, it’s mildly interesting, and at a more mercenary level, grist to Baruch’s mill. If the advances made by DeepMind bring us one step closer to the massive disruption digital automation is going to wreak on business and society, then I’m going to be quids in. My current project is about providing investors with an opportunity to take advantage of those transformations, so this can only encourage more people to want to invest when my idea finally goes live. Yay!

We all need to hedge against the coming AI whirlwind, and this is Baruch’s plan. However, his biggest worry is resistance is futile — that even his job as a fund manager is going be replaceable by machines, like all of yours will be. So imagine his horror when he saw this (HT Alphaville) in Wired from back in January.

LAST WEEK, BEN Goertzel and his company, Aidyia, turned on a hedge fund that makes all stock trades using artificial intelligence—no human intervention required.

Oh bollocks, he thought.

But at times like this I think of Douglas Adams, and have learned not to panic.

Continue reading “Don’t Panic”

Buy and hold no more?

Baruch has long held that the academic finance industry has produced nothing of lasting worth. Or at least nothing that has helped anyone make money consistently, which is, after all most of the point of the exercise, isn’t it? In fact the impact of the academics on markets has probably been on balance pernicious, contributing to overconfidence, instability and perdiodic crisis as much as it has shed light on the inner workings of anything. I’m thinking of course of Black and Scholes, portfolio insurance, hard Efficient Market theories and the large number of ” new paradigms” we have had in the past 30 years, which invariably ended in disastrous crashes, with yet looser money in their wake and another round of inevitable “new paradigms”. All of them, I guarantee you, had the solid imprimatur of some finance professor somewhere or other.

It is not all hopeless, however, because the academic study of finance has also produced Andrew Lo, whose “adaptive market hypothesis” seems to Baruch to sum up better than most how things actually work. Insofar as Baruch understands it, the general idea borrows from biology and behavioural economics. It is that markets are crucibles for evolution and adaptation, like an ecosystem, and while they can be efficient they are so only periodically and then only in bits. Strategies that work well will only do so for a time; only punters able to identify changes in the environment rapidly enough and (more difficult perhaps given the current animus against “style drift”) able to adapt their style of investment to profit, or at least not blow up, will survive. That, by the way, survival, appears to be the name of the game in the adaptive market; sticking around long enough to make it to retirement. It’s not an easy place to hang out in. As Spinoza was fond of saying, we also know this from experience to be true.

The point is, I always watch out for something from Lo and read it avidly. I was therefore very surprised to find myself disagreeing with something he was saying in an interview with CNN Money (HT I am sure either Josh or Tadas, like everything else), which was that the increased use and democratisation of technology in financial markets has led to higher levels of volatility and instability that make “buy and hold” no longer viable:

Buy-and-hold doesn’t work anymore. The volatility is too significant. Almost any asset can suddenly become much more risky. Buying into a mutual fund and holding it for 10 years is no longer going to deliver the same kind of expected return that we saw over the course of the last seven decades, simply because of the nature of financial markets and how complex it’s gotten.

Baruch worries that Lo, while likely spectacularly right in general with his highly convincing theory, may be wrong in the particular here.  Continue reading “Buy and hold no more?”

Do let’s be optimistic . . . even if we don’t feel like it

 

Tis (or, by the time I finish this post, ’twas) the season for pundits to give specific predictions for 2012 and a more pointless exercise has yet to be devised. Baruch isn’t going to waste your time doing this, for various reasons. The main one is that Baruch has long been convinced he is almost always wrong about almost everything. His only solace (and it is a big one*) is that everyone else is always wrong as well, and unlike him they don’t know it.

This year prediction seems a lot more difficult anyway. If Baruch is at all representative of bien pensant investor opinion the overriding emotion among practitioners today is a lack of confidence in anything, especially themselves. This is because almost without exception everyone traded like an idiot in 2011, both on the hedge fund side, where “slightly down” is the new “up”, and on the side of benchmarked long only funds. As you may know, Baruch is a professional investor and helps run one of these latter things. Looking at his peer group he is amazed, despite a mild underperformance, to find himself firmly in the top quartile in YTD relative returns. Despite this, he feels like a schmuck. How much worse must the average PM have fared, he asks himself. Just why has everyone done so badly this year?

Baruch has some ideas about why this is; a lot of it can be put down to the narrative of the year and investor positioning.  Overall, the majority of the active management community were extremely badly positioned for the key moves in the market in the back half of 2011. They were mostly long for the big August swoon associated with the US credit rating cut, and many compounded this by adding exposure into the decline too early — catching falling knives, in the parlance. Having finally understood the appalling ramifications of the European debt crisis, investors were nice and short, or in cash, for the quick but steep October rally that brought the major indices almost back up to the point at which they had broken down back again in August. Shellshocked, with what seemed had seemed a decent year now in tatters, all they were able to do in November and December was curl up in a foetal position, to derisk, and hope the kicking stopped.

