Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Finance's Battle of the Somme

When I think of senseless waste, I think of the Battle of the Somme. Whole generations lost in
order to move a trench line forward by a metre or two. Zoom forward in time to the modern finance industry which, for many decades, has been marshaling starry-eyed recruits in search of excess returns. I worry that all their effort has been wasted because, like the Somme's trenches, the integrity of prices can't be advanced any further once large amounts of effort are already being expended in beating the market.

Fund managers who want to beat the market must find unique information in order to get a leg up on their competitors. But the supply of such information is limited so that at some point, prices include pretty much everything there is to know about a company. Any additional effort to hunt down information is wasteful from a society-wide perspective.

The recent-ish phenomena of indexing gives us a feel for how far beyond the 'waste point' we've gone. Rather than trying to beat the market, indexers randomly throw darts at stocks in order to harvest the average market return. Throwing darts is far cheaper than hiring Harvard grads to hunt down information. An indexer is betting that information has already had most of its value wrung out of it, so any effort to search for more doesn't justify the cost.

Say that the finance industry had only progressed a step beyond the waste point. If so, then as investors begin to adopt indexing, the bits of information they stop analyzing become unique again. The marginal return to hunting for information will rise above zero and those engaged in the activity should perform better. The popularity of indexing would quickly stall as money moves back into the beat-the-market game, pushing the value of information back to down to nil. We'd expect the size of the information hunting and indexing ecosystems to stay steady over time as shifts in the marginal value of information are quickly ironed out by movement from one group to the other.

The numbers show the opposite. Index investing has been growing for three decades and shows no sign of slowing. Managed funds have been shrinking since the mid-2000s. And rather than benefiting from the unparsed information that these indexers have left on the table, fund managers continue to lag the average market return. This suggests that we went FAR beyond the 'waste point.' After all, if the brain power that indexing is releasing from the information hunting process has not made information hunting more profitable, then there was way too many people engaged in the activity to begin with.

If markets are supposed to efficiently allocate resources, why did we go so far past the waste point? I suppose we can chalk it up to a combination of greed, hubris, cynicism, and naivete. Whatever the reason, the long trek beyond the waste point has been the financial equivalent of the Somme. For decades, all those investors who thought they could beat the market would have been better off allocating their resources elsewhere. And generations of young Wall Street whizzes could have been making useful things for the rest of us rather than engaging in the equivalent of converting a scorched desert into a scorched desert.

The good news is that the rise of indexed investing is steadily undoing this misallocation. Fund managers, traders, analysts, and advisers are currently being let go so that they can move into different sectors of finance or entirely different industries, a trend that could continue given the fact that non-indexers continue to underperform the market. And this will proceed down the line to financial journalists, financial economists, and all other workers who provide support to the information hunters. These people are alert, ambitious, mobile, and intelligent so the real world should become a more productive place.

As I was writing this, I thought of this post from David Glasner.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Slow money

Would it make sense for firms to try to slow down their equity structure?

Equity markets are made of two classes of participants. The minority consists of long-term investors who, like Ulysses, have 'tied themselves to the mast' and would rather fix things when a company runs into problems than sell out. The majority is made of up rootless speculators and nihilistic indexers who cut and run the moment the necessity arises.

Because their holding period is forever, the long-term investor class does all the hard work of monitoring a company and agitating for change. Keeping management honest is the only recourse they have to protecting their wealth. Speculators and indexers are free loaders, enjoying the same upside as investors without having to contribute to any of the costs of stewardship.

How might long-term investors be compensated for the extra expenses they incur in tending the garden?

One method would be for a firm's management to institute a slow/fast share structure. The equity world is currently dominated by the fast stuff, shares that can be bought and sold in a few milliseconds. A slow share is a regular share that, after having been acquired, must be "deposited" for, say, two years. During the lock down period the shareholder enjoys the same cash dividends as a fast share but they cannot sell. Only when the term is up can the slow share be converted back into a fast share and be got rid of. The illiquidity of slow shares is counterbalanced by a carrot; management makes a promise that anyone who converts into slow shares gets to enjoy the benefit of an extra share down the road i.e. a stock dividend. So a shareholder with 100 fast shares who pledges to lock them in for two years will end up with 101 fast shares once the lock-up period is over.

The investor class, which until now has received no compensation for their hard work, will quickly choose to slow down all their shares and enjoy the biennial stock dividend. Feckless speculators and indexers, unwilling to stay tied down for two years, will keep their fast shares and forgo the dividend. After all, the S&P's constituents could change at any moment, so an ETF/index fund needs to be able to cut and run. And a speculator's trend of choice could reverse at any moment.

