"To Go On Account"
I learned a new term.
“To Go On Account”
A pleasant term used by pirates to describe the act of turning pirate. The basic idea was that a pirate was more "free lance" and thus was, more or less, going into business for himself. — The Pirate Glossary
It applies to several parts of today’s letter. Oh and don’t miss the special announcement at the end.
Last week, I shared the Engine Model. It was a blueprint for designing an integrated life. I paused my regular workflow to write that post for myself as my trip transitions from a three-lane expressway of exploration to a local 2-lane highway. I like doing meta-writeups like that for the same reason I like reading others’ frameworks…it’s a form of “trail magic”.
The term “trail magic” was coined by long-distance hikers to describe an unexpected occurrence that lifts a hiker’s spirits and inspires awe or gratitude. “Trail magic” may be as simple as being offered a candy bar by a passing hiker or spotting an elusive species of wildlife.
For those on a similar journey, or see a similar juncture in their future, I hope the post can at least provoke if not be practical. One area I wish it was more practical, was on monetization. That’s a tough topic, so let me back up.
Reputation is the longest-duration asset you have. [The great grift of 2021 will forever be trapped in the amber of my mind as the moment a bunch of business-famous influencers decided the bid to sell their reputations was juicy enough to finally smack. It was a calculated bet on the shortness of your memory.] If you are not a sociopath, your ethical boundaries extend beyond the borders drawn by law. But the law alone seems to fence some people in just barely. Oh my god, fan me now. Watching literal lawmakers insider trade is an act of contortion so lithe it allows them to limbo even under that low bar.
Where was I? Oh yes, being an f’n normal human. So in that post I didn’t wade into specific monetization models because I don’t know much about them.
Instead, I address them in principle:
Once you begin thinking of your work as an engine, as self-integration, and not a single bilateral transaction with one employer (or overlord if you are especially cranky about your choices) you have replaced an existential problem, namely the rejection of over-compartmentalization, with a technical problem. The technical problem is “how do I sustain such a life?”
This is new to me and I’m learning on the fly so I’m not the best guide here. But I can offer my philosophical perspective, knowing that it will likely evolve with experience. I still think it’s important to lay out principles as a tether to your values as you head out into the unknown.
Extract less value than you create
This is obvious. Strip-mining is not a renewable strategy. I’d rather underpromise and overdeliver. This isn’t altruism, it’s good business. If you leave the high-pressure race, you have chosen to focus on the long-term. The advantage is you can use a different playbook that relies more on compounding which pays off with time, instead of quick, but hard-to-repeat scores.
From Working For Free:
In business, I always enjoy the Costco example. Charlie Munger has written:
“When other companies find ways to save money, they turn it into profit. [Costco] passes it on to customers. It’s almost a religious duty. [They] sacrifice short-term profits for long-term success”.
It’s not as hokey as it sounds. Think of it this way. They are hiding profits in the customer’s own pockets. They will be return customers. That profit is hidden from competitors’ wandering eyes and the IRS. The strategy commits Costco to keeping the customers happy because the profit is realized over the long-term. It’s simple but requires rare discipline.
The profit that “sits in your client’s pockets” has a bookkeeping entry called “trust”. The fact that it doesn’t capitalize as an asset on your personal balance sheet is a shortcoming of accounting. You can’t let it fool you from the reality that you have stored your future income with your clients and in their word of mouth.
Price your attention carefully
When you consider a project, you must decide how much to charge. If the project requires diesel fuel and you are a sports car, it might not run or it might be inefficient. This feels like a one-off transaction. You should probably quote a “go-away” price. At some price, you’ll suck it up. But this should be rare.
You want projects that have recyclable exhaust. If you suspect the exhaust is especially powerful, maybe you charge less. The point is to price your time or effort holistically. What is the first and second-order cost/benefit of taking on a particular project?
An example of holistic thinking: I don’t paywall my letter because the loss of subs would cut off a valuable inbound fuel source. The cash would not be worth it. Instead, I reframe the forgone income as “marketing cap-ex”.
I don’t know much about monetizing an integrated body of work. I’m not especially commercial-minded. But I have friends that are further ahead on this path that I can lean on. In thinking about creating your engine, realize you are not alone.
Identify your own principles. It’s a way to stay “green” as you experiment with sustainable business models that empower you to stay on the path.
In the past year, I’ve been approached by companies that