A time of derisking, by the way, is a terrible time for those who are not derisking to make money. It means PMs selling positions that they like, and buying the ones that they hate. If everyone is doing this it makes for the market of Bizzarro World, where down is up and up is down. Good stocks, at best, make no traction, while bad stocks are likely to squeeze. November and December were marked by this worst of enviroments, what Baruch calls “high amplitude chop”. This had the effect on putting the kibosh on the few players left who still had any profits, and who had thus been less inclined (the fools) to join the mass huddle.

By the end of 2011, then, the performance-led derisking must have been largely complete, and at least some investors, if not the majority of them, are probably looking at trying their luck in a new year, with slates wiped clean, and having another go at earning those management fees again. Indeed the last datapoint in 2011 from ISI, who tracks these things, had the gross at hedge funds (a measure of how much of their capital they have deployed in short and long positions) at the same level as June 2008 — ie very low, crisis levels. Not at all what you would expect at the end of a year in which the S&P was only flat.

Just off that then, it would seem that maybe we don’t have to worry too much, and we could have a return to something approaching a normal environment where active management works again. In fact it is necessary to be mostly optimistic in this business, as a general rule. But then again I suspect I am merely trying to reassure myself because while people may be underinvested, there is also a very high degree of nervousness out there. It won’t take much to bring us back to derisk mode again, and if 2012 is another chop-filled  year like 2011 for active managers, well the only people who are going to be happy are the indexers. And they’re the enemy.

I would like to end the blogpost right there, and not talk about the things which are actively making me worried, such as $200bn in dodgy European sovereign paper to roll over, the apparent Chinese slowdown, nasty commodity trends and record high corporate margins etc etc, because thinking about these things makes me stressed out.

Happily, others have done that better than me**. So I sign off and wish my reader(s) a very happy and prosperous new year.

* knowing that whatever thesis you have in your head is likely to be wrong makes it much easier to discard it when it gets falsified, or when you think of something better. Knowing also that you are really quite thick makes it harder to worry about looking stupid (why live a lie?), and more money is lost trying not to look stupid than in any thing else you are likely to do in the stockmarket.

** Baruch is not sure whether The Interloper makes him want to retire from blogging or want to blog a lot more. Either way, it is grand he is around to be read. If he wants a hand on Euro Telcos he can drop me a line.

Homicidal zombie markets reconsidered

Baruch received old media brickbats for his bloggy frettings last year about the impact and meaning of QE2. At the time, while understanding why people thought it was necessary, he worried that we were opening a can of worms which were going to wriggle off in all sorts of undesirable directions. He wrote:

in his darker moments that Baruch thinks a very good analogy for where we are right now is Pet Sematary. The people who buried their cat (and later their son) in the Indian burial ground to bring it back to life got something which looked ostensibly like a cat, but was so only on the outside. On the inside their little puddy tat  was really an undead homicidal zombie cat, as became clear through its increasingly odd behaviour. Unintended consequences followed (mayhem, murder, horror, the Wendigo — all that Stephen King stuff).

The Bernank is like the guy who buried his cat, but in this case instead of a resuscitated cat he wanted his rally back, a healthy stock market and the wealth effect that would bring. I worry we have got something else.

Pointing to potentially horrible unknown unknowns tends to capture the imagination much less than pointing to the definitely unpleasant known knowns of an imminent economic slowdown. The QE2ers’ argument at its core was the eternal and seductive call that Something Must Be Done. No less than James Suroweicki at the New Yorker picked up Baruch’s idea of the “undead homicidal zombie market”, tautology and all, and lumping me in with the Tea Partiers, House Republicans and the other dead-end no-brained foes of QE, labelled us  “hysterical”. Baruch loves the New Yorker, but knowing their editorial stance and lack of track record when it comes to advising macro funds and governments, Baruch concluded their love of QE was less a well-thought-out economic analysis, and more a gleeful response to finding their political foes against an idea that felt “right”, Colbert-like, in their gut. In his response, (Felix also had a good one) Baruch bemoaned the politicisation of monetary policy by anyone. This hasn’t got any better — having an (admittedly Texan) presidential candidate threatening the Chairman of the Federal Reserve with a tarrin’ and a featherin’ if he buys any more bonds doesn’t seem conducive to a mature conversation on the subject.

So, was Baruch right? Or were the Suroweickians? An interesting thought experiment would be to think of where we would be without that second round of easing. With the benefit of hindsight I’m inclined to think we would have been better off right now had we not done QE2. Why? Continue reading “Homicidal zombie markets reconsidered”

No Second Chances

Baruch has been reading Asymco, a fascinating techie site he was put onto by Jean-Louis Gassé at Monday Note, and those interested in tech investing should really have a look at it. You can now see the site popping up on more generalist econo-investing sites like AR. Anyway, introductions over; there was something Asymco’s proprietor Horace Dedieu wrote earlier this month that made Baruch sit up and think.  “The post-PC era,” he wrote, ” will be a multi-platform era,

The thesis that one dominant platform wins the mobile “war” is naive.  . . Developers already understand this. Platform vendors know this. It’s time to unlearn the lessons of the PC era.

