Moontower #164

I threw a $500,000 purchase price and a 7% 30-year fixed rate into a mortgage calculator. That’s a payment of $3,327.

Earlier this year, if you secured a mortgage at 3%, you could have bought a home for $790,000 and had the same payment.

Since housing hasn’t dropped 36% this year homes have gotten much more expensive to own. Considering you can buy 1-year t-bills yielding 4% that are state-tax free and nominally risk-free, the investment case for RE is looking pretty poor unless rents skyrocket or real estate craters to bring cap ratios back up.

If the higher rate environment leads to a recession and lay-offs then I’m doubtful that rent increases are going to be the primary normalization pathway. It feels like employment trends will be a clue to how quickly housing will re-price lower (it’s already started of course). The yield curve is inverted, so the bond market is suggesting that the rate hikes in the near term will slow inflation and the economy.

This is all just simple observation. Like looking out the window. And as one does, when they sit at a window, one muses. And muse I shall.

Musing #1: Bid-Ask Widening

A year ago the people that paid ridiculous prices for RE were market orders. “Fill me at any price”. Many of them were immediately in the money (ie they probably could have turned around and sold a month later for more. Maybe not net of transaction costs but you get the idea). This isn’t shocking. When optimism turns to euphoria, the rate of change of the returns themselves can explode into a parabolic curve. Of course, such curves are unsustainable. The smug moment of being in the money is short-lived in the same way that a fund that buys a ton of stock going into the close usually gets a favorable mark on their daily p/l. Their sloppy buys drove the price higher in a short period of time. The real sellers didn’t have time to react before the close. But as soon as they check the comps overnight, you can be sure the supply is coming tomorrow morning.

I think of it like water going down a drain…once most of the water is through the drain the remaining liquid swirls quickly around the drain before you hear that sucking sound. Whoosh. The last bid is filled. With maximum punnage — the liquidity is gone.

In the meantime, many other buyers were priced out. You can think of them as limit bids. It’s an imperfect analogy but it will suffice. As things go south now, some of those bidders might be anchored to their original bids which were “cheaper” than where the home traded. However, if they get filled on the way down, they actually have more negative edge even though they got this theoretical house for a cheaper price than the original buyer. You could belabor this with a stylized model but understanding this concept is a big step towards understanding trading.

Anyway, the old limit bids are probably the new ask and the real bid/ask spread is wide. Prospective buyers are adjusting their bids much lower to keep the monthly payment constant or at least manageable, but sellers who likely have cheap financing from the prior low rate regime do not have to cross the spread. If current prices are 5% off their highs but the new mortgage math means homes they should be 20% lower (similar to the stock market) the current listing prices are the “asks” of a wide market.

Buyers lifting those offers are giving up edge for convenience/immediacy. That’s the usual reason people willfully give up edge for anything. Sellers hitting bids either need to (relocation, getting laid off, divorce, or any other life thing that shuffles liquidity needs) or they think rents aren’t going to increase as part of the normalization process.

Musing #2: Price Can Ruin Any Investment Idea

Always promotional, the real estate industry in an effort to pump bids, always finds an angle. They look at CPI and rates increasing, and peddle “RE is an inflation hedge”.

I mean, sure. But price matters.

By that logic, RE was also an inflation hedge 6 months ago, so are real estate prices supposed to be higher today given the elevated inflation of the past 6 months?

A few weeks ago Tom Morgan published Eight Investing Gems, which was a list of underappreciated, evergreen concepts sourced from investment professionals. I was flattered to be asked and my response fit well here:

Markets are biology, not physics, and that’s important because every good idea can be ruined by price. For example, real estate with a mortgage might be a good inflation hedge, but if history has taught everyone that lesson then it will be less true going forward. In other words, the price today already incorporates that (imagine paying 3x for your current home… how’s that going to work out as an inflation hedge?)

Prices are what matter. Not blanket, lazy sentences like “RE is an inflation hedge”. You’re not trading sentences.

