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In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Was...

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IN A WORLD OF UNDERPRICED RISK, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?


Monday September 17, 2012

 
EUGENE LINDEN
 
On a recent conference call, the strategist of a major international bank (it was an off-the-record call for clients only) laid out the bare bones of what he called the world’s “giant experiment” in debt and interest rates. Never before have so many countries maintained such low base rates for so long; never before in peacetime have so many countries had such huge deficits and debt burdens; never before in U.S.  history had long term rates been so low; never before has the U.S. gone so many decades without deflation following inflation. Because we live in these unprecedented times, it’s easy to lose sight just our strange they are… and how dangerous.
 
Consider just one small piece of this brave new world: What happens when the huge preponderance of the global financial market under prices risk?  To add to the list offered by the strategist: Never before has so much debt been referenced to benchmarks that price debt too low for their inherent risks. The distortions of this unique situation have been well-documented – underfunded pensions and impoverished retirees for instance -- but reversion to the fair pricing of risk would almost certainly crater the global financial system and governments around the world.
 
This leaves us in an exquisitely cruel predicament. An underpinning of any sustainable financial system is the proper pricing of risk. If I am going to loan you money, the interest rate I charge will reflect what kind of return I can fairly demand (assuming that the borrower can turn to someone else if I charge too much) given all the different factors that might prevent me from being repaid in full.  For any given financial instrument, these factors might include the quality of collateral, inflation expectations, the character of the borrower, and a host of other factors including the political stability of the borrower’s home country. To the degree that I charge too low an interest rate I am subsidizing the borrower, assuming a portion of risk that the borrower is not paying for, and increasing the likelihood that I will not be repaid in full.
 
That’s where we are right now, with every lender, depositor and investor in the developed world (which includes most of us when we consider pension funds and insurers) blithely assuming much more risk than we are being compensated for. This has allowed, actually encouraged, the entire developed world to pile on debt at levels without precedent. When events force a settling of this world-wide mispricing, we risk the mother of all financial crises. Will it be hyperinflation as governments try to devalue debt burdens, a deflationary spiral and credit freeze as floating rates soar to try and catch up, or all of the above?
 
Naturally, all of this has been done by design. On the one hand, central banks around the world have for years been pursuing policy rates at or near zero (nicknamed ZIRP or Zero Interest Rate Policy) since 2008 (and long before in the case of Japan), ostensibly to encourage profitable lending in order to restore vigor to economies. Through programs such as Operation Twist in the U.S. and the LTRO (Long Term Refinancing Operation) in Europe, central banks have also sought to supply liquidity and bring down long-term rates. Thus the vast universe of both high yield and investment grade bonds, priced more to their spread from treasuries than for nominal yield, underprices risk to the degree that fed actions underprice the risk in U.S. sovereign debt.
 
Then, as we discovered this year, LIBOR, an unofficial rate inaugurated in 1986 to reflect the price that the biggest banks pay to borrow from each other, also has been manipulated to understate the risks bank see in lending to their peers. LIBOR is the benchmark for many trillions of dollars in debt and financial instruments (estimates range up to $800 trillion, a truly ridiculous number that underscores what a monster LIBOR has become). Central bankers in the U.K. and the U.S. have known for at least five years that LIBOR was being manipulated to understate what might constitute a true interbank rate. Mervyn King, a governor of the Bank of England, witheringly described LIBOR in 2008 “as the rate at which banks don’t lend to each other.”
 
The authorities tolerated this manipulation because they feared then, and still do today, that the real interest rate at which banks would actually lend to each other would be so high as to cause a global panic given the impossibly huge amount to debt benchmarked to LIBOR.Between them, ZIRP and LIBOR affect financial instruments that cover most of the credit waterfront. To paraphrase Jim Grant, much of the developed world lives in a world of return free risk.
All this de facto philanthropy by investors has been a windfall some governments – including the U.S. and Japan -- allowing them to pile on debt without having to commensurately increase the amount they budget for interest. For banks ZIRP has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, big banks have access to extremely cheap money, but, on the other, the risks of lending in a debt-burdened and bruised economy often don’t justify the meager nominal returns that can be achieved. Also, the tiny margins at the zero bound mean that the short-term collateralized lending that supports money market funds and much of the shadow banking system can become unprofitable in the blink of an eye. Thus, ultralow rates, historically associated with the risk of inflation, can actually withdraw liquidity from the market, and produce a deflationary spiral.
 
This is just one of the paradoxes of this strange new world. Another is that even as rates suggest that risk has been banished in the 21stcentury, the number of governments and corporations deemed risk free by the rating agencies continues to shrink. According to the New York TIMES, the number of AAA rated corporations in the U.S. has dropped from in the 60s in the 1980s to just four today. The number of Triple A-Rated sovereigns shrinks apace. One reason for the parsimony in handing out AAA ratings today comes from barn-door closing by the rating agencies after the heady days of the housing bubble when any loan had a bright future as part of a AAA-rated financial instrument thanks to the alchemy of securitization. The continuing global hangover from this historic mispricing (and miss-rating) underscores the misery that follows the misunderstanding of risk.
 
