A Summary Of Horizon Kinetics’ Arguments Against Indexation

Murray Stahl and Steven Bregman of Horizon Kinetics have written an ongoing series examining the theoretical and practical flaws of indexation as an investment strategy. As the series is long and the arguments are many, I’ve decided to try to summarize each of their major essays into a single summary sentence to make the argument easier to follow. All links below come from the “Under the Hood: What’s In Your Index? series:

  1. International Diversification – Bet You Don’t Know How Much You’ve Got, investors seeking diversification with their indexing strategies are ignorant of the fact that almost 30% of the revenues of S&P 500 companies come from outside the US, and many international companies in non-US indexes derive substantial parts of their revenue from the US; therefore political diversification of economic risk is illusory in index allocation strategies
  2. Not Your Grandfather’s S&P, the calculation of the S&P 500 was adjusted for available float (non-inside held shares) beginning in 2005, meaning that much of expectations about its return built on past price performance is no longer analagous because earlier index returns were purely market cap-weighted and thus the index got the full benefit of great, insider-owned growth stories such as Wal-Mart and Microsoft
  3. Your Bond Index – Part of the ETF Bubble; valuation-agnostic institutional investors following a “diversified” asset allocation model use tools such as international bond ETFs to gain exposure, and the liquidity constraints of the underlying issuance create perverse results wherein war-torn, criminally fraudulent and economically unstable foreign regime debt ends up with lower yields than stable, profitable US corporate debt
  4. How to NOT Invest in the Dynamism of Emerging Markets: Through Your Emerging Markets ETF; using India ETFs as an example, it is shown that the concentration of market caps, lack of trading liquidity and concentration of the largest firm’s revenue sources outside the home market imply that one can not reliably get exposure to an emerging market by buying emerging market ETFs, meaning that the “diversification” available with such tools is illusory
  5. How Liquid is YOUR ETF, or What Does This Have to Do With Me?; in a “virtuous circle”, the liquidity of index ETFs has attracted long-term asset allocators whose allocation decisions have created even greater liquidity in the ETF, but the events of August 24th, 2015, show that it’s possible for this circle to operate in reverse, creating sharply-divergent share price performance between an ETF itself and its underlying holdings
  6. The Beta Game – Part I; allocation models favor low-beta strategies (historical price risk relative to broader market) over high-beta strategies, such that high-beta strategies are being allocated out of existence and low-beta strategies are being allocated into a bubble, even when the underlying strategy itself seems to imply higher risk and volatility than the broad market
  7. A New Bubble Indicator; Is One of Your Stocks In a Momentum ETF?; “the appearance of billion-dollar momentum ETFs means that the most expensive stocks are being bid higher, and those that have not done well – that is, their relative momentum has abated, as it ultimately must – are being sold short, so the cheap are being sold cheaper”, “The index universe has become, simply, a big momentum trade. It is the most crowded trade in the history of investing.”
  8. The Beta Game – Part II; when the beta-trade goes in reverse because peak beta-driven demand is reached, index ETFs which are primarily purchased because of their beta will fall in value and funds will flow into contrarian, non-indexed securities which will also have constrained supply (illiquid) resulting in sharper price increases
  9. The Robo-Adviser, Part I: What Does Rebalancing Mean to You?; asset allocation patterns, especially the robo advisor-driven variety, create a structural need for outsize turnover volumes of ETFs versus the turnover of their underlying stocks as portfolios are more aggressively rebalanced, in the future a cascading rebalancing effect could create dramatic selloffs in underlying securities just as cascading demand seems to drive price increases on the way up
  10. The Robo-Adviser, Part II: What’s in Your Asset Allocation Program?; robo-advisor portfolio recommendations seem to make similar investment allocations despite different inputs, creating a herd momentum in index ETFs
  11. How Indexation is Creating New Opportunities for Short-Sellers, And Why This Should Alarm Ordinary Buyers of Stock and Bond ETFs; historically low interest rates and growth of indexing as a strategy have made short-selling a punishing exercise, but sudden and unpredictable price volatility will force low-beta ETFs to dump their holdings in favor of other securities, opening up opportunities for short-sellers to profit
  12. Why Utility Stocks Should Concern Income-Oriented Investors; qualitative analysis reveals a worrisome risk picture for the utility industry, yet ETF flows and the search for yield have combined to create high P/Es for the industry as a whole
  13. The Exxon Conundrum; despite a massive decrease in the price of oil and thus $XOM’s per share earnings, its share price was relatively unimpacted and it remains an overweight position of numerous ETFs, suggesting it is $XOMs pre-existing size and liquidity which generates its (over-)valuation, and not the other way around
  14. 5000 Years of Interest Rates (Part I); interest rates in 5,000 years of recorded human history across the globe have never been near zero or negative as they predominantly are in Western economies at present, meaning equity valuations are built on truly unprecedented circumstances while most financial logic involves historical pricing as a basis constructing behavioral models
  15. 5000 Years of Interest Rates (Part II); interest rate increases would result in painful adjustments to the value of fixed-income (bonds) and fixed income-like ETFs (REITs, utilities), and a safer bet would be in non-indexed securities whose prices are already somewhat depressed and whose underlying businesses represent idiosyncratic risks versus the broad market
  16. What’s in Your Index? The Value of Cash; cash is deemed to be a liability in a low interest rate environment, creating a drive to acquire assets regardless of valuation, when in reality cash might be the very thing investors need to survive the coming tide of rising rate-induced market crashes
  17. What’s in Your Index? Gold Miner ETFs; leveraged ETFs in the gold miner space seem to be creating price movements divorced from the underlying fundamentals of gold itself, indicating this is not an efficient market despite the fact that it is being indexed (or rather, because it is being indexed)
  18. The Indexation That Is, Versus The Indexation That Should Be; the commodity nature of index strategies implies that most fund providers who face the same profit motives as active managers of the past will promote diversification strategies to “index investors” that will cause them to underperform the broad market for the same reasons active managers did