[It’s also not clear that RE is an inflation hedge during periods of inflation]

Musing #3: Bullwhips Everywhere All The Time


The bullwhip effect refers to a scenario in which small changes in demand at the retail end of the supply chain become amplified when moving up the supply chain from the retail end to the manufacturing end.

With Covid closings followed by re-opening, this effect has received lots of attention. It’s not new. The famous beer game lets you play as a retailer, distributor, manufacturer, or wholesaler to make ordering decisions that balance your inventory against your customer’s demand. Orders are a proxy for demand, but the lag times in delivery lead to over and underreaction in ordering decisions.

Bullwhips feel like an apt analogy for the over and under reactions that happen in our largest markets:

  1. The underbuilding of homes since the GFC. Builders’ PTSD and higher lending standards for the past decade have contributed to a housing shortage. In the past, I might have associated building velocity with the credit cycle, but the excess of the mid-aughts seemed to have chastened builders despite the loose monetary conditions of the 2010s.
  2. Energy prices, in the wake of shale’s “growth at all costs”, busted in the mid-2010s. They surged back recently as the reality that fossil fuel transition will take longer than expected has collided with underinvestment in production. Drillers were scolded both from their investors (overproduction) and would-be investors (ESG).

[Just FYI, def not advice:

I sold my energy overweights in the Spring and recently started dollar-cost-averaging back in as I add investment exposure in this pullback. Overall, still overweight cash which I’ve been moving directly into T-bills. I’m in the midst of trying to do a rebalance from RE to equities but need one leg to close first so I don’t get middled. I hate illiquidity. In case curious, my prior energy exposure was XLE in an IRA, but I’m re-entering via deferred WTI futures. Instead of a div yield, you get a theoretical roll return. I am not an especially active trader/investor so I figure I’ll share stuff like this when I’m actually doing something. Again, I’m more weighted in cash than most sane people and don’t consider myself a good investor — I mostly try to avoid disaster. I just want to have my assets match my future liabilities — if I want to get rich, I’ll try a higher signal route of relying on myself not random number generators.]

  • Musing #4: Too Many Assholes Playing A “Loser’s Game”

Read this essay:

Too Many Assholes (7 min read)
by Jared Dillian

Jared is an author. He’s published a couple books, one was fiction. He was an index trader for about a decade before becoming a full-time writer amongst many endeavors. Jared is an exceptional financial writer. I read his professional letter regularly for most of the past decade.

This particular essay starts out:

This will be the only financial essay I write, I promise.

His substack is about culture and life not investing. So when he paused to write a single finance post in this collection, I paid attention. It felt very familiar. It has the same feel as his paid daily writing.

I want to offer a perspective on his writing. When people ask him for a free sample of the paid letter he doesn’t give them out. It’s for the same reason I give when people ask me if they should sub to his letter. The individual letters are not useful if you are looking for a great stock tip or definitive proof that the letter will make you money. So if you ask for a single letter, you miss the point. He’s capturing the broad strokes and he’s repetitive. And this is valuable in its gestalt.

I’ll re-hash my Twitter thread on Jared’s post:

This essay could have been called “play the cards not the man” but Jared is a snappier writer so he cut to the heart. It sounds like a folksy kind of essay but it’s deep. If you can internalize his essay you risk making small mistakes, you’ll almost definitely get the timing wrong, but there will be no catastrophes. Since survival is the goal in what Charley Ellis called the “loser’s game” this essay is an irreverent treatise in financial self-preservation.

Jared brings up contrarianism which by definition is required fo outsized returns. But at the turns in markets, the contrarian instinct is defensive. Yes, it can be expensive mid-trend but I’m not advocating for perma-contrarianism anyway. Sometimes contrarianism is common sense when LPs in private funds are climbing over each other to pay 20x revenue for profitless companies.