Why then do financial authorities persist in underpricing risk so soon after that near-death experience? Simply put, we can’t do otherwise. ZIRP and a low low LIBOR push the day of reckoning off into the future, and allow governments and investors to retain the faint hope that some yet to be identified engine of growth will save the day. If, however, interest rates were to rise to discount actual risk, debt service would soar to consume tax revenues for the U.S., Japan, and other profligate governments, a flood of insolvencies would ensue, what little mortgage lending that remains would shrink further (pushing home prices down and further impoverishing households that have seen their net worth plummet since 2008), and economic activity would shrivel throughout the developed world.
Central bankers do have one lucky break that gives them breathing room in this ultimately unsustainable situation: inflation remains far over the horizon. All the money printed around the world really isn’t going anywhere (except to buy up the too-cheap debt issued by governments and agencies). It certainly isn’t going to wages – outsourcing has killed that legacy of the bell-bottom era – and there is plenty of slack capacity that needs to be filled before any developed world economy overheats. Nor is it going into consumption -- most households are still drowning in debt, which limits their desire to spend, even if people could qualify for additional credit. 
 
So, the Federal Reserve continues to push out the date, currently 2015 and counting, at which they say they will wean the economy from ZIRP, and LIBOR remains surreally below a level at which banks might actually lend to each other. Given the alternative, however, who can blame the financial authorities? The only choice seems to be to hold our breath, and hope that no event or mistake causes the ping pong ball to fall on to the table full of mouse traps that now constitutes the global financial system: 

contact Eugene Linden

Short Take

I’ve just read Black Edge, by Sheelah Kolhatkar, which is about the huge insider trading scam that characterized Steve Cohen’s SAC Capital at the height of its power. I’m going to offer the thoughts it prompted in two parts. The first will delve into the trade itself, and the second will explore the fallout from this insider trading scandal and subsequent events in the market.

Part One:

A good part of Black Edge focuses on one specific instance of insider trading at SAC Capital: Mathew Martoma’s quest for advance knowledge of the results of trials on the efficacy of Elan Pharmaceutical’s experimental drug to halt Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, bapineuzumab, was designed to attack the amyloid plaques that Elan’s scientists viewed as the cause of cognitive decline. In his quest for “black edge” (illegal inside information) Martoma and his compatriots compromised the integrity of the procedures for drug trials and ruined the life and reputation of a distinguished scientist.  Even that wasn’t enough for them. SAC also had access to vast amounts of biotech expertise, both from PhDs on their payroll, and the expert networks they paid handsomely to give them access to researchers with direct access to the studies and trials.

 

In the short run, this inside information paid off for SAC as Martoma’s advance knowledge of the results allowed the hedge fund to reverse a billion dollar position and make a profit of over $180 million versus certain losses of hundreds of millions had they not gotten advance information on a disappointing field trial. In the long run, while Steve Cohen skated, the insider cases led to $1.8 billion in fines, the dissolution of SAC, and jail time for Martoma.

 

In retrospect, it was all so stupid. SAC could have come to the conclusion that Elan’s drug was not going to work without resorting to anything illegal.

 

Instead of deploying all this massive intellectual firepower on getting advance word on the results of the trials, the analysts might have started by asking how solid were the assumptions on which the therapy was based: namely, whether attacking the plaques would halt or reverse the progress of the disease.

 

Even in 2008 and 2009, there were a number of researchers at distinguished universities who questioned that basic assumption. The alternate theory was that the plaques were not the cause of the disease, but rather an analogue of scabbing, the result of the body’s attempt to protect the brain from infection.

 

 In subsequent years, this alternate view has gained some traction, with some now arguing that Alzheimer’s is akin to an autoimmune disease in the sense that as the environment in developed countries has become more antiseptic, protective devices in the brain have turned on the brain itself as the infections they evolved to fight have disappeared. In any events a drumbeat of failed trials with drugs attacking amyloids has discredited this approach. As Tara Spires-Jones, of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems put it in an interview with Britain’s Independent, “Most of the trials have been based on the assumption that amyloid is important in causing Alzherimer’s diseas, as opposed to something that happens alongside it. That assumption, I think, is probably wrong…”

 

Even in 2007, SAC’s analysts should have known that many attempts to fight Alzheimer’s by fighting the formation of plaques had failed. Given all the time the fund spent analyzing the drug and trials it must occurred to someone to ask whether Elan was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe someone there did just that, but there’s no indication that the decision makers ever questioned the assumptions upon which the drug was built.

 

Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. SAC wanted certainty. Clearly, detailed advance knowledge of the results of a field trial is more compelling than a dissenting theory on the nature of the disease. Had SAC questioned the assumptions of the study, they never would have amassed a position in Elan, and they probably wouldn’t have had sufficient certainty to short the stock prior to the results being announced.

