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1) Am I too bearish?

Some commenters have noted that I seem a bit too bearish all the time. Some have even gone so far as to imply that I am a permabear. These are fair comments, but require some clarification. The other day I mentioned my top down approach to the markets. Most of what I write about here at Pragmatic Capitalism is a macro view. Therefore, you get a heavy dose of macro with a dollop of micro. I am of the belief that we are in a secular bear and a balance sheet recession. Therefore, you get a pretty heavy dose of bearish arguments thrown at you. Nonetheless, I try to balance the site out with some of the more reasonable bullish arguments.

What I am not, however, is a permabear. Within this macro outlook I have been bullish at many of the most opportune moments in the last few years. Most notable was my bottom call on March 8th when everyone in the universe was negative and I said the government was about to engage in an unprecedented market intervention that would be bullish for stocks. More recently on September 1st I was asked specifically if I was shorting the market. My response:

“Ideally I would, however, I think it’s dangerous to build shorts right now. If the market is about to collapse then it’s about the most widely known collapse ever. Markets don’t tank when everyone is this bearish unless there is some sort of extreme event (which isn’t occurring currently). I think the April period when I was very negative (and short) is a great example.

I have actually been looking for a spot to get long even though my macro outlook is negative (which it has been for several years).”

Now, in fairness, I did not buy for my macro equity strategy so don’t take this as some form of revisionist history where I am patting myself on the back for a trade that never occurred. On September 2nd I got what I later referred to as a “soft buy signal” as opposed to a conviction buy signal (more on this below). In hindsight it’s easy to say that I should have had more conviction in the signal and simply bought stocks, but that’s not my modus operandi. As I have previously explained, I have rules within my micro outlook that guide my various strategies and approaches. I trade the indicators (in this case a proprietary algorithm) and not the market. My rules tell me when to buy, sell and short. If my strict rules are not met I do not act.

I have often referred to myself as a lion in the grass. The lion is not greedy. She does not just run wildly across the plains chasing antelope (thinking of day traders here). Instead, she devises a plan and lies in wait as the plan unfolds to her liking. If the environment is not right she does not act. There is too much at stake for her to make mistakes and risk losing a meal that might feed an entire pride for weeks or months. My mentality is no different. I am not frantically trading therefore you get a small dose of my trading perspective. Instead, I am measuring the risk environment day by day waiting for the antelope to step just close enough so I can react in a way that gives me very good odds of being right, fat and well fed for many months.

2) Quantifying the disequilibrium.

As I previously mentioned, I use several strategies. One of these is global macro, however, it has never been my strong suit. It never has been, but it is an approach I have grown increasingly confident about in recent years (a little luck in a tough market environment apparently results in a bit of hubris). Within this strategy I have an equity component. I use dozens of different indicators that measure the markets on a daily basis. These indicators are best summed in an indicator I call quantified disequilibrium. It is a short-term indicator that measures whether the market is excessively risky or not. It combines fundamental analysis with behavioral finance in an attempt to measure the disequilibrium in the market.

Since its inception in 2008 it has resulted in 74% total returns vs -22% for the S&P 500. Trade win rate is 84%. I have not calculated risk adjusted returns for the index, but I am certain that they are impressive. Some of its more notable calls include shorting the market crash of 2008, shorting the flash crash of 2009 and buying in early March 2009. After issuing a soft buy signal on September 2nd the index is now flashing the warning signal (but not a short signal). This does not mean the market is necessarily about to decline, but merely means that the risk/reward profile has deteriorated substantially in recent weeks.

3) Revisiting Swedish models.

Some people in this country have a big problem with Swedish models. I certainly don’t. Throughout much of 2008 I mentioned that there were two historical approaches to tackling a debt crisis – the Japan model and the Swedish model. The results were dramatically different. In essence, the Swedes took their medicine. They bit the bullet, forced the banks to take losses and helped stem a panic from occurring. The Japan outcome, as we all know, has not been quite so successful. They allowed zombie banks to earn their way out of the crisis and largely avoided taking their medicine. On the consumer front the U.S. has implemented similar strategies. In general cash for clunkers, homebuyers tax credits, bank bailouts, etc have all been attempts to paper over he debt problem. It clearly hasn’t worked. We have attempted to create capitalism without losers. There is no such thing.

In September of 2008 I wrote a letter to the Federal Reserve. It said:

“I am writing this letter with regards to the current banking crisis. As you likely know there is precedent for the issues we are currently facing. Not only did Japan enter a similar deflationary period in 1991, but Scandinavia entered an even more similar period around the same time. I have attached the contact info and a paper with a descriptive response to the issue by Arne Berggren. I hope you will forward this message to the appropriate sources as it contains brilliant insight into a situation that is very similar to our current predicament. And please thank the board for their hard work during these trying times. https://www.fdic.gov/bank/historical/managing/sym1-09.pdf

I wonder how different the world would be today if we had allowed more banks to be nationalized (or failed) while focusing our time and energy on the real crux of this crisis – Main Street. Instead, we listened to men who were either misguided and/or had a vested interest in saving the banks (Buffett, Paulson, Geithner, Bernanke, etc). It would be humorous if it hadn’t hurt so many millions of people. My guess is the long-term outlook for the U.S. economy would be far better than it is today if we had not repeated the mistakes of the past.

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