The Argument (So Far), Summarized:

  •  Modern indexation is primarily practiced via allocation to various thematic ETFs
  • The construction of the thematic ETFs is often inconsistent with their stated theme and therefore unable to provide the sought after diversification, due to liquidity constraints
  • The price behavior and valuation of the holdings within these ETFs seem divorced from underlying economic reality and are largely explainable through the feedback mechanism of high inflows to indexation/ETF-based strategies themselves
  • Myopic focus on beta (a measure of relative volatility) and momentum (tendency for price trend to continue, a characteristic which shouldn’t exist in an efficient market) have created herd mentalities and currently dominate index-driven strategies
  • Indexation as a strategy requires and logically replies upon historical price data, but the data being relied upon was gathered in an interest rate environment that was historically normal but entirely dissimilar to recent interest rate paradigms, bringing into question the validity of this data to present strategies
  • Indexation relies upon the existence of an efficient market to operate, but the indexation phenomenon itself seems to be driving persistent inefficiencies in the market, bringing into question the stability of the indexation phenomenon
  • Most current index investors do not follow the historic and academic recommendations for executing an index strategy, nor can they given the profit motives of investment marketers offering ETFs outside of the broad market index theme, ensuring underperformance relative to the index benchmark for the same reasons active managers underperformed in the past

BONUS, Horizon Kinetics Q4 2016 Market Commentary, summarized:

  • When the total available pool of index-driven funds reaches its limit, index strategies which are valuation-neutral will no longer set the marginal price for the underlying securities they own, and that price will be set by value-conscious active managers, implying a sharp correction downward for indexed security prices in general
  • Indexation as a strategy has a place in certain portfolios in a “normal market”, but this is not that market and therefore indexation seems to carry undue risk
  • There is no such thing as an “inadequate index return”, so index investors have no logical basis for being unhappy with the returns they get
  • If index investors did try to pull their money all at once, there is no logical alternative to active asset managers because bonds are priced too high to offer a greater return and there is not enough money in money market funds to change places with the index fund outflows at current prices
  • Returns to large cap equities from 1926-2015 have averaged between 9% and 10% a year; returns to equities from 1824-1924 averaged 7% a year, but most of that return came in the form of dividends, not price appreciation
  • In an age of indexation, true diversification comes from analyzing individual securities and finding the one’s whose share price performance is not dictated by broader market trends, as indexed ETF securities are
  • The age of analyst-driven active management may again be upon us
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Video – Toby Carlisle, Q&A Notes at UC Davis Talk on Quantitative Value

Click here to watch the video (wear earphones and bring a magnifying glass)

UC Davis/Farnam Street Investments presents Toby Carlisle, founder and managing partner of Eyquem Investment Management and author of Quantitative Value, with Wes Gray.

