Cassandra Does Tokyo is an Investment Banker now relocated to Japan
The Risk That Will Bite You Next Is NOT The One That Bit You Last
Traumatic and painful events burnish their effect upon our brains. This happens profoundly in childhood, as well as in relationships, and most definitely as readers will know, in the financial markets. As a result, we alter behavior, and do things differently in the future. Tokyo real estate was no longer Japan’s risk once it plunged skewering banks and investors in the process. Latin-American debt from the recycling of petrodollars, once a mammoth exposure has been throttled long ago. Asian countries are no longer held hostage by fickle hot-money flows. And it probably won’t be large company malfeasance (like Adelphia, MCI, or Enron) drilling holes in investor portfolios that gets one fired for being contrarian. Nor is it probable that dodgy liar-loan mortgages packaged together into dubiously-annointed ‘AAA’ CDO’s will set in motion a catastrophic global unwind. No. Rather, we will (and undoubtedly we already are) well-into the process of doing too much of precisely that thing which we shouldn’t. And what ever it is, or will be, it won’t be Japanese Real Estate, NT or JDSU or carelessly conjured CDOs, or whatever that thing was that buggered you soooooo much that it still hurts.
This is, in itself, one of the best arguments why Sarbanes-Oxley, and Dodd-Frank, EMIR and AIFMD are such abominable wastes of time, effort and money (for everyone except the lawyers feeding at the trough). Not that the risks they attempt address weren’t risks, or that people were harmed by them. They were. It’s just highly contentious whether they still are, or will be in the future and so worthy of the draconian regulatory regime(s) imposed ostensibly to control them. It will be a VERY long time before investors, again, plough double-digit billions into a Madoff-like purported secret money-machine with no transparency and audited by some guy in a 2nd story walk-up named “Dave”, or take liquid collateral held against short-duration loans to clients, and shoot-the-moon by swapping it for illiquid long-duration mortgage bonds in a suicidal reach for yield. The germane observation here is that you cannot legislate against stupidity. And since it is stupidity (generously laced with greed) in the general sense that is at the root of risk, it will undoubtedly surface again in some other market endeavor, asset class or investment meme, such as myopic share buy-backs, insurance-linked securities, collectible art, high-end London Real Estate, or over-the-top deal prices with Frankensteinian capital structures paid for Private Equity investments. Who knows?
Because we know it is more or less deterministic, that bad things ultimately result when greed mates with stupidity, ruminating upon important yet-to-be encountered risks is a worthwhile undertaking, for risk-managers and portfolio managers alike. I would add that their bosses and investors, respectively would also benefit from meditating upon the question of “what risk will bite you in the ass – tomorrow?”, but if the past is a guide, its urgency will be lost in the process. So what might be tomorrow’s Big Risk? High equity prices? Tight credit spreads? Generalized relative valuation levels of asset classes to historical norms? ZIRP? Exiting ZIRP? Student or auto loan-backed ABS? China growth stall? Threats of War? Eurozone sovereign debt kerfuffle? Bank capital ratios? Ted Cruz or Nigel Farage? The diminutive age of the average HF analyst? A butterfly somewhere in the highlands of Mexico? The homogeneity of the average Finance MBA, and the curriculum studied? I daresay they are all candidates worthy of consideration…. all potentially destabilizing…but….but….
….But I think that the big risk to be concerned about – the one that sets the present apart from the past, – is the nature of risk itself. We feel more comfortable than ever in measuring much risk, for we have PhDs with powerful computers and software, all developing unpronounceable but impressive-sounding risk models spawning more acronyms than used by the armed forces. We use our DMAs to link directly to markets, giving the illusion of abundant liquidity that results from framing our references during subdued times, modeling it on observed turnover, bolstered by the presence of HFTs and dark pools. And yet despite these advances, we appear to understand little more than we ever did (or at least ignore it the same as ever). So while everyone does as they did before, they ignore the profound difference in the structure of liquidity, leverage, and the interplay and consequences upon both of risk-model herding and position crowding, the latter far more subject to the destabilizing whims of short-term agent-shepherds.