By the way, ETFs and index funds aren't the only asset type that I include in the fast money category. Also qualifying are the huge population of funds that claim to be "active" but are actually "closet" indexers, as well as all those funds that say they are engaging in 'investing' but are really just speculators. Given the possibility of sudden redemption requests, they need the flexibility that liquid fast shares provide.

As the slow/fast share structure goes mainstream, the benchmark to which market participants are compared, the S&P 500 Index, will evolve into two flavours, the Fast S&P 500 and the Slow S&P 500, the former including the fast shares of the 500 index members while the latter includes only the slow. The Slow S&P will, by definition, show better returns than the Fast S&P, since slow shares enjoy stock dividends at the expense of fast shares. Nihilistic indexers and rootless speculators will choose to benchmark themselves to the lagging Fast S&P. Active investors with a genuine long-term bias, most of whom will choose to own slow shares, will compare themselves to the better-performing Slow S&P.

Mass adoption of fast/slow share structure could change the complexion of the very combative active vs passive investing debate. Passive investors have typically outperformed active investors after fees, largely because they have been able to freeload off of the stewardship of long-term investors. With a new structure in place, buyers of passive indexed products would—by definition—begin to underperform the average long-term active investor. This is because the dual share structure obliges the passive class to compensate long-term investors for their efforts.

I suspect that the adoption of a fast/slow share structure would increase the size of the investor class. After all, with a long-term investing mentality now being rewarded, those on the margin between the investing class and the mass of speculators/indexers will elect to slow down their shares. Once they have lost the ability to cut & run, the only way to protect their wealth will be through constant surveillance of management and a more activist stance. This is a good thing since long-term shareholders are better stewards of capital than short-term ones. In general, share prices should rise.

On the other hand, as more shares are locked down, market liquidity will suffer. Will the increase in stock prices due to improved stewardship outweigh the drop in prices due to a much narrower liquidity premium? If I had to guess, I'd say yes. Which means that even feckless indexers and speculators should support the subsidization of long-term investors.

Addendum: This isn't a new idea. Read all about loyalty-driven securities here.
Disclaimer: I consider myself to be 50% speculator, 25% indexer, 25% investor. But I'm trying my best to boost the last category.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Shadow banks want in from the cold

Remember when shadow banks regularly outcompeted stodgy banks because they could evade onerous regulatory requirements? Not any more. In negative rate land, regulatory requirements are a blessing for banks. Shadow banks want in, not out.

In the old days, central banks imposed a tax on banks by requiring them to maintain reserves that paid zero percent interest. This tax was particularly burdensome during the inflationary 1970s when short term rates rose into the teens. The result was that banks had troubles passing on higher rates to savers, helping to drive the growth of the nascent U.S. money market mutual fund industry. Unlike banks, MMMFs didn't face reserve requirements and could therefore offer higher deposit rates to their customers.

To help level the playing field between regulated banks and so-called shadow banks, a number of central banks (including the Bank of Canada) removed the tax by no longer setting a reserve requirement. While the Federal Reserve didn't go as far as removing these requirements, it did reduce them and allowed workarounds like "sweeps." But the shadow banking system never stopped growing.

In negative rate land, everything is flipped around. Central bank reserve requirements no longer act as a tax on banks, they can be a subsidy. The Danmarks Nationalbank, Swiss National Bank and Bank of Japan have resorted to a strategy of tiering, where only a small portion of bank reserves are charged a negative rates (say -0.5%) while the rest (the inframarginal amount) can be deposited at the central bank where it earns 0%. Setting a 0.5% penalty on the marginal amount has been enough to drive interest rates on short term government bills and overnight lending rates to -0.5%. Banks that can invest some portion of their funds at 0% rather than the going market rate of -0.5% are getting a nice gift. They can in turn pass this windfall on to their customers by protecting them from negative rates. Shadow banks, which don't have  access to these subsidies because they don't have accounts at the central bank, are at a competitive disadvantage; they must invest all their funds at the going market rate of -0.5% and will therefore have to share the pain with their customers by reducing deposit rates into negative territory. This growing deposit rate gap should lead to retail and corporate flight from shadow bank deposits into protected regulated bank deposits.

We've certainly seen this in Japan. Around ten MMMFs quickly closed their doors to new funds after the Bank of Japan reduced rates to -0.1%. And now money reserve funds (MRFs) are clamouring for protection from negative rates. So while it used to be a disadvantage to be a subjugated bank and good to be a shadow bank, in negative rate land it's the exact opposite. Better to be shackled than to be free.