Normally I’d embed a video but I can’t seem to do that with the UC Davis feed. Also, these are PARAPHRASED notes to the Q&A portion of Toby’s talk only. I ignored the “lecture” portion which preceded because I already think I get the gist of it from the book. I was mostly interested in covering his responses to the Q&A section.

The video is extremely poor quality, which is a shame because this is a great talk on a not-so-widely publicized idea. I wish there was a copy on YouTube with better audio and zoom, but no one put such a thing up, if it exists. I hope Toby does more interviews and talks in the future… hell, I’d help him put something together if it resulted in a better recording!

I had trouble hearing it and only thought to plug in some earbuds near the end. Prior to that I was contending with airplanes going overhead, refrigerator suddenly cycling into a loud cooling mode as well as my laptop’s maxed out tinny speakers contending with the cooling fans which randomly decided to cycle on and off at often the most critical moments. I often didn’t catch the question being asked, even when it wasn’t muffled, and chose to just focus on Toby’s response, assuming that the question would be obvious from that. That being said, I often conjoined questions and responses when there was overlap or similarity, or when it was easier for me to edit. This is NOT a verbatim transcript.

Finally, Toby recently created a beta forum for his book/website, at the Greenbackd Forum and I realize now in reviewing this talk that a lot of the questions I asked there, were covered here in my notes. I think he’s probably already given up on it, likely due to blockheads like me showing up and spamming him with simpleton questions he’s answered a million times for the Rubed Masses.

Major take-aways from the interview:

Q: Could we be in a “New Era” where the current market level is the “New Mean” and therefore there is nothing to revert to?

A: Well that’s really like saying stocks will revert down, not up. But how could you know? You could only look at historical data and go off of that, we have no way to predict ahead of time whether this “New Mean” is the case. I think this is why value investing continues to work, because at every juncture, people choose to believe that the old rules don’t apply. But the better bet has been that the world changes but the old rules continue to apply.

Q: So because the world is unknowable, do you compensate by fishing in the deep value ponds?

A: I like investing in really cheap stocks because when you get surprises, they’re good surprises. I find Buffett stocks terrifying because they have a big growth component in the valuation and any misstep and they get cut to pieces; whereas these cheap stocks are moribund for the most part so if you buy them and something good happens, they go up a lot.

Q: (muffled)

A: If you look at large cap stocks, the value effect is not as prevalent and the value premia is smaller. That’s because they’re a lot more efficient. There’s still only about 5% of AUM invested in value. But the big value guys portfolios look very similar; the value you have as a small investor is you don’t have to hold those stocks. So you can buy the smaller stuff where the value premia is larger. The institutional imperative is also very real. The idea of I’d like to buy 20 stocks, but I have to hold 45. That pushes you away from the optimal holdings for outperformance.

Q: (muffled)

A: The easiest way to stand out is to not run a lot of money. But no one wants to do that, everyone wants to run a lot of money.

Q: (muffled)

A: The model I follow is a bit more complicated than the Magic Formula. But there are two broad differences. I only buy value stocks, I only buy the cheapest decile and I don’t go outside of it, and then I buy quality within that decile. ROIC will work as a quality metric but only within the cheapest decile. ROIC is something Buffett talks about from a marketing perspective but I think in terms of raw performance it doesn’t make much sense. There’s definitely some persistence in ROIC, companies that have generated high returns on invested capital over long periods of time, tend to continue to do that.  If you have Warren Buffett’s genius and can avoid stepping on landmines, that can work. But if you don’t, you need to come up with another strategy.

Q: (muffled)

A: Intuition is important and it’s important when you’re deciding which strategy to use, but it’s not important when you’re selecting individual stocks. We can be overconfident in our assessment of a stock. I wonder whether all the information investors gather adds to their accuracy or to their confidence about their accuracy.

