Mutiny founder and host Jason Buck’s introduction:
In this episode, I talk with Eric Crittenden, Founder and Chief Investment Officer of Standpoint, an investment firm focused on bringing all-weather portfolio solutions to US investors. Eric plays an active role in the firms’ research, portfolio management, product innovation, business strategy, environments and client facing activities. He believes using an all-wealth approach is the most effective way to prepare for a wide rage of market environments, while producing meaningful investment returns with limited downside risk.
Eric has over 20 years experience researching, designing, and managing alternative asset portfolios on behalf of families, individuals, financial advisors, and other institutional investors. Eric and I talk about circuitous paths with multi-year dead-end rabbit holes, simplicity can be the ultimate sophistication, what clients want, what’s wrong with the investing industry, and strategy scaling.
All bold emphasis is mine.
- Investing opens your mind
Jason Buck: Well, like you said, you don’t have to be overly prescient to talk about negative oil or negative interest rates. What I’ve always loved about macro trend is that you just follow price, right? And so if price goes negative, you just keep following it negative if that’s the direction of the trend. You don’t have to have any global macro narrative. And that’s the point, is you’re just offsetting narratives and people love narratives, so they didn’t like the idea that you said it could potentially go negative. You weren’t calling for it. You’re like it’s just within the realm of possibility. And I wonder, do you think that following trends for so long just opens up your mind that anything’s possible?
Eric Crittenden: I think doing the research around it and seeing what actually happened. I mean, you can see with your own eyes what happened historically, like the sugar trade in the 1980s, where the price was below the cost of production. And the price didn’t actually go any lower, but you made a boatload of money being short because of the contango and the futures curve. Right? So today, you fast forward to today, and I talk to emerging CTAs or people that want to start trading their own account, they’ll do the same thing over and over. It’s always the same thing. They come up with all these filters to filter out trades and they say, “Well, if the price is too low, it won’t go short. If the price is too high, it won’t go long.” Well, okay, so one of these days you’re going to experience this phenomenon, and the greatest trade of the decade will be the one that your filter filters out.
- Breakouts vs moving averages
I looked at many, many different ways to measure and identify a developing trend, and what I found, and you know this, is that they all basically pick up on the same thing. They’re just different ways of measuring the same thing. It’s like if there’s a wave coming in and you’re in Santa Barbara and you’ve got a guy from Hawaii and a guy from Oregon and a guy from California, and one guy says it’s four and a half feet, the other one says it’s five feet, and the other one says it’s four, they’re all measuring the same thing, they’re just doing it the Hawaiian style or the Oregon style or whatever.
So there’s not a lot of benefit from diversifying your entry/exit style, moving average crossover, breakout. There’s a whole bunch of different styles. That being said, you could develop a strategy that uses a moving average crossover that doesn’t have a lot of … in other words, they’re not all created equal.
I like breakouts. So I’m kind of in the minority there. I like breakouts because they’re pure trigonometry. They’re just triangles, essentially. And you know the price that would force you to get in, and then your stop-loss is some other price, and you know what that is. And you know what both of those prices are every single day. And that means you can calibrate your risk. You can lean on that. We call that the risk range. So I know approximately how much risk I’m taking to market because I know what both of those prices are. When it comes to a moving average crossover, I don’t know what price is going to force those two moving averages to crossover without doing some really advanced, or not advanced but tedious math to come up with a bunch of different scenarios about how they might crossover in the future. So because they all basically pick up on the same thing, but the breakout approach is very clean from a risk management perspective, I gravitate towards that, and I didn’t see a lot of benefit from diversifying meaningfully beyond what I’m already doing when it comes to entries. [Kris: This is resonant with what I saw at a fund that ran a breakout trend strategy.]
- Approach to risk management depends on whether you come from the relative vs absolute return crowd
Jason Buck: Is like CTAs have always been pointing out, or macro trends specialists, have always pointed out that this is what actually matters is your aggregate drawdown risk, not your volatility metric. But that just doesn’t seem to translate well to everybody else, and everybody still seems to care most about sharp ratios versus max drawdown.