By the way, I'm wondering if this is why the ECB decided not to introduce tiered deposit rates last week, pointing to the "complexity of the system." Europe has a relatively large MMMF industry compared to Japan; perhaps it wanted to avoid any financial turbulence that might be set off by subsidies that benefit one set of bankers but not the other.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Are the Swiss fleeing deposits and hoarding cash?

Have Swiss interest rates fallen so low that the public is finally bolting into cash? The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hedge think so. They both point to big jump in 1000 franc notes outstanding as evidence that Switzerland has finally breached the effective lower bound to interest rates.

Let's not get too hasty. Yes, the current run into paper francs may have something to do with Switzerland having hit its effective lower bound, the point at which paper francs provide a superior return to electronic francs. But Swiss francs also serve as a global safe haven asset. And this safe haven demand, operating entirely independent from effective lower bound demand, could be motivating people to amass 1000 franc notes in vaults.

The effective lower bound problem is the idea that if a central bank drops rates low enough, a tipping point will be reached at which it becomes cheaper to hold 0% yielding banknotes and incur storage fees than to stay invested in negative yielding deposits. The large spike in demand for the 1000 franc note, Switzerland's largest value note and thus the lowest cost Swiss storage option, may be the first indication that a tipping point has been reached.

Let's look at the data. Below is a chart that shows the year-over-year change in Swiss franc banknotes outstanding as well as deposits. For comparison sake I've divided the banknote data into a 1000 franc series and all other franc notes.

The current jump in demand for 1000 notes, the blue line, is just one of six spikes over the last two decades. You can see that some of these spikes have been accompanied with jumps in demand for smaller notes and deposits, and some haven't.

In the next chart I've subtracted the yearly percentage change in Swiss bank deposits outstanding from the percent change in 1000 franc notes in circulation to show the degree to which the demand for large value cash is exceeding that of deposits.

If we are at the effective lower bound, we'd expect to see simultaneous implosion in deposit growth and an explosion in cash growth. The blue line should be at its highest point ever. What we actually see is a mere 10.3% differential. The quantity of notes in circulation is growing at 11% while deposits are growing at just 0.7%. This level is by no means extreme; five other spikes in the cash-to-deposit differential are apparent in the chart, most of which plateaued at or above the current level. These previous spikes in demand for 1000 notes occurred when Swiss interest rates were above zero, so something other than lower bound concerns must have motivated them. What are they?

The jump in 1999 is certainly Y2K-related as people fretted that the banking system would collapse and thus hoarded paper francs. And the 2001-02 spike in demand for 1000 franc notes is probably linked to 9/11 as well as the ongoing collapse in stock markets. The sudden rise in demand in 2008 coincides nicely with the credit crisis. Finally, the 2011-12 rise occurred in parallel with growing fears about Target2 imbalances and a potential euro break up, the run into 1000 franc notes coming to a halt almost to the month of Draghi's famous speech to do 'whatever it takes.'

So the lesson is that Swiss 1000 notes play a role as a safe haven asset. When bad things happen, they are preferred to other note denominations and franc deposits.

Fast forward to the present, I can use this safe haven status to tell a story about the current spike in demand. The coming to power of Syriza late in 2014 and a slow-moving euro crisis led to a sudden preference for 1000 franc notes, much like how the period of euro skepticism in 2011-12 stoked demand for Swiss cash. Concerns over China, the oil price collapse, growing credit worries, and a bear market in equities have further incited investor movement into large denomination francs. At the same time, deposit growth is relatively neutral, a pattern reminiscent of the credit crisis. As these concerns abate, the run into 1000 franc notes will subside, even if Swiss interest rates stay locked in negative territory.

I think that's a pretty reasonable story. The upshot is that while the run into 1000 franc notes could certainly indicate that the effective lower bound has been triggered, it is by no means the only explanation. People may simply be accumulating the 1000 as a safe asset in the context of growing global worries. Absent a smoking gun, Tommy Jordan, head of the Swiss National Bank, will probably not be using the increase in large denomination notes outstanding as a reason to avoid further rate cuts, at least not yet. When demand growth for 1000 notes is exceeding that of deposits by 30% or so, then he should be concerned.

Previous articles on Swiss cash demand:

- - {1} - -The ZLB and the impending race into Swiss CHF1000 bank notes
- - {2} - - Central banks' shiny new tool: cash escape inhibitors
- - {3} - - Plumbing the depths of the effective lower bound