The Marriage of Grossman-Stiglitz and Dunning-Kruger

February 7th, 2021 by Potato

With passive index investing, there’s a bit of a concern from some corners that if too many people become indexers, then there won’t be anyone to do security analysis. The market will stop being efficient, and the free ride that passive investors enjoy will be over. While it’s a “paradox” in that passive investing only works if there are active investors to make the market efficient, in practice, most of us aren’t too worried about it — there will always be some active investors to help determine prices.

I’ve seen the argument (not that I can find it now to link to it) that the weakest active managers will be forced out first (the ones who were basically closet indexers but charging 2.4% for the privilege). The remaining good managers may make some pre-fee alpha, and help keep prices rational for the passive investors. So as active managers continue to broadly under-perform index funds net of fees, and more investors move to passive funds, the ones who were least able to generate alpha will be the ones forced out of the industry.

But watching the chaos of the markets over the last little while, I also remembered the Dunning-Kruger effect: those who are least skilled are also not generally able to accurately assess their skill. So as passive continues to prove to be a good strategy, the ones who don’t switch are not just the most skilled (still generating alpha) but also the least (who may not know the risks they take or that they’re not generating alpha). And professional managers are not the only ones in the market — there are a lot of retail traders out there. On the whole they’re dwarfed by institutional money, but they can certainly move a few sectors and specific names. And so they have.

And social media in some ways fuels it — most people would never trade on a tip made in a video, tweet, or forum post. But the world’s a big place, and there are lots of people who do. And the algorithms are good at serving up more and more of that if you engage with it.

The last little while has seen some market moves that are just plain hard to call “efficient”. The weak-form efficient market hypothesis still applies — no matter how crazy it is, it’s still unpredictable enough that you can’t reliably profit from it, so just stick with index funds. Looking at the Gamestonk run-up and crash, calling the top never looked like a sure enough bet that I wanted to do it. Tesla, a niche, money-losing maker of electric vehicles (with a money-losing solar panel division that’s shrunk significantly since its related-party bailout, I should add, before the comments section fills with wails that it is also “an energy company”) somehow became the world’s most valuable automaker. And if you tried to short it at the point that it passed Toyota, you got destroyed as it continued to go straight up and become the most valuable automaker by such a margin that it’s worth more than all the global brands you recognize combined.

But even then, you just have to look around and shake your head at the stuff people are buying. An electric — no, hydrogen! — truck company with no working trucks, no plan to make any, and an executive chairman who left in disgrace is worth $9B, with $500M in shares traded on a given day. Weed companies went up and up and up ahead of legalization in Canada, even as the sector became way bigger than the most optimistic projections of post-legalization market size, and you could not escape the hype. Space is a cool idea, but is Virgin Galactic really worth $13B (and 3X what it was a year ago?).

I’ve read a lot of stuff on active investing, and many articles make points about second-order, third-order thinking — how will the market react, what’s already priced in, etc. Lately it seems like that stuff will get you killed. There seems to be a lot of people in the meme trades, but there’s no way to go and become an active investor and profit from it: all I can do is rant on my blog about how crazy some of this stuff seems.

The K-Shaped Recovery (or the Perfect Storm that Missed)

January 27th, 2021 by Potato

In the clouds of the pandemic, a perfect storm was brewing for Toronto real estate. The units stolen from the residential market by AirBNB were coming back online, at the same time that immigration was suspended and a massive wave of unemployment and economic uncertainty swamped the economy, oh and the city was warning that the lost TTC revenue and extra costs might lead to a huge property tax hike (spoiler: they got a bailout and chose to cut services rather than increase taxes if it gets worse). In a sane world those should have been a handful of pins popping an already frothy real estate market, with an epic, sharp crash to bring us back to sensible price:rent and price:income levels — or at the very least an Alberta-style soft landing that takes the froth out.

But we don’t live in a sane world, and instead we have a K-shaped recovery. Except unlike the K-shaped recovery people talk about for people and the jobs market, where one group is having a really bad year with no light at the end of the tunnel yet (e.g., anyone whose livelihood revolves around music festivals, conventions, or personal services), while another has virtually uninterrupted income and lower expenses (e.g., many people who work primarily on a computer and who only had to go into the office in the first place because of a lack of imagination and will from their corporate overlords), in the real estate market it can be the same property with two divergent outcomes.

