It’s Crazier Than It’s Ever Been, But That Makes Sense

I think a lot of us have noticed this wave of people who keep saying things like, “the world is so much crazier today.” Or slightly different variations of that, but similar in meaning. Like, “politics are the craziest they’ve ever been.” Another one is, “it was so much simpler when I was younger.”

I’ve been thinking about these phrases a lot lately.

The other night I found myself hanging out in upstate New York. I was at a small restaurant, the kind that has four or five tables, not fancy or anything, but very dim lighting. I noticed a picture hanging on the wall. I don’t know why I noticed it, but I did. The picture showed a lady on a beach wrapped in a blanket. She was smiling. It was a black and white photo. Geez, it really did look like simpler times back then. Behind her was a sprawling row of sand dunes and on top of them sat two modest houses, spread out by a few hundred yards.

I could not stop thinking about that – only two houses on that beautiful beach? How? Where? Then it made sense. This picture was probably taken in another time. So of course there was an undiscovered beach like that. Not only was there less economic development, less infrastructure, less money invested, but the population was also less than half of what it is now and something like the iPhone was incomprehensible.

What I’m saying is that it really was simpler then and it really is crazier now. But, that makes perfect sense.

Imagine taking a record number of people, giving them the most powerful computing device ever invented, one that fits in their pocket, and then sending them off into a free country where almost anything is possible. That is literally what’s going on. The possibilities, good and bad, are endless.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the population in the US was about 205 million. While quite a few people had color TVs, an even smaller number of people had a computer. Most people at these times had phones, but these were rotary phones, those giant phones that attached to a wall. Some young people reading this today will have to research what a rotary phone is. That’s how far we’ve come.

In the 1930s, there were 122 million people living in America. No one had TVs and pretty much no one had a telephone.

Today, in America, there are nearly 330 million people. And everyone has a phone that’s more powerful and dynamic than any consumer electronic device ever built prior to it. As the population grows, as technology gets better, it will only get crazier. With more people and more technology the probabilities of something happening that’s even more outlandish than what happened before naturally increases. So to does the combination of the way they can happen.

I wrote this post not to try to make excuses for some of the worst things that have happened over the last decade, but more-so as a way to understand that it should not be as mysterious or alarming as we make it. The craziness should be expected. I wonder what will happen in 150 years when little Timmy accidentally finds his parents Star Trek food device that creates fake meat using the particles around him:

I’m not sure if this post will resonate with anyone, but it was something I had to put down in digital ink. Things are getting crazier and maybe rather than fighting that, resenting it, finding excuses for it, it’s actually something we should be ready for.

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Betting Against The War Drum

I have only bet against the market once in my 10+ years. I tried to go net short when the Federal Reserve first started reducing their balance sheet. Well, that was two years ago and the market is up about 30% since.

I often joke with the people around me that, “what’s the point of following markets all the time if I don’t ever try to call a top?” Sometimes, as they say, you aren’t taking four balls during this at bat.

While thinking through all of this, I was reminded of something a well-known short seller once said. I’m not exactly advocating his brilliance or highlighting this short seller. I think most of you already know him and his quote is just that good. I haven’t forgotten it all these years. Here’s what Jim Chanos says about being short:

“What I like to point out is that almost everybody that will view this is the beneficiary of a positive reinforcement cycle in their life.

That is they were told to study hard by their parents, go to good schools, get good grades, go to better schools, get a good job, work hard, get promoted, and be paid well. This is the so-called virtuous cycle.

Studies have shown that most rational people, including people that fit the virtuous cycle profile, find that their decision making breaks down in an environment of negative reinforcement. The ultimate example of which would be interrogation, where your ability to withhold information is broken down by various physical or mental techniques.

If you think of Wall Street, it’s a giant positive reinforcement machine. Basically, I come in every morning, flip on my phone and check Bloomberg at 5:00 AM. Of the hundred short ideas that we have in our global fund, I can pretty much predict at any moment that there’s going to be about 20% to 25% each day where there is some sort of commentary, research report, analyst buy recommendation, estimates raised, or CEO on Bloomberg or CNBC. And generally, it’s noise. Generally there’s not much information or content in that, but it’s nonetheless a noise representative of positive reinforcement. It’s why you should be investing in company “A,” “B,” or “C.”