Options trading provides a well-balanced education in contrarianism. You spend a lot of time fading “point spreads that went too far” so you learn to deal with the discomfort of positions that are against the crowd. And of course, you do need to manage risk around that carefully (position limits are key because once a price enters la-la land there’s no restraint on it go to la-la-la land). At some point, you are selling because you are approaching “there’s nobody left to buy” territory and that is the exact point in time when it’s hardest to do that.

Playing the hindsight game, in the Spring I sold my energy stocks (a touch early but again it was a small mistake) despite being bullish. The thinking: Everything about oil looks bullish but everyone else sees that too. It’s insane to be bearish. But then you have to switch into the mind of a seller…there is no opening seller. So the price must contain a massive premium in it to attract any sell flows.

And that is enough to pull the trigger to sell for me. Yes, I could be wrong, but the risk/reward said “sell”. No fundamentals. Pure psychology.

[This isn’t any kind of victory lap. I’m losing money because I’m basically a long only investor and my current life is not a trading seat where I have the advantage of being in the mix.]

The question to focus on is “What psychology is in the price?” The price includes all the spreadsheets already. It’s the sum of the emotions and the nerds.

Jared focuses on sentiment. It’s not too useful when the game is played near the 50-yard line. In that zone, I’m perfectly fine to outsource to passive collection of market risk premium. With stocks, you know the proposition — earn 5% over the risk-free rate, give or take 15%, and experience a double-digit peak-to-trough drawdown every other year, and something like a 50% drawdown once a decade. Fat tails. That’s the deal. Over the long-run you’ll make money, but sizing that proposition is a personal matter.

The psychology matters more at the turns. The edges of the field. Marching through the redzone, from the 20-yard line to the goaline, can feel dramatic in compounding space. The 5-yard line to the goaline — this is the blow off top in Doge or the Volkswagon short squeeze in 2008…where the bulk of a total return can come from a short time. This is when things are obviously unstable. Sticking around to find out which down is gonna be the pick-6 is baggie roulette.

You don’t need to be some market genius when things feel crazy. Just realize that the only way the price can make sense is if someone crazier came along. Unless you have a very special edge in that game (I suspect at these critical turns the internal mechanics of liquidity are understood by a handful of insiders/clearing firms/exchanges, perhaps it’s a short squeeze, that connect the trading world to the credit/banking world. If that’s the case, you, sitting at home in your pajamas, are playing no-limit hold’em with a worse than random hand against people who know their cards.)

If you don’t have a hero instinct and just try to get the broader picture roughly right you can avoid the giant mistakes. That’s 95% of the battle. 2021 was stupid euphoria. That was obvious even in real-time. Sure you could have been early to that realization and looked foolish for a while but zoom your perspective out and ask yourself:

“Am I feeling fomo or fear?”

That will tell you what everyone else feels and that tells you what’s in the price. You know what that’s called: empathy. You are putting yourself in the minds of others and therefore the price. It sounds like soyboi shit. But that shit is full is wisdom if you can channel it.

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Money Angle

I’ll be squirting out some new posts about trading over the next weeks. They aren’t technical. Here’s the first:

Permalink: Trading Vs Investing

Trading is a business. Like a casino. You spread the risk over a bunch of tables and let the law of averages1 do its magic. Investing, whether it’s as a shareholder, LP, or creditor (ie allocating capital in the primary or secondary markets, but not as a member of management) is something you do in a business. You can invest in a casino. You can invest in a bank. You can invest in a trading business. The point is that investing and trading are actually different.

The distinction seems subtle because the language and mechanics of investing and trading overlap. Traders talk about diversifying as much as investors do. Restaurant owners don’t. Traders and investors both talk about position sizing. Software founders don’t. This makes it easy to confuse trading for investing but the former is a business, not an investment strategy. You would not compare Optiver, Jane Street, or SIG’s returns to a portfolio manager’s. Trading firms think in unit economics just like any business (“how many fractions of a cent of edge do I get per contract?”). The portfolio manager doesn’t have a similar analog. However, if we look at asset management, it collects fees. So if we zoom out, we are at the business-level of abstraction yet again.