Evidence for this? Microsoft Windows Mobile platform apps are growing at a percentage growth rate that is faster than WM users grow, who collectively make up so little of the pie of smartphone users that the slice representing them would be mostly invisible. It’s not getting any better. WM activation rates are 1/28 of that of Android smartphones. The platform is continuing to lose share with subscribers yet, strangely, still seems to be gaining relative share in apps.

What appears responsible for this is the previously unheard-of ease of transferring apps from one platform to another, software tools such as Microsoft’s that allow the rapid creation of new apps and their adaptation for different operating systems, and an economic system that is set up to make writing software for mobile applications a “cottage industry” with a thousand points of light, rather than an industrial enterprise with 2 or 3 dominant players. The marginal cost of creating apps and sharing them between platforms seems to be very low indeed.  So why not make or adapt apps for Windows Mobile? You never know, it might come back. Mango, the new version which will be Nokia v.2’s adopted OS, might be the Apple or Android killer Microsoft hopes it will be.

If the ability to run the largest number of apps determines success then, far from being a returns to scale market like the one for PCs, the implication is that the market for smartphone platforms will be fluid, with nothing written in stone. There will be room for their relative shares to ebb and flow, variously dominating, fading and coming back repurposed for the new new thing in mobile computing: on this reading, it will be something like the game console market today, where 3 viable platforms survive.

What this means in its most practical sense is that there is hope for the platforms falling behind now, such as HP’s WebOS, RIM, and for OEMs like Nokia, for whom Mango is the only game in town. The implications for stocks are major. The option value in RIMM and Nokia would be much much higher than current share prices imply. This would make a lot of people who are short these stocks very unhappy.*

Comfortingly for them, however, there are equally compelling arguments that mobile computing will end up more like the PC industry than anything else. Firstly I suspect that, contra Horace, the profusion of WM apps has more to do with the sponsorship of Microsoft and its deep pockets than a sudden developer interest in championing losing platforms.  Secondly, its not just developers who decide who wins; operators remain in the mix. Their atavistc promotions and subsidy policies can also determine which platform sells. Don’t forget, moreover, that O/Ses are free! Android makes it so you can’t underprice zero to gain market share for your new platform. That helps to freeze things in place and mitigate against fluidity.

But most of all, the apps game remains secondary to the real goal of platform competition. The aim of the game, the whole schlemiel, remains to sell hardware, not software. Apple’s app store revenue is negligible in comparison to their hardware revenues, and will be for some time to come, at least until Apple finds a way to persuade people to buy higher ASP apps. Frequent purchase of 90c apps won’t move the needle against a $600-$900 hardware sale, even if everyone buys Angry Birds (and they probably already have). Until the dynamics of the mobile computing market stop being hardware heavy,  platforms are still vulnerable to hardware death spirals of the sort we’re seeing in RIMM and Nokia right now, where scale returns and operational leverage go into reverse

Don’t think either that just because is easier to write apps for a platform it is going to make it break out. The fact is that if all apps were available on all platforms rather than freeing up competition it would be likely to freeze the status quo in hardware into place. What killer app can Microsoft’s Mango offer me that I can’t get on my iPhone? What could possibly make me change my Android phone? A more functional OS? Better hardware at a cheaper price? Possibly. More likely that in the absence of anything significantly better than what I have currently I won’t change at all. Ecosystems are grabbing territory now that it will be hard to dislodge them from.

The dream of a fluid ecosystem for mobile computing is nice, especially for software developers tired of being the bitches of the hardware dudes. But it looks far off still. Mobile looks subject to the same laws that have governed tech markets throughout  history. That law is: no second chances. Value investing in consumer or enterprise tech very very rarely works. This is the key message for those who read Baruch’s last post and have fired their retail brokers and dumped their index funds, and who may be tempted to go off any buy RIMM at a 5x PE (don’t let me stop you, but do let me help you think before you do it)**. The graveyard of history is littered with those names that didn’t come back. For those that did, such as IBM, and indeed Apple, we forget just how low the low point was, and how wrenching it was to do the right thing so as to eventually re-emerge.

* you may think that this group of people includes Baruch. You may think that if you wish. But I couldn’t possibly comment.

** as I have said before, if you take anything you read on a blog written by an anonymous author as actionable investment advice, you may not be too bright. I can do nothing for you.

The stockmarket is still where it’s at

Baruch is more pleased than he can say to see his pal Felix get a spot on the NYT’s op ed page. But I wish he had written about bonds, or art or something else. He knows I don’t like it when he is rude about stocks.