Most people don’t notice this because they’re in the business of going long securities. I like to say, however, that this is the music that plays in the background of the investment world. If you’re a short seller, this music is negative reinforcement. You’re essentially being told that a quarter of your portfolio every morning is wrong and here’s why. For most people, that becomes a difficult environment in which they continue to think clearly about their investments. There’s a constant drum beat of just negative reinforcement saying you’re incorrect, you’re incorrect.”

Jim Chanos
Interview from Opalesque TV

I’m sure if you tried shorting before, you can relate.

It’s a grind, it is hard, but it is a thrilling challenge to take on. You basically are saying you know better than everyone at an exact moment. It’s a little arrogant, actually. You’re betting against the war drum most other people are playing.

It can be both the worst and the best thing you can do. It’s the worst if you actually wage a significant and risky sum of money. It can also be bad if it takes you over as a person. It does not have to become your life. I think we have seen what’s happened to those people, the permabears who spend their career on such a view. You don’t have to go all in like that ever. There are ways to express your opinion while also defining your risk, or how much you’re willing to lose, from the start (but see the meme at the bottom of this post).

I like to hold myself accountable to what I am seeing and doing by making it open. That’s partly what I use my blog for. I let everyone know what I’m up to. Everyone can share their feedback or criticism or trolly mctroll ways with me. In my new podcast, I actually talk about why this is so important. To some degree, it’s also why I am short stocks from mainland China, because, not only of their strange accounting ways, but also the regime they are operated and controlled by. It’s a dictatorship that stands in opposition to the most basic fundamental freedoms like free speech.

On my blog, all the free speech you want is welcome. You can come at me however you like.

Obviously, if the market keeps ripping I will go down with a swing and a miss, but you can catch up on why I am betting against Chinese VIEs in a Trade War and my latest podcast about what it all means.

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Betting on Hong Kong, South Park, and Free Speech – Episode 1

Yep. I actually did it. But how could I not? I already spend so much time reading, writing, and posting memes on Twitter. The next step was, obviously, a podcast.

I’m calling my podcast, Money out of Air.

It’s my take on markets and all the wild stories that are happening in markets.

As of this writing, my podcast is only available on my site using the player or using Spotify. In the first episode, I dive into Hong Kong, the protests, free speech, and how it all connects back to American markets. If you’ve been following my blog or Twitter account you already know — there are some basic fundamental rights at stake and companies and investors are way too exposed into the Mainland Chinese Communist Party. My mic setup isn’t the best, but in this pilot I try to tell the story best I can.

This seems to be especially true in the investment landscape with the way certain investment funds and ETFs are allocating money to companies in Mainland China. These companies are owned and operated by the Chinese Communist Party. Ah, yes… Nothing better than investing hard earned American Dollars into communist companies that deny free speech.

In this episode, episode 1 of Money out of Air, you will learn about why the Hong Kong protests started, what they mean, how they permeated basketball and South Park, and then ultimately, the next step for financial markets.

South Park, in particular, took a giant swing at the Chinese Communist Party and, of course, the entire show was banned in mainland China not long after they did so. The NBA, on the other hand, is trying to fix its image with the Chinese Communist Party all because of a simple tweet from one of their General Managers. Apparently, the regime in China is that sensitive.

If you can find time to listen to the entire thing, the podcast ends with a conversation about Chinese Variable Interest Entities, what they are, and how certain stocks like Alibaba and Baidu have become way over invested because of lack of oversight.

I hope you you enjoy episode one and in the good word of free speech, please write back even your worst criticisms. Troll me if you have to. Or, if you like it and want to see me do another podcast, please also send that feedback. As I say in the podcast, free speech and the freedom to disagree or criticize is what ultimately makes us get better and grow stronger. Feedback is uncomfortable, but powerful. I support anyone who can say it and take it.

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Betting on Morality

I have recently taken an interest in the Hong Kong protests and what they stand for.

I am most amazed by how little support the protests get in the west. Most of my friends are telling me: it’s because no one wants to disturb China as they do business there or want business there. I’m not sure if there’s any credibility to that, but if there is, I suppose that also explains why so many American companies are working alongside the Chinese Communist Party. Apple has been banning apps that Hong Kong protesters used to mobilize and hide from police. Michael Bloomberg, yes the owner of Bloomberg terminals, recently gave the Communist Party glowing reviews.