The rental market has taken a big hit in the downtown core, especially the microcondo segment that was most ghost hotel-y and the least fun to quarantine yourself in. Yet prices to buy those units have barely budged. In the burbs, rents are flat-ish, while prices have exploded higher.

And hold on to your butts, because the early indicators are making it look like the first half of 2021 is going to be an absolute ripper. Whether its low rates, or spending so much time at home that makes people want a house, or the freedom to look a little further afield if daily commutes may be off the table for a while, demand is surging, while the deferral cliff (that was one of the elements of the perfect storm that missed) turned out to not be such a big deal.

Now, if you’re just looking for a long-term place to live, then this likely doesn’t concern you — one more blip up on the chart of craziness, while renting continues to be a predictable expense. But if you’re in the FOMO game, or are looking to take a big risk on flipping a place this year, this is a big deal. It’s also so confusing and so hard to see coming, especially if the pandemic has left your own financials in shambles.

Where are people getting the money? How do they even have the energy to go rage-buying houses when things are so terrible?

Well, the upper leg of the “K” is doing just fine, if not even better than before, and they’re the only ones who buy houses anyway. So of course the market would be ripping, why didn’t I see it before?

Buuuuuut, immigration is still down. Tourisim is still down. Employment is still down. The perfect storm may have passed us by for now, with the upper leg of the K doing fine and dandy and as focused on real estate as ever, yet the storm clouds still look to be brewing out there, and are even weighing on the rental sector. If rents are down, why isn’t it affecting the purchase prices of the same units? Will this so-called fundamental stuff eventually matter?

Though rents are a big factor in the value of housing, a part of that to consider is the gearing involved: as rents race ahead, the added rent is essentially pure profit for the landlord (the beauty of a fixed-cost business), allowing a disproportionate increase in the price of the unit. As rents fall, the same should hold true in reverse: the price should fall by more than the decline in rents. However, investors can also speculate on future rents, while the rental market is basically a spot price. So if you believe that all the factors currently holding rent down are temporary, it may be rational to not cut your price by much, or even to down a big ol cup of FOMO FlavorAid. Conversely, if all the demand factors are down for the foreseeable future, and rent inflation may be muted for a long time, then prices should drop a lot — first to catch up with the lowered rent, and then to reverse the expectation for rapidly rising rent that had already been baked into prices.

As always, I look around and renting looks to be the smart move. The price:rent is IMHO more likely to be fixed in the long term by prices coming down than rents going up. But the market can stay irrational for a long, long time, and based on how the spring is setting up, a while longer still.

There’s a parallel in the Gamestop (GME) mania: with a long-term view, you may see a mostly bricks-and-mortar retailer with limited profit potential, worth nowhere near the current price. But short-term supply-demand imbalances (a mania combined with short covering, and options fuckery*) can drive the price up far beyond that, and it’s impossible to know the precise moment it will turn.

* – I believe the technical term is gamma squeeze but I don’t want to have to try to explain it.

Bank Phone Systems and Scheduled Calls

January 19th, 2021 by Potato

I’ve been quite unimpressed with the big banks’ phone systems during the pandemic. Not just the long wait times (nearly two hours the other night with TDDI) which is somewhat expected (it was regularly 45+ minutes in the before-times, and more has to be done remotely these days), but their schedule-a-call services have been particularly disappointing.

My first attempt at a scheduled call was with RBC… who completely ghosted me at the appointed time. That was set up in the first place because the regular phone staff couldn’t answer an estate question after the first hour-on-hold wait. I gave up on trying to resolve it remotely at all, and sat on the issue for a few months until I could deal with it in-branch.

When I went to set up a new youth account for Blueberry, TD wouldn’t let me do it self-serve online — it required an appointment. Fortunately they offered the option of a phone appointment so I could avoid an unnecessary trip out of the house (and the accompanying covid exposure). Which was my second experience with a scheduled call. They did call on time… only to tell me they couldn’t open a youth account over the phone and I had to go into the branch. Someone should tell the web team so the website scheduling the calls doesn’t waste everyone’s time — I got to the schedule a call in the first place from choosing to open a youth account within the website. And while some banking services are essential, I wasn’t going to worry that much about setting up an account for Blueberry that I’d go out to do it during a stay-at-home order.

Anyway, Blueberry now has her very first bank account at Tangerine, which we were able to set up completely online — I didn’t even need to call! How is this still so hard for the big banks?

Ontario Covid Update – Jan 12

January 12th, 2021 by Potato

Ontario provided its updated figures and modelling for covid today. The slides are available here if you want to look at the data without squinting at the video.