Felix uses the occasion of the takeover of the NYSE by Deutsche Börse to claim the US stockmarket has become somehow “irrelevant”. Far from being the “bedrock” of American capitalism, he writes, instead

the stock market is becoming little more than a place for speculators and algorithms to compete over who can trade his way to the most money. . . a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.

Well.

Excuse me, but when any stockmarket not been full of speculators trying to outdo each other? Algobots are new, to be sure, but they don’t change the market’s essential nature, other than giving bad or unlucky traders another mealy mouthed excuse as to why they lost money. I think the great traders of stockmarket history, Jesse Livermore, Bernard Baruch and our own George Soros would be amused to be thought of as something other than speculators.

Yes, sometimes stocks can go up when economic growth is only so-so; the link between the two is indirect. Eventually they correlate, but the period when they don’t mesh can be pretty long. Increasingly though, as companies globalise, they reflect global economic growth. And you all have to get used to the fact that the US economy isn’t as relevant as it once was.

Sure, it might be that the number of listed companies has fallen. Baruch hasn’t counted. But so what if there are fewer? Is that bad? I would imagine that after a period of prolonged weakness, such as we have come through, when IPOs were hard and bankruptcies and mergers common, the number of listed entities would fall. It’s a bit like speciation in biology; every now and then we get Cambrian-like explosions, and periods of higher extinction levels. Let’s not draw conclusions from low samples. And anecdotally it is simply not true that there are no IPOs out there, and no small IPOs. Baruch has been positively plagued with them in the past 12 months, from second rate brokers pushing illiquid crap I wouldn’t go near with my worst enemy’s money, to once in a lifetime opportunities the Goldmans and Morgans have to beat the investors off with sticks. There was a great one the other day, and Baruch would love to tell you about it. But he won’t.

Where Felix is right is when he says that there are lots of interesting companies out there who don’t want to go public; its a complete pain, having to explain yourself to people like me. There are certain things about how investors think, their collective expectations, the behaviours they force companies into, that make Baruch’s toes curl. But there is one very important reason for going public which still proves, ultimately, irresistible to entrepreneurs, and it is this: it’s the only way to pay yourself and your people stock options. It is still the easiest way of making a lot of people very rich, and keeping them rich.

And ultimately whether Facebook goes public or not won’t change the central importance of stockmarkets. They are still the cockpit where it all happens, where the key society-shaping corporate entities of our time, such as Apple and Google, keep score against each other and their competitors. The power of a massive market cap doesn’t necessarily get used in all-stock M&A or when it raises money; it is a latent power, it is potential financial energy, which you don’t want to waste. You typically don’t want to use your equity to raise money as it dilutes you. But your stockmarket valuation sure as hell counts when and if someone wants to buy you.

Does the stockmarket allocate capital as efficiently as it used to? I have no idea, but frankly if you think you know better than the stockmarket how to allocate capital in a complex economy, I suggest you get back in your time machine and return to the 1970s to see how well that worked out last time.

I think far from being irrelevant, stocks are the asset class of the future; we had the years where bonds ruled in the noughties, and it ended badly. The Asian countries which are leading global growth now are debt averse, and their main focus is on their own equity markets which are getting almost as important, and just as liquid and vibrant, as the NYSE, with world leading companies like TSMC, Samsung, and Infosys trading billions of dollars on their local exchanges every day. Meantime, this is Baruch’s advice: stop worrying, and go buy an actively-managed mutual fund or go research a selection of stocks in spaces you know about, with the aim of holding them for a few years. Make sure that at least some of them are listed in a different country (but you can still buy the ADRs). Try not to listen to brokers. Keep reading Felix’s blog, though.

The market as an analysis-free zone

Baruch has noted a curious thing about this results season, dear readers. Sell side analysts seem to have stopped doing as much research as they used to. I think it’s because, in the light of the SEC’s insider-trading investigation and a lack of certainty between what constitutes legitimate insight and illegal information, they are keeping a low profile. If it continues it could give great power to some of the market’s worst actors, and create a lot more single-stock volatility. Already this earnings season there seemed to be a lot more violent moves in stocks than usual. Hopefully Baruch is imagining it, and if he isn’t, let’s hope it is temporary.

It was most obvious when F5 blew up in late January. The print was merely in line, and the guidance, sin of sins, was weak. FFIV opened down 20% and stayed down. This sort of move off a quarter can happen in tech, and is not at all uncommon. What was vaguely unusual, however, was  the extent of the surprise: there was no warning. The company had made no hints it had seen any weakness, and none of the analysts covering it had done the usual checks with their sources. Worse, no-one really knew what everyone else was expecting. There were no “whisper” numbers out there. Frightened of being accused of insider trading , no one had done the work. Continue reading “The market as an analysis-free zone”