As the saying goes, “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

So how did we get here? I think it begins with the auto-pilot nature of some emerging market fund managers and what seems to be a mindless allocation of American investment Dollars to Mainland Chinese VIEs like Alibaba because they’re listed as “emerging market stocks.” It’s one painful development that should strike anyone on a deeper level. It definitely hits me. Look at any emerging market ETF or emerging market mutual fund’s top holdings and… surprise! You’re buying Alibaba bro. It’s generally the most widely held stock sometimes up to 5% of the ENTIRE fund. There is no consideration for American accounting standards, communism, free speech, oligarchs, or anything else core to the inner workings of America’s success all these years.

In my early days as an investor, I was taught markets don’t care about politics. The markets, being made of up of millions of buyers and sellers, will do what they have to do. Lately, I’ve been reevaluating that belief. Especially as I found myself watching video clips from China’s massive military parade — giant red flags, guns firing, huge portraits of leaders, and phrases like “strive for the motherland’s complete reunification” and missiles that can reach as far as the United States. I wish I was making this up:

All of this has me rethinking the way I plan to mix markets and politics going forward. In the past, I would focus on my own career path and my own investment theories. But I can’t do that now because what I see is directly in conflict with my investment goals going forward. So here is what I know and then what I plan to do:

1. When China tried to pass a law saying any Hong Kong citizen could be detained and moved into Mainland China for any reason, the people of Hong Kong stood up. Today, what you’re seeing or reading, is their young people fighting China’s Communist Party who is focused on forcing Hong Kong into their control.

2. Over one million Uighur Muslims who live in China have been arrested and put into government internment camps meant to “re-educate” them. There is very little religious freedom in China, if at all. And headlines like this particularly concerning:

3. Taiwan, a country of 25 million people, is fighting an information war each day with China. Most people in Taiwan say they are an independent country. China, however, says they rule them. Some think China will take the country by force in the next year or two if the Taiwan population does not come to accept their reality. On Wikipedia, Chinese Communist Party employees monitor the site 24/7 to try to edit in things like, “Taiwan is a province of China” when it is actually not.

4. Tibet, for years, has been battling China over independence. I remember while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts walking through Harvard Square to see Tibet protesters playing music and holding signs. For the longest time, I overlooked them. I had thoughts like, “I need to get to work” and “Can’t you do something better with your time?” Several years later and I finally get it. They have been at this for more than 10 years pouring their energy into consistency of protest. Today, the Dali Lama is still forbidden from ever returning to Tibet because the CCP is worried he is too influential.

5. I remember a time when the militarization of the South China Sea was all over the news. That was several years ago. The thing is, these things happen gradually until, suddenly, they are. China still says they own the entire South China Sea while everyone else like Vietnam and Malaysia say that’s not fair. The sea is home to several countries who also happen to live on it or share borders on it. As of this writing, the Chinese Communist Party is weaponizing the sea at an alarming rate.

6. The censorship in China is mind-boggling. A post like this would probably have me jailed and it would entirely be removed from any Internet property in the country. There is no free speech.

As the protests in Hong Kong continue, I will be watching Chinese stocks closely as well as the Southeast Asian countries that surround China. Several months ago I wrote about my thoughts on the Trade War and how I think it’s actually healthy for the world. It’s good to redistribute trade away from China and to other developing countries that need it more, are free, and most importantly, are actual *democracies* like Mexico, Vietnam, and others.

I have been scanning for the biggest and largest Chinese companies listed in the US and adding some to my short book. And I will short them through puts with a long expiration date. This will be my first time mixing politics and markets. I think people in the west are smart enough to see the tyranny taking place and will act. My money is betting on morality and I can’t imagine thinking about this in any other way right now. Let’s see what happens.

Side note: read this if you missed my post on Chinese VIEs.

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Selling To Everyone When Everyone Is No One

Let me start by reminding you of an IPO I have been unable to forget. I will show it to you as a chart, a wonderful chart that goes straight down.

What you see is the great meal delivery company Blue Apron since it went public. The unicorn! The one that would change the way we eat!

I’m not totally sure how it happened, but at one point this idea to deliver meals in a cardboard box using the USPS was a billion dollar company. In 2017, during a strong bull market, Blue Apron went public. If you had bought $200 worth of this then lauded unicorn, you would have about $15 left today. Good enough for a few coffees and two bagels.

So what exactly happened here? How did it go from exciting startup to the depths of today’s Miami Dolphins? While some might say business decisions or leadership or competition, it seems more likely it was just valued really, really wrong in private markets. Oh, and a good PR firm can really make that valuation pop…
Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 6.30.56 AM

The other week, I read a fascinating stat. It went like this: in 1980 there were only 47 venture capitalist firms and combined they had about $3 billion in total capital. Today, there are 600+ venture capital firms and they have $515 billion in total capital.