There’s an interleaving of concepts that binds notions of “trading” to “investing” in a way that can mislead investors. When they trade are they trading like they are a business, like they are providing a service (temporary liquidity in exchange for a theoretical fee which resolves the desire for a buyer or seller to transact in the absence of a natural counterparty) or are they rebalancing investments? The distinction is one of framing and like all frames, it has a tyrannical grip on one’s downstream decisions. The subtlety can be confusing to new investors who can’t escape terms like “daytrading” or that Robinhood calls itself a “Stock Trading and Investing App”. You wouldn’t take a Porsche off-roading any more than you should confuse these 2 endeavors.

And yet you might for all the superficial similarities I already described. It’s totally understandable. To create the appropriate distance between activities of “trading” and “investing”, I’ll offer 2 thoughts.

  • Time Horizon

In trading, the bets have endpoints. Whether it’s an upcoming catalyst or event, an option expiration, or time to roll a future there is a time when you get to “see the river” to borrow a poker term. Price and reality must converge. Extrinsic values go to zero. Future prices meet spot prices. With equities, the metaphor needs massaging. Perhaps news or earnings is more like the “flop” or the “turn” whereas M&A activity serves as a defacto endpoint.

With investing, the duration of the trades is typically much longer. Stocks are perpetual claims. Perhaps semantically awkward, I prefer to re-brand investing as “re-investing”. This focuses us on a company’s need to compound returns on capital internally. If an oil company sits on massive reserves, but the price of oil shoots to a price that destroys all future demand, the stock would plummet because it no longer has a forthcoming stream of earnings. Yes, its book value would immediately increase, but that is a smaller portion of its discounted perpetuity value.

The “re-investing” frame explains why a market would discount such a one-time windfall. You can even think of a “cheap” stock as a company that the market has decided has a low future return on invested capital. By not increasing their bids, investors are manifesting trader thinking — they are focused on return per trial. Thinking of investments through the lens of how a company re-invests, stretches “repeated game” thinking longitudinally into the future as opposed to traders or casinos who think of edge per trade cross-sectionally.

  • Seeing The Present Clearly

Since the compounded return of an investment depends on how a company re-invests, it requires distant foresight into an inherently complex system. Long-term investing, like long-term weather forecasting has an irreducible bar of uncertainty that sits unpleasantly high off the ground. There’s only so much you can say about a system governed by chaos, biological, and evolutionary forces as opposed to tidy physical properties. Feedback loops are long, causation is opaque, and the signal-to-noise ratios are too low to prove an edge. This leads to a paradox. If a manager’s edge is unprovable, then there’s a chance you can actually access it, you’ll just understand it post-hoc. If the edge was provable, the manager would extract all the excess alpha for themselves by either choosing strategic investors or charging ransom fees.

Trading on the other hand is a provable edge. Because it’s a business. You rake a tournament, take the profits off the table and hunt for new players. Markets might imply or try to tell us something about the future. The business is to find market prices that say something contrary but have visibility to resolving and taking both bets. Arbitrage is an extreme example of this. If one person thinks the USA basketball is 90% to win the gold and another thinks the field is 15% to win the gold you can bet against them both and get paid $105 while knowing you’ll only owe $100.

The business process around this involves measurement, not prediction. There’s no thematic vision of what the world looks like 10, 20, 50 years hence. Instead, you find others who express strong opinions that disagree and build a machine that lets you bet against both of them. You are passionately agnostic. You are in the business of seeing today clearly. Not having visions of the future. That’s your customer’s job. That’s the investor’s job.

A Skinny Bridge

Coming from the trading world, I’ve wrestled with my understanding of investing. I don’t believe in crystal balls. I don’t think any “long term” investor can prove they are special because of the limits of data and sample size. Putting faith in track records feels like betting on coins that just had a long streak. There are a lot of funds out there, it’s inevitable some will have long streaks by chance. Survivorship bias makes the proportion of lucky funds even more visible.