 

What can be drawn from this? There are implications about the pressures of the markets – SAC employees felt that had to cheat to maintain performance – but there are also implications about the culture of world of investing.  Alzheimer’s is a horrifying disease, but the book makes a strong case that neither Cohen, nor anyone else at SAC, gave a rat’s ass whether the drug worked or not; they only cared about knowing the results before anyone else and about how other traders would view the data when it came out.  The same probably applied to every other fund playing Elan.

 

It isn’t news that the markets are amoral, but this amorality has real world consequences. The punishment the market meted out to Elan (and other companies with failed trials) makes all but the largest companies risk averse about investing in therapies for difficult diseases. There is a short-term logic to this from an investor’s point of view, but, increasingly, the market sets research priorities, and the market’s priorities – controlling costs and maximizing short-term profits – may not serve the needs of society. Researchers know that breakthroughs often come from learning from failed previous attempts.  So where will breakthroughs come from as fewer and fewer companies risk failure?

 

Part Two:

 

Further thoughts on Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar

The insider trading scandal at SAC confirmed a widely held suspicion among ordinary investors that Wall Street is a rigged game where powerful players can cheat with impunity.  Regardless of the truth of that suspicion, the widely held perception that this is the case has had its own reverberations. In a delicious irony, one of the derivative effects of the market crash and subsequent insider trading scandals has been to make more likely a future in which black edge is less useful.

 

Bear with me.

 

What happened with Elan revealed a contradiction at the heart of the markets. SAC was driven to seeking black edge by the ruthless competition of the markets. In the minds of their analysts and portfolio managers, access to publicly available information wasn’t enough because competing funds had their own PhDs pouring over the same information. Moreover, competing funds also had access to the same expert networks (which might be viewed as “grey edge”) as did SAC.

 

In such a situation, we’d expect that different analysts would take different perspectives on the prospects of the drug and the trials. I would have expected that at least some analysts would question whether the assumptions behind the drug were correct. The market says that wasn’t the case. Rather the hedge fund world was massively longs before the release of the trial results, and Elan’s subsequent 66% price drop suggests that the herd mentality applied on the way down too.

 

So market efficiency drove SAC and some others to seek black edge, while the subsequent drop exposed a herd mentality and deep inefficiency that made the market anything but a black box that continuously adjusts prices for all information.

 

The result for the markets is analogous to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium: markets will proceed smoothly until some event produces rapid change. Because, as the crash of 2008 demonstrated, the big price-change inducing event can come from any number of directions inside or outside the economy, many investors are giving up on analysis of individual stocks and moving to passive investment funds and ETFs. The size of this shift is staggering. The amount of managed money in passive strategies has risen from an estimated 6% in 2006 to as much as 40% today (these figures vary depending on definitions of what a constitutes passive strategy).

 

That latter figure may be larger given the relationship between value investing and money moved by algorithms and quantitative strategies.

 

Quantitative types try to beat their peers by focusing on changes in pricing or volatility, and/or seeking an edge through speed and data crunching, rapidly identifying anomalies, and then trading at warp speed. Many hundreds of billions of dollars now take this route into the markets. And results have proven that this approach can work; some of these funds have done fabulously well.

 

So, stepping back, it becomes clear that the trillions of dollars invested through passive strategies and ETFs basically piggybacks on the decisions of active managers relying on traditional analysis of individual companies and sectors. Moreover, the hundreds of billions of dollars of money invested in quantitative, momentum, derivative, and volatility strategies, also piggybacks and even amplifies, the decisions made by traditional investors as those decisions become evident in price movements.

 

So the response to the pain inflicted by past booms and busts and insider trading scandals has created a situation today where the huge amounts of money moves in sync with an ever smaller base of active managers. Value investing based on analysis of individual companies has become an ever-smaller tail wagging an ever larger dog.

 

Perversely, this, in turn, has created a situation where in the next crash, Steve Cohen, the quant and momentum funds, and even the Warren Buffets will ultimately have no edge. All it will take to set the next crash in motion is for a fair number of investors to say, “gee I think I should shift more to cash.” Then the passive investment funds will be forced to sell, and they will sell regardless of the merits of any individual stock. This will cause volatility to rise and the billions of dollars of investments tied to volatility will also start selling, and as this is happening, the algorithmic traders, the momo guys and the others looking for direction to exploit will jump in juicing the sell off.  The trigger might be some external event, or something as banal as a simple change in mood, but no insider will have any better insight as to when this occurs than anyone with access to a newspaper.

 

As a coda, it’s worth noting that Steve Cohen has now been cleared to manage other people’s money. At the end of Black Edge the author quotes a savvy market player as saying that the day Cohen could do that, money would come pouring in. Well, according to the New York Times, that day is here and money is not pouring in. Maybe this is because his fees are too high, or because the insider trading scandal has made him tainted goods. Or maybe, it’s because investors doubt that he can achieve his former results without black edge.



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