Does Fraud Create Alpha?

January 4th, 2021 by Potato

[Editor’s note: I’ve been sitting on this draft for a few months. Other than compiling some ideas from others and ranting a bit, the post as it is isn’t all that original. I thought the really clever bit would be to add some actual research and back-testing on fads and frauds to semi-seriously answer the question, but that turned out to be too much work and I now realize I’m never going to do that much research and stats even if there’s a chance that it’s more than just a lark. Anyway, I figured you may as well get to read it instead of killing it off. This one certainly isn’t investment advice, and I’m not alleging any companies or people are frauds here — I’m linking to the allegations and cases where I can, innocent until proven guilty, etc. etc.]

Elon Musk tweeted out in the middle of the trading day: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”

Funding was not secured, not remotely. It was one of the most egregious and blatant cases in living memory and the SEC filed fraud charges. It revealed significant problems with corporate controls given that his Twitter account was identified as a channel for official company communications, and looked like a slam-dunk open-and shut case for the SEC.

Yet he settled for a slap on the wrist: no D&O ban, no forced divestiture of his holdings, just a requirement to add two new independent directors, and a $20M penalty (the company also paid $20M). Less than two years later, he got an incredible pay package tied to the stock price, orders of magnitude larger than the fine, despite the company still not producing an annual profit [at the time — it has eeked one out between drafting and posting this] and even clawing back bonuses for its workers. Oh, and despite coming very close to driving the company into the ground along the way (though there was no going concern language in its reporting at the time).

Securities regulators are broken. They are not working to protect investors or provide for rational, functioning markets. It was only at the last minute that the SEC stopped a bankrupt company from issuing more stock that it knew to be worthless. It’s the golden age of fraud.

And it’s not just a SEC problem. Germany’s BaFin failed spectacularly in regulating Wirecard, even prosecuting people working to expose issues at the company, instead of taking their leads and investigating the company (i.e., their jobs). And here in Canada, we have a patchwork mess of regulators. Not just the provincial securities regulators, where even when they get someone, the penalties can be the cost of doing business, but even within a province we can have different regulatory bodies letting problems slide. Bad actors can use the courts as a weapon, and even if you win a SLAPP suit, it can be costly and disruptive to your life, while bad actors buy themselves months or years more time to keep fleecing investors as critics and defenders of everyday investors are forced into silence.

Bad actors have free reign in the capital markets. None has put it quite so boldly as Musk’s “I do not respect the SEC,” (or the 2020 remix) but the days of fearing the wrath of the regulators appear to be a quaint figment of history. And regulatory capture is such a joke they don’t even try to hide it any more.

Indeed, I have heard it said1 that frauds are some of the best investments out there. After all, they don’t have earnings misses when the numbers are fake anyway.

Or as some have so eloquently put it: Fraud creates alpha2.

As an investor, you almost have3 to assign some portion of your portfolio to frauds and fads to keep up. And given that there is no downside any longer, as a CEO or Director of a company, you have a fiduciary duty to commit fraud2.

That’s a fine angry rant against the state of the markets as they sit today. If we had elections for OSC or SEC head, I might be just ticked off enough to throw my hat in the ring (or go campaigning for someone with a more protectionist bent). But that’s not how it works. There’s nothing to do but rant and carry on. Yet I keep coming back to that lovely, infuriating phrase:

Fraud creates alpha.

It’s a thing that we say — shaking our heads and laugh-crying — to encapsulate the absurdity of our times. But… is it true? Does fraud create alpha? Like in a systematic way? Should we be checking if it might be a 6th factor in the Fama-French schema to round out size, value, profitability, and investment?

Let’s make it F&F — fads and frauds, because that’s another area where there has been some outsized stock performance lately. Indeed, it’s almost like that litmus test of the Nigerian scams, where the emails are purposefully full of spelling mistakes to try to weed out those who may not be sufficiently gullible. The business models in some cases have no hope of working, or at least will never reasonably justify the stock price4. But that’s likely the point — as long as no fundamental analysts are buying it anyway, then the sky’s the limit. 3X revenue may be crazy-sauce in a low-margin business, but once you’re already there, 7X is really no crazier! And with a touch of what some may interpret to be stock manipulation, why not see if we can shoot for 20X while we’re at it?

Many modern “success stories” are incinerators of capital, serially selling stock to fill the hole created by losses and growth for growth’s sake, though as a side effect they have created a world where our lifestyles are subsidized by dumb capital. Oh, and skirting (or at the very least, bending) the law is a key element of disruption for many of these start-ups — from how they pay and treat their workforce as independent contractors, to flaunting municipal taxi, zoning, or other laws, if not securities laws themselves.

We who can recite the Litany of Saint Graham (“In the short run the market is a voting machine, but in the long run it is a weighing machine”) believe that fads and frauds will one day crash. Some people even make their living shorting them. But far too often, they go up first. They go up a lot.

And therein is the question: do fads & frauds create alpha? Now if you hold until they crash — assuming they do eventually crash and burn — then you’d think not, it would be trivial. To cite the Disciple of Graham, a string of impressive numbers multiplied by a single zero is still a zero. But if you take an approach where you rebalance away as they go parabolic, there might be something there. In an equal-weight portfolio of shit, you may not care much when your German payment processor is finally de-listed if your California vapourware company has sextupled in value. It’s skewness of returns in over-drive.

So let’s build an index and backtest. For example, if you buy in as soon as a report or article or forum post first suggests something fishy, and then rebalance away after each doubling (to other F&Fs or a core market portfolio if you run out of ideas), would that generate alpha?

This is the point where I thought actually doing a bunch of research and math would make the post more fun (and maybe even prove or disprove the point instead of just ranting), but it’s also a lot of work and it’s been many months since I first drafted this and I don’t think I’m ever going to get the research/math part done. So I will leave the idea there — maybe someone else with some time on their hands can go back a few decades and see if you can construct an index of fads & frauds and some rules (equal weighting? trend-something?), and see if it provides improved risk-adjusted returns.

1. Likely Carson Block on a podcast — apologies to whoever said it as I didn’t keep the source, but I think it was a podcast and not an article if that helps.
2. I think this can be attributed to TC. There’s probably more in here that can be attributed to the Chartcast.
3. No you don’t especially if you’re a smart passive investor, this is a whiny post and not actual investment advice.
4. I have heard it said (Chanos?) that one of the worst things for a fad company to do is to make a profit because it’s stock will crash when it suddenly goes from being valued based on some dream about TAM to being valued on a price/cash flow or price/earnings basis.

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