This is a discouraging place to settle. Attempting to invest in a trading business as opposed to doing the trading business, leaves you in the same epistemological rut as choosing any business to buy. They are just businesses, to be compared with any other business. In fact, the search is pointless. Most are capacity constrained which means the best ones don’t need your money anyway. Where does that leave me? I don’t trust most people who would take my money to manage it and I don’t have the expertise to invest to the impossible standard of risk-reward that the business of trading anchored me to. And I need to take myself seriously — I just spent this entire essay explaining how it’s a fallacy to compare trading to investing in the first place.

Is there a reconciliation?

I think so. I see a skinny bridge between the business of trading and what it prescribes for investing. It lies in portfolio construction and asset allocation. At one level of abstraction, the investors with their coherent visions of the future are simply tourists in the traders’ casinos. But if we zoom out and aggregate the consensus of competing investors we end up with a total market price. It’s not one market however, it’s many. There are equities, bonds, and commodities. They exist across geography and sovereign systems. These are the legos that can be stacked to construct payoff shapes — carry, insurance, momentum. Those can be described in other language as well — concave/convex, convergent/divergent.

The asset classes themselves contain a risk premium above risk-free rates (by induction — stocks should earn more than t-bills because you need extra compensation to hold something that tanks every now and then). By combining these asset classes under battle-tested principles of risk management, the hope is to capture the weighted average risk premium of your allocation without relying on forecasts. Just like trading businesses. Just like casinos2.

Wrapping Up

Trading and investing are sufficiently different that you should be conscious of what mode you are in when you click a buy or sell button. The awareness will likely lead you to pressing buttons less often, or systematizing when you push the buttons. Unless you’re in it for the thrill, you want to minimize your points of contact with the fee-generating businesses that want you to feel like you are doing a good thing by “investing”. You are doing a good thing when you invest, but be careful — sometimes what looks like investing is trading. And the bar for doing that productively is much higher than they want you to believe.

Last Call

I’ll be in NYC this week for the StockSlam Sessions with Steiner and Tina.

Paul Millerd recently interviewed Steiner. My favorite thing about talking to Steiner is his experience and perspective on high school kids. It’s easy to focus on negativity, but Steiner teaches at a diverse public school in NJ and sees so much positivity and optimism in how the kids treat one another. I get it, that doesn’t get the clicks. The incentives aren’t really for truth so we shouldn’t be stunned when the happy news is more correct (this would actually make a neat Bayesian homework problem to make the point).

Steiner’s experience is anecdotal so I’m not generalizing. I’m just saying — this isn’t going to be negative, click it anyway:

Training Elite Wall Street Traders (podcast/video)

From Paul:

This conversation was a delight and I think you’ll enjoy it. We cover:

  • Ending up at Penn and not really knowing what he was going to do
  • Figuring out he enjoyed math and finance
  • Getting a job at SIG
  • Joining the training team
  • Leaving finance to spend more time with his kids
  • Becoming a high school teacher
  • How he thinks about teaching & mentorship
  • His 20-year journey in creating his game “Stockslam”

From My Actual Life

I’m going to the Greek in Berkeley tonight for the 3rd time in as many weeks. We are seeing the Aussie band King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard. They are the most prolific band of the past decade. They release more than 1 album per year. Last month they dropped 3 albums. Not a typo. They have played over 100 different songs on their current tour and the range of music goes from metal, to pop, to spoken word. They are far out. The music videos are a trip too.

Funny thing about these tickets. I bought them a year ago thinking they were for 2021. I didn’t realize the date was off by a year until the morning of. And this worked out for the better because tonight’s a date night. Yinh and I are celebrating our 13-year wedding anniversary. We got married in Mexico and I remember the all-nighter she needed a few days before the flight to get this document to the printer in time to get into to the guests’ welcome bags:

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