Dealers and banks are providing less liquidiity, and warehousing less risk than ever, precisely at a moment in time when the amount of systemic liquidity sloshing about, trading discretionarily on a leveraged basis is highly elevated relative to historical experience. These market-making activities have been meaningfully excised – a casualty of the Volcker rule and other regulatory demands from authorities – replaced by more discerning and more discretionary liquidity providers on the buy-side. One can argue (perhaps rightly) that both specialists and market-making securities dealers, during times of elevated vol, have always stepped away from making prices. And so they have, or least widened spreads and diminished quote size to the same effect.
But going back fifteen years to LTCM, what one saw “under the hood” was that the entire Street generally acted as a counter-trend buffer with vast liquidity-providing positions contra the flow. They were not stupid positions but attractive, positive-carry relative-value inventory accumulation. The reason they [street creditors] jointly “administered” LTCM into a managed unwind was precisely NOT to have these liquidated into an open market where they were themselves “full-up”. Imagine the carnage and dislocation in their absence. The important distinction here is that the street were principals with permanent capital – NOT agents. While they may withhold the both quantity and levels at which they supply, they were, in practice, their own masters. Outsourcing the liquidity provision to HFs, or other agents raises the question – like in 2008 – whether even those that are dedicated to such opportunistic pursuits, as agents, will be in the position to what they may wish to do. With ultimate investors – whether individual, institutional or otherwise – being behaviorally hard-wired towards gamma-negative tendency, one would be challenged to imagine anything other than the classical response of pulling in one’s proverbial horns, and redeeming, or putting in protective redemption notices given the lengthy notification requirements. One can imagine the destabilizing demands upon liquidity, in the absence of decisive principal capital to take the other side. I think this will translate into fatter highly-kurtotic left-tailed returns at the mere hint of serious demand flow.
But that is only part of the story. Coincidentally, we now have near-uniformity in model risk in the name of VAR, and an increasing deployment of risk-parity approaches. Both of these are profoundly gamma-negative. Volatility, suppressed by abundant liquidity, infers diminished risk as measured by VAR, encouraging a complacent accumulation of risk using available leverage. Risk-parity often results in a similar rear-view risk-assessment, and acquisition of leverage. Faced with a spike in volatility accompanying almost any potential event (exogenous or endogenous), The Market’s aggregate positioning and leverage will deterministically trigger demands for liquidity, most likely in the same direction as the shock, into a veritable vacuum, replete with classical feedback loops. This is before considering the large increase in mimetic trend-following, momentum and CTA strategies’ relative size and importance within market ecosystems, and the large army of discretionary day-traders waiting for set-ups and breakouts. These are unmitigated amplifiers of already-gamma-negative feedback loops. The paradoxical result, in a world with more risk-managers than ever, using better measurement and technology, with more position limitations, thresholds, and more-than-abundant capital is a market that is likely to prove more brittle than ever before. For not only will the modern liquidity providers intent on avoiding costly adverse selection step out of the way, they too will turn and trade in the direction of the impulse. LOR’s Portfolio Insurance, will, by contrast, appear benign.
To most fundamental equity, fixed-income, FX, and commodity traders, the Quant Wreck of 2007 hardly registered. To those running systematic model-driven equity long/short strategies, recalling these mid-summer events is likely to trigger PTSD-like responses. But the lessons they burnished, worth heeding in regards to today’s broader systemic structure are clear. Everything’s fine until its not. Models, while useful, are always flawed. Participants habituate behavior basis the recent past – and are not forward-looking. Leverage is poison. Participants caught in risk/margin/redemption crosscurrents cannot discriminate and can only unwind their positions. Gamma-negative behavior outweighs gamma-positive behavior by a large margin. The exit is always smaller than perceived in aggregate before the theatre fills with smoke. Feedback loops cause dramatic overshoot. Out of the wreckage arises amazing opportunity. Dry powder is essential for credit is often impossible to obtain when the opportunities are the juiciest.
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