Most people would see the macro strategist’s role as timing macro events … switching between defensives and cyclicals, adjusting duration, risk-on/risk-off trades, and so on … the only problem is that most of us are rubbish at seeing macro events coming, let alone timing them, as our evolutionary programming blinds us to events which are forecastable (and many are not even that). Perhaps we should embrace our limitations by accepting that ‘outlier events’ are actually quite regular, and use macro research to aid in the search for appropriate insurance strategies.
* A few weeks ago I mapped out a strategy that was based on the idea that since global banks’ solvency was so dependent on government bond holdings, central banks would have no option but to quantitatively ease in the face of future government funding crises. I argued that such funding crises could provide opportunities to buy cheap risk assets before liquidity/QE-induced rallies and that some value was beginning to emerge, but also that that value still wasn’t extreme enough to go all in.
* As usual, I received some interesting feedback – some favourable, some not (one pm said my ‘deflation-begets-inflation’ view was a “dog’s leg” forecast). But one client asked why I bothered looking at valuation at all. Surely my extreme macro views trumped such considerations? “I just don’t understand how you can separate your … economic research from your stand-alone valuation tools.” I thought this was a brilliant question because it gets to the heart of a permanent tension between macro and micro: what should the relationship between top-down macro and bottom-up valuation be?
* At the risk of oversimplifying what our more macro-focused clients do every day I’d characterize pure macro-focused managers as being less concerned with valuation. For a start, the traditional macro instruments such as commodities and currencies are difficult to value. But by far the biggest macro market – the bond market – is largely priced off central bank perceptions of what the economy is doing, and risk assets tend to be priced off those bond markets. Since mispriced assets can become even more mispriced depending on the macro climate and central banks’ reading of it, timing is everything and for such managers an understanding of the ‘big picture’ is far more important than valuation.
* But at the opposite end, where the pure value hunters reside, Warren Buffett has said that even if he knew the Fed’s exact interest rate moves two years in advance it still wouldn’t make any difference to how he would invest today. Indeed, most value investors shun macro completely and focus entirely on bottom-up valuations. They view recessions as good times to buy and have little confidence in anyone’s ability to predict them. But they don’t really care because they know recessions occur frequently enough and they are patient enough to wait. So why bother with macro?
So if our confidence in our forecasting ability is for most of us more likely to be reflecting a cruel trick of our evolutionary development than any real ability, is macro research completely redundant? I don't think so. In fact, I agree with the second part of David Einhorn's conclusion in the excerpt above, of "when appropriate, buying some just-in-case insurance for foreseeable macro risk".
At this year's Berkshire Hathaway conference, Charlie Munger said that while most people and firms do whatever they can to avoid large losses, Berkshire Hathaway is designed to take them. "That's our edge", he said. When asked about his successor at the helm of Berkshire, Buffett said that the most important thing his successor at Berkshire must be able to do is "to think about things which haven't happened before." Most insurance companies lose money on their underwriting operations but make money on the float. Berkshire Hathaway makes profits on both. They haven't been able to do this because they've been better at predicting the future than the competition - they openly admit to not even trying - but because their whole approach is grounded in a) the understanding that "outlier" events happen every few years, and b) being patient enough to hold capital in preparation for deployment when such "outliers" inevitably arise.
There are two broad approaches to a more insurance-based approach. The first and most simple is the avoidance of the purchase of overvalued assets. Ensuring an adequate margin of safety against the unknown and unknowable future - rather than trying to predict it - is the central philosophy behind Ben Graham's concept of value investing and one of the simplest differences between investment and speculation. It's as important today as it has always been and is why a careful and prudent analysis of valuation is so important. This is why I spend what some might think is an unusual amount of time on equity valuation for a macro strategist.
The second approach is to focus on the "grey swans" - the tail risks which are predictable - by devoting time to thinking about them and to finding effective and efficient protective insurance should they happen. Most of the research Albert and I write aims in this direction. It is for most of us, I believe, a more fruitful use of macro research than trying to predict various markets' short-term moves. There is a very big difference. Some have interpreted my work on government solvency as a reason to short government bonds, and JGBs in particular. I've actually never suggested doing this. To get it right you have to get your timing right, and ? well ? see the above on how confident most of us (myself included) should be about that.
But just because you can't predict when something will happen doesn't mean you should act as though it won't happen. If, for example, you are as worried about the implications of what appears to be widespread public sector insolvency in developed markets as I am, there are numerous insurance products worth considering.