Q: (muffled)

A: All strategies have those periods when they don’t work. If you imagined you ran 4 different strategies in your portfolio, one is MF, one is cheap stocks, one of them is Buffett growth and one is special situations, and you just put a fixed amount of capital into each one [fixed proportion?] so that when one is performing well, you take the [excess?] capital out of it and put it into the one that is performing poorly, then you always have this natural rebalancing and it works the same way as equal-weighted stocks. And I think it’d lead to outperformance. It makes sense to have different strategies in the fund.

Q: (muffled)

A: QV says you are better off following an indexing strategy, but which market you index to is important. The S&P500 is one index you can follow, and there are simple steps you can follow to randomize the errors and outperform. But if you’re going to take those simple steps why not follow them to their logical conclusion and use value investing, which will allow you to outperform over a long period of time.

Q: (muffled)

A: Not everyone can beat the market. Mutual funds/big investors ARE the market, so their returns will be the market minus their fees. Value guys are 5% of AUM, can 5% outperform? Probably, by employing unusual strategies. Wes Gray has this thought experiment where he says if we return 20% a year, how long before we own the entire market? And it’s not that long. So there are constraints and all the big value investors find that once they get out there they all have the same portfolios so their outperformance isn’t so great. There’s a natural cap on value and it probably gets exceeded right before a bust. After a bust is then fertile ground for investment and that’s why you see all the good returns come right after the bust and then it trickles up for a period of time before there’s another collapse.

Q: (muffled)

A: I think the market is not going to generate great returns in the US, and I am not sure how value will do within that. That’s why my strategy is global. There are cheaper markets in other parts of the world. The US is actually one of the most expensive markets. The cheapest market in the developed world is Greece.

Q: Did you guys ever try to add a timing component to the formula? That might help you decide how to weight cash?

A: Yes, it doesn’t work. Well, we couldn’t get it to work. However, if you look at the yield, the yield of the strategy is always really fat, especially compared to the other instruments you could invest the cash in, so logically, you’d want to capture that yield and be fully invested. I think you should be close to fully invested.

Q: What about position sizing?

A: I equal weight. An argument can be made for sizing your cheaper positions bigger. I run 50 positions in the portfolio. In the backtest I found that was the best risk-adjusted risk-reward. That’s using Sortino and Sharpe ratios, which I don’t really believe in, but what else are you going to use? If you sized to 10 positions, you get better performance but it’s not better risk-adjusted performance. If you sized to 20 positions, you get slightly worse performance but better risk-adjusted performance. So you could make an argument for making a portfolio where your 5 best ideas were slightly bigger than your next 10 best, and so on, but I think it’s a nightmare for rebalancing. The stocks I look at act a little bit like options. They’re dead money until something happens and then they pop; so I want as much exposure to those as I can. I invest globally so the accounting regimes locally are a nightmare. IFRS, GAAP to me is foreign. You have to adjust the inputs to your screen for each country as a result of different accounting standards.

Q: digression

A: Japan is an interesting market. Everyone looks at Japan and sees the slump and says it’s terrifying investing in Japan but if you look at value in Japan, value has been performing really well for a really long time. So, if the US is in this position where it’s got a lot of govt debt and it’s going to follow a similar trajectory, you could look at Japan as a proxy and feel pretty good about value.

Q: (muffled)

A: I’ll take hot money, I am not in a position to turn down anyone right now. It’s a hard strategy [QV] to sell.

Q: (muffled)

A: Special situation investing is often a situation where you can’t find it in a screen, something is being spun out, you have to read a 10-K or 10-Q and understand what’s going to happen and then take a position that you wouldn’t be able to figure out from following a simple price ratio. It’s a good place to start out because it’s something you can understand and you can get an advantage by doing more work than everyone else. It’s not really correlated to the market. I don’t know whether it outperforms over a full cycle, but people don’t care because it performs well in a bad market like this.

Q: What kind of data do you use for your backtests?

A: Compustat, CRISP (Center for Research Into Securities Prices), Excel spreadsheets. You need expensive databases that have adjusted for when earnings announcements are made, that include adjustments that are made, that include companies that went bankrupt. Those kinds are expensive. They’re all filled with errors, that’s the toughest thing.