Eric Crittenden: I think in the securities world, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, it’s historically been a relative game rather than an absolute game. In a relative game, anytime you sell, you’re putting yourself into a position to get left behind. If you get left behind, it’s game over for you, everyone loses confidence in you. Futures guys, derivatives guys, live in a very different world or grew up in a very different world where it’s all about survival. Some of these guys are using leverage and quite a bit of it, so it really was essential that they control the amount of risk they’re taking. So, and when CTAs is drone on, and on, and on about risk management, it drives advisors crazy, because they don’t even really know what you mean when you say that.
[Kris: I’m biased but I agree with this from my life as a derivatives trader. Risk management is the #1 focus, but I had never thought about why the beta world might not think that way]
It’s not that important in their world, because a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds, it’s more important to not manage risk, because you don’t want the taxes, you don’t want the turnover, and you don’t want to get left behind. You can look at these psychological studies, and I’ve had people tell me it’s okay to be down 50% once every 10 years, as long as the market’s down 45, or 50, or 55%, I won’t lose my clients. But if I manage my risk along the way, the way you guys do, and I’m up 20 when the market’s up 25, and then the next year I’m up six when the market’s up 11, it’s game over for me. That’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is in the securities industry. So, but when you’re looking at alternatives, and in particular all-weather investments, frame the right way, that all goes away.
- “All weather” and uncorrelated risk premia
Dalio coined that term or made it popular and he sometimes will say, “You need upwards of 16 uncorrelated return streams,” do you think that’s even possible?
Eric Crittenden: No, it’s not, and I like Dalio, I like his writings, I modeled a lot of what we do off of what their firm did in the ’80s. So, I have a lot of respect for what he achieved, and how he did it, the how is very important. That being said, anyone with a plain vanilla copy of Excel can use a random number generator and realize that three uncorrelated variables are pretty much all you need to be the best money manager out there. So, I don’t know where the 21’s coming from. I’ll tell you hit on something though that there’s only one thing in this world that actually that I’m jealous of right now. There’s one risk premia out there that I can’t source, but it would be so valuable if I could. So, I’m really just getting three, and I feel like that’s all we need, it’s the best I can do. I think it solves a lot of problems for people, but there’s one more out there that I think is big and sustainable, but you can’t get it from Phoenix, Arizona, and that is the market-making style risk premia. Where you need economies to scale, you need poll position, co-locate your servers, you got to be big, and have a solid network. You got to be basically like Amazon or Costco, where you can just muscle your competitors out of the way. You’re like, “Nope, get out of here, this is my real estate, and I’m doing…” It would be so valuable, but there’s just no way we could pull it off.
Jason Buck: You said three return sources, so eliminate the three return sources that you believe you have?
Eric Crittenden: So, I feel like there’s capital formation markets, like stocks and bonds, which are kind of a one-way street, the risk premia is kind of a one-way street. I mean, the bulk of the risk premia is your long stocks. The futures, whether it’s metals, grains, livestock, energy, these are risk transfer markets and risk transfer markets are different than capital formation markets. I feel like risk transfer markets, you need to be symmetrical, you need to be willing to go long or short, because they’re a zero-sum game. They have term structures, so they’re factoring expectations, storage costs, cost of carry, all that stuff. And then there’s the risk-free rate of return, which used to be a great way to kind of recapture inflation, it’s not so much anymore. We can get into that later on, it’s a fascinating time to be managing money, because there’s a huge gap between inflation and risk-free. But, historically speaking, those are the three that I think makes sense, especially in the context of an all-weather portfolio that uses futures to get its commodity and derivative exposure, because it leaves a lot of cash lying around. So, to go source that risk-free rate of return costs you nothing, there’s no opportunity cost, because you were going to be sitting on that cash anyways.
When I look at all the different risk premium on this computer or the one behind me, historically, I see those three blending together more beautifully, and there’s other ones out there, they just don’t move the needle for me. Things that are related to real estate, credit, they just all have that same trap door risk that the equity market has when the equity market’s going down. So, and then the rest of the time they’re expensive, they’re tax inefficient, they’re illiquid, and then they disappear on… Sometimes they get crowded, I mean, they just cause more problems than they solve. That’s how I feel about corporate bonds, credit, all that stuff. I mean, I wish there was something there, I know other people strongly feel that there is, but I’ve looked at the data until my eyes are blurry, for decades, and I don’t see it.