Venture Capital is incredibly important to the economy. They fund start-up companies and take immense risk. But it’s important to remember the valuations they seek, or the valuations they decide on, are generally done in a fairly closed setting. Seven people sitting in a room can chose to invest in a company at a valuation of $80 billion and kachinga, this company is now worth $80 billion – call the newspapers and reporters.

In the words of South Park:

The fate of WeWork, to some degree, may be shedding some light on these valuations. Just because some private investor decided to give money to a company at one price does not mean that’s what it’s worth to everyone else with the same information. When WeWork was opened up to public markets for its potential IPO where thousands of people could scrutinize, discuss, and dive deep into it, it fell apart. It wasn’t really worth what private investors told everyone it was worth. There are now more VCs and venture money than ever. The hype and dreams of billions naturally only scales with that. I come back to that scene from the movie The Social Network and how that permeated the startup landscape.

Chamath Palihapitiya, a private investor who made his mark as an early employee at Facebook, but also one who is pretty outspoken, not long ago started talking about problems in the private investing world. He’s worried about the ponzi scheme nature of the existing cycle. I don’t agree or disagree, but I find it interesting and here’s what he writes:

“Over the past decade, a subtle and sophisticated game has emerged between VCs, LPs, founders, and employees. Someone has to pay for the outrageous costs of the growth described above. Will it be VCs? Likely not. They get paid to allocate other people’s (LPs) money, and they are smart enough to transfer the risk. For example, VCs habitually invest in one another’s companies during later rounds, bidding up rounds to valuations that allow for generous markups on their funds’ performance. These markups, and the paper returns that they suggest, allow VCs to raise subsequent, larger funds, and to enjoy the management fees that those funds generate.”

It’s almost as if we’ve taken the “rounds” and accepted them as truth without ever actually getting a clear picture ourselves. If a tree falls in the forest did anyone hear it? If a TechCrunch headline says a company is worth billions do we all believe it?

It’s important to remember that what we see today in private investing is fairly new. Public markets, on the other hand, have been around a long time going back to the Buttonwood Tree. But this cycle of private deals and private rounds of investing is entirely on its own. What I mean is I have yet to meet someone who could show me a historical example of anything like the size or scope of private investing and venture capital like we’re seeing today.

*person walks out of boardroom*

“Today we decided this company is worth $7 billion and we’ve invested $100 million. Tell everyone it’s worth $7 billion.”

*everyone proceeds to say company is worth $7 billion*

My friend always jokes that his life is a startup and it’s worth hundreds of millions if he could pitch it to the right people.

When Lyft IPO’d, I noticed a chart showing who invested in the company when and where. I was most surprised to see Fidelity and Carl Icahn on the list. These are companies and people known for their careers in public markets. You don’t see those names in venture capital often and when you do, you have to wonder: is it now so easy to make money in venture capital that Carl Icahn can just prance right in and then flip his money for a cool 10x return?

2019 has so far been the year of giant new IPOs being challenged. Uber, Smile Direct Club, Lyft, and more hit all-time lows shortly after their IPO. Lately, a group of VCs have been calling for direct listings. One of the core arguments is that investment bankers, day traders, and speculative investors are taking advantages of these companies on the long and short side when they go public. I can’t help but think this is a call for help. A call for help signaling the public markets aren’t buying their companies like they thought they would. I wonder how many private investors have been injecting money into these mega companies on the basis that, “public markets will take care of it, don’t worry.”

Public markets are ruthless. Any real investor or grizzled trader will show you that. I hang with them all the time and hear stories that no one should go through with their own money.

Going forward, the question will be if something like WeWork’s IPO collapse is an outlier or actually the norm for a wave of abysmally wrong private market valuations. I even wonder if a wave of write downs are coming. If anyone is safe. Especially those who have been marking up their stock behind closed doors on the idea that the arbitrary price they determined will easily be accepted by everyone else.

Not so fast.

I have long been a proponent of public equity markets. They are over 100 years old. The Government is heavily invested in regulating them and millions of people have access to them. Generations of people have passed through them and handed down their prized holdings. I am beginning to wonder if, perhaps, public markets are actually the smart money and private markets are the “not-so-smart” money. We will find out over the coming months and it’s possible that this wake up call won’t be friendly to the gurus of today’s private investing landscape.

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Cash Rich, Asset Rich, and Repo Markets

I’ve been having this thought lately, one that has been debated before, it’s that very few people are actually cash rich today. Most are asset rich.