It’s not all that unexpected — I was sketching vaguely similar curves and worried about what an even more contagious version might do. But hearing it made real was just crushing. Covid’s on track to challenge heart disease and cancer for the top cause of death in Ontario this year (and will make the top 10 easy). And the strain on the hospital system is delaying treatments (esp. surgeries) which will make those other conditions worse.

But the big, not entirely surprising bad news is the hospital system and ICU beds: we’re just about out of empty ones, and the curve is still rapidly going up and to the right. Surgeries are being cancelled (again), and we’re not far off from very painful decisions about what happens if there’s a car accident.

One thing that’s crushing is that we were so close to getting to zero in the summer, and just opened back up a few weeks too early, without the testing and tracing capabilities ready. Still, the cases were low, everyone had stocked up on masks, and I genuinely thought we could get back to normal-ish with masks, handwashing, and social distancing*. I signed up for curling, expecting we would get a season, esp. with the modified rules of play (everyone wears masks, and things like using one sweeper to maintain 2 m between players at all times) — I had my mask rotation all planned out, and even got contact lenses so my glasses wouldn’t fog up. Schools reopened, and we kind of talked about how important that was for parents to be able to go back to work.

Then the cases started rising in the fall, and we did nothing about it until we’re now finding the hospital capacity getting crushed again. More people are going to lose their dads and other loved ones to cancer because surgeries had to get postponed, again.

I’m depressed and angry and just crushed at the whole thing.

I’m also a touch confused. They showed some data about how many people were moving around — people going to work has stayed steady since the summer, even as Toronto, Peel, and York went into lockdown (code red or grey or whatever). How there was a big spike in people visiting other residences at Christmas (to the surprise of no one). But I haven’t heard much on contact tracing and explaining what’s behind all the transmission. Are masks and handwashing and social distancing working, but some people aren’t compliant, and it’s that movement that’s the problem? Is it schools or workplaces or superspreader weddings? A little bit of everything adding up?

For most of those questions there isn’t much I can do on a personal level. I’ve tried to cut out contact with the outside world as much as possible, stretching out the time between grocery trips to two weeks or so, and our social circle is a completely closed bubble of 5 people. Wayfare has been making homemade masks since the beginning, and she did a lot of research on the best patterns and designs. They’re 3 layers, with two layers of regular (cotton?) fabric sandwiched around a layer of non-woven interface material. They have metal strips to conform to the nose (important to minimize glasses fogging and get the air moving through the material for filtering and not around the material), and straps to tie tightly around the head, which keeps it pretty well sealed all the way around the face. Though she made a few models with noses or cone shapes or whatever, I wear the basic pleated rectangle ones, so there’s no tiny holes from stitching a seam right in front of your nose. I’m sure they’re a step up from disposable surgical masks, even after a few washes. And I’m very good about wearing it whenever I’m indoors (or with another person outside — though I don’t wear one on solo walks).

However, are cloth masks enough, especially with the new B117 variant? Should we all (but especially should I) be wearing a N95-equivalent to go grocery shopping?

* – Circling back around to add: I thought the masks, distancing, etc. precautions would be good enough to get r < 1 so life could return to more-or-less normal. It doesn’t look like those were sufficient in practice (whether it’s non-compliance or whatever is a bit of a moot point as we will have non-compliance, esp. as covid fatigue sets in). We are a long, long way from Covid-zero (and we were really close in the summer!), but that may be the only strategy that lets us avoid the hammer and the dance through the fall based on the current vaccine roll-out projections.

On Lags and Exponential Growth

January 7th, 2021 by Potato

Ontario hit 89 daily Covid deaths today. We could lockdown tonight, go full Wuhan and weld peoples’ doors shut, and it wouldn’t stop us from hitting 100/day by next week — those people already have the virus, it’s just taking time for them to get sick and die. [Though I’d be happy for the universe’s constant need to prove me wrong to kick in here and save a bunch of lives as this turns out to have been the peak]

Lags make it hard to manage things, especially when that management also involves really hard decisions. It’s hard to call for a lockdown when cases are barely into triple digits. But that’s when it has to happen when you only have a few hundred spare ICU beds in the province. Ah well, back to home schooling for at least a few weeks now, though I still don’t actually know what the plan is. Is it Covid-zero?

And of course this is also why we wanted to start curbing the growth in greenhouse gas emissions in the 90s… or now, I suppose.