Toward the end of 2012, Elliott Management’s Paul Singer made a speech at the Archstone Partnership annual meeting. He stated that, “The thing that scares me the most is significant inflation, which could destroy our society.” About a year later in an interview with Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” program he explained that this could come about with small changes in perception of inflation risk: “The first whiffs of either commodity inflation or wage inflation … may cause a self-reinforcing set of market events … which may include a sharp fall in bond prices, … fall in stock prices, rapid increase in commodities…” Continue reading
Investors exert a great deal of intellectual effort to determine the correct valuation of securities. Economic value is central to our decision making and it plays a major role in our intuitive psyche. In daily life, when we buy a loaf of bread or a tank of gasoline, we tend to have a good idea about what we think is cheap and what’s expensive. We like bargains, don’t enjoy being ripped off, and in the same way we’re inclined to shop for value as consumers, we find value investing intuitively appealing. But here’s the critical difference between buying goods and investing: shopping for investments is speculative while buying stuff isn’t, and speculation activates the part of our mental circuitry that can heat up to a boiling point and overwhelm any rational consideration of value. Continue reading
In my book, “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading” I argued that security prices “are driven by human psychology and its self-stoking collective action that can sustain major trends spanning many years.” That’s because in speculative decision making, our views about the actions of others can entirely override our rational appraisal of the underlying asset value.
The most recent example of this is the price of Bitcoin that has surged from below $400 in January last year to $4,300 this week. When we set up the Altana Digital Currency Fund several years ago, many people thought that digital currencies were just a strange fad and investors continued to show little interest in them – until very recently. Continue reading
Nature has … some sort of arithmetical-geometrical coordinate system, because nature has all kinds of models. What we experience of nature is in models, and all of nature’s models are so beautiful. – R. Buckminster Fuller
Nature’s survival strategies that bear the most similarities to activities of market speculators are those of predators. To live, predators must hunt and this activity includes elements of speculation. Like trading, predation requires knowledge, skills, judgment and decision-making. It also entails risk and uncertainty. A predator can’t be sure where her next meal is coming from. Each hunt is an investment of resources; it involves the risk of injury and loss of energy expended in failed hunts, which tend to be more frequent than successful ones. To survive and procreate, predators must consistently generate a positive return on this investment. Too much of a losing streak could turn out to be fatal. In his book, “The Serengeti Lion: A Study of Predator-Prey Relations” George B. Schaller painstakingly documented the details of hundreds of hunts by large cats in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. We have all seen wildlife television programs showing lions and cheetahs hunting, but Schaller’s work offers a much richer account of the life of predatory cats including their hunting behavior.
The anatomy of a hunt Continue reading
“Economists can’t forecast for a toffee… They have missed every recession in the last four decades. And it isn’t just growth that economists can’t forecast; it’s also inflation, bond yields, unemployment, stock market price targets and pretty much everything else.” – James Montier
Forecasting commodity prices and economic indicators is demonstrably an exercise in futility. Our markets and economies are complex systems and as such, their future unfolding is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty. Concretely, let’s take a look at how the leading economic analysts did at predicting oil prices, GDP growth, unemployment and stock market indices. Continue reading
Frank Knight, the grand old man of Chicago wrote “Risk, Uncertainty and Profit,” one of the five most important economics books of the 20th century. Among other invaluable insights, Knight proposes that, “The responsible decisions in organized economic life are price decisions; others can be reduced to routine.” Knight recognized that price at which a firm sells its products or purchases materials tends to have greater impact on profitability than any other element. Based on the income statement of an average S&P 1500 company (and assuming constant sales volumes), a 1% improvement in the selling price would generate an 8% increase in operating profits. Conversely, a 1% drop in the cost of goods sold would lead to a 5.36% increase in operating profits. This impact was more than double that of a 1% increase in sales volume. For commodity businesses where operating margins are typically very low, hedging can have a much greater impact on profitability. Continue reading
Sugar prices have soared on the CSCE (Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa exchange) from just over $0.10 per pound in August 2015 to over $0.23 at present – a fairly sharp jump by any standard, particularly after several years of continuously falling prices. I trade sugar using our trend-following model and to channel my inner Donald Trump – we’ve done tremendously well, generating a respectable grosss annualized return of nearly 10% per annum over a 5-year period. Now, the main reason I find this remarkable is that I know next to nothing about the fundamental economics of the sugar market. I know it goes into biscuits and beverages, that it comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, but that’s about it. Continue reading