Like no other point in time, even greater than the DotCom Bubble, investing has permeated every corner of culture. In hindsight, Bitcoin was a phenomenon that introduced millions to speculative markets practically overnight. There are more brokerage accounts open today than in the DotCom Bubble. And it’s growing. I think part of that is because of the ease of investing. The 20-year-old who just got into vaping can download a commission free brokerage app and buy two shares of Tilray in a few minutes. Even the rapper Waka Flacka, not long ago, was sharing an Instagram image of his stock portfolio.

While I think investing can be beneficial across all asset classes, I do wonder what it means to have a society that is entirely focused on being asset rich and not cash rich. Corporations especially. We read daily about how much cash companies like Apple have, but we rarely ever scruntize their liabilities, their debt, or the actual nature of this “cash.” I would wager most cash assets today are actually in short-term vehicles that are marketed as such, “just as good as cash” … *reads fine print at bottom of page* “but not really cash in its true definition.”

Today, the Fed is quietly injecting $30+ billion each night into repo markets. The main cause is because there isn’t enough cash in the short-term to fund the immediate overnight needs of banks and corporations. Even if it is just a one-time fluke, which many tell me it is and that it’s not that out of the ordinary, the fact remains that whatever just happened, beneath the surface, there was a squeeze for cash going on.

Just recently, on one of these cash-squeezed nights, the interest rate on an overnight loan in the repo market, that thing in the corners where very few ever look, went as high as 9%.

A family member of mine once warned me about the perils of being asset rich. How much do you think everything in your room, the one you grew up in, is worth today? I think a couple thousand dollars. I mean I have some great baseball cards in there, some video games that are still worth playing, some clothes, and a few other items. Now, imagine you took all of that stuff to a garage sale and spent a day or two trying to sell it. How much is it worth now? Probably a couple hundred dollars. Maybe less.

That’s the difference between being cash rich and asset rich. And when the signals start to show, heed them wisely on where you should be.

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Inflation-Adjusted Returns Always Suck

It isn’t much fun to talk about. It’s kind of a party killer. The music sounds good, the people are jiving, but then you remember you’re still in middle school, a censored Nelly album is playing, and your parents are outside waiting to pick you up.

Inflation is that. No one wants to talk about those moments. They’d rather tell you about the crazy times they had in college.

What can 1 US Dollar buy you today?

What could 1 US Dollar buy you 30 years ago?

The difference between those two questions, in its simplest form, is inflation. So let’s quickly go over some numbers to see how inflation is the worst party in town and awfully humbling. But first, let’s look at the numbers *before* inflation.

– On a nominal basis, the S&P 500 is up roughly 330% since the absolute depths of the Financial Crisis.

– It’s up about 105% since the highs right before the Financial Crisis in 2007.

– It’s up 110% since the highs of the Dotcom Bubble, before it crashed, back in 1999/2000.

These are the facts you see in headlines everywhere. That the S&P 500 is up 330% since the bottom of the Financial Crisis and it’s now up 105% for those who accidentally bought at the highest points before the Dotcom Crash or Financial Crisis.

Let’s chart it:

If you want to humble yourself, try adjusting all your returns and gains for inflation. I don’t know many people who do that and I think I know why. You are literally about to tell yourself you’re not as good as you thought you were.

So if you can stomach it, if you’re a real one confident in your abilities to fight the forces of inflation, keep reading. Because I will show you what Mordor really looks like.

Since the bottom of the Financial Crisis, inflation-adjusted S&P 500 returns are up about 150%. Not 330%. Had you bought at the peak of the Dotcom Crash, adjusted for inflation, you’re up about 40% right now. Had you bought at the peak of the Financial Crisis, you’re up about 50% right now. Basically each comparison had their returns cut in half.

Let’s chart the party no one wants to go to. Here’s the S&P 500 chart when it’s adjusted for inflation. The difference is startling in scope and pace compared to the chart we shared earlier:

Inflation-adjusted returns suck, I know. They are not as glamorous as nominal returns. But it’s a healthy reality check and a reminder of how important it is to keep up with the inflation rate. It’s also a reminder that you’re not as good as you think you are. Most of us, when we’re invested in risk assets, are just riding the waves of inflation.

If you have the guts to work on your own personal inflation-adjusted returns, please let me know. Hope you hang in there and just remember, the real ones know inflation well and want the challenge. The others will dance around their nominal gains and never speak a word about it.

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