- Capital formation vs risk transfer markets
This is an important concept to me, because it goes to the point of why I do what I do, or why I think that macro trend oriented approaches expect a positive return over time, because the futures markets are a zero-sum game or actually, a negative-sum game after you pay the brokers, and the NFA fees, and all that stuff. So, in a negative-sum game, you better have a reason for participating. For you to expect to make money, you better be adding something to that ecosystem that someone else is willing to pay for, because somebody else has to mathematically lose money in order for you to make money. So, in studying the futures markets, and I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been on the corporate hedging side, I’ve been on the professional futures trader side.
I believe I understand who that somebody is, that has deep pockets, and they’re both willing and able to lose money on their future’s position. A trend oriented philosophy that’s liquidity weighted is going to be trading opposite those people on a dollar-weighted basis through time. It does make sense that they would lose money on their hedge positions, I mean, in what world would it make sense for people who hedge, which is the same thing as buying insurance, to make money from that? It makes no sense, that would be an inverted, illogical world. So, anyone who’s providing liquidity to them should expect some form of a risk premia to flow to them. It’s just up to you to manage your risk, to survive the path traveled, and that’s what trend following is. I don’t know why that is so controversial, and more people don’t talk about it, because I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t truly believe that what we’re doing deserves the returns that we’re getting.
Jason Buck: CTA trend followers, or whatever, just they don’t really know how they make money. They’re like, “It’s trending, it’s behavioral, it’s clustering, it’s herd mentality, and that’s how we make money.” You’ve accurately portrayed it as these are risk-transfer services, speculators make money off of corporate hedgers. But the only thing I would push back, and I’m curious your take on this, is like you said, zero-sum game or negative-sum at the individual trade level. But when we look more holistically, those corporate hedgers are hedging their position for a reason, and it’s likely lowering their cost of capital for one of the exogenous effects. So, my question always is, is it really zero-sum or negative-sum, or is it positive-sum kind of all the way around? In a sense that the speculator can make money offering these risk transfer services that the hedgers are looking for that liquidity, and then the hedgers are also… If we look at the rest of their business, they’re hedging out a lot of their risks, which can actually improve their business over time, whether that’s cost of capital, structure, or other exogenous effects.
Eric Crittenden: Absolutely, I wish I had… You did record this, so I’m going to steal everything you just said. In the future’s market, it’s negative-sum. If you include the 50% of participants that are commercial hedgers, it’s no longer zero-sum. But most CTAs, and futures traders, and futures investors don’t even concern themselves with what’s going on outside the futures market. So, but if you pull that in and look at it, you can see, or at least it’s clear to me, we’re providing liquidity to these hedgers. They’re losing some money to us, and the more money they lose to us, the better off their business is doing, for a variety of reasons. Tighter cash flows, more predictable cash flows results in a higher stock price, typically. But you brought one up that almost no one ever talks about, and that is if they’re hedged, their cost of capital, the interest rate that they have to pay investors on their bonds is considerably lower. Eric Crittenden: Oftentimes, they end up saving more money on their financing than they lose on their hedging, and they protect the business, and they make Wall Street happy at the same time, so who’s really the premium payer in that, it’s their lenders? So, by being a macro trend follower in the future space, the actual source of your profits is some bank that’s lending money to corporations that are hedging these futures. So, it’s the third and fourth order of thinking, and you can never prove any of this, which is great, because if you could prove it, then everyone would do it, and then the margins would get squeezed.
[Kris: As a commodity options trader, this framing is spot on. I was typically trading with flow that was constrained or price-insensitive. Corporate hedgers must hedge because of the covenants in their loan financing. I had never thought about the edge being spilled in the option market is coming from the lenders ultimately! I guess if we follow that logic even deeper it’s the bank shareholders that are giving up expectancy by requiring less loan defaults and it’s an open question as to whether the hedging activity is worth the lower cost of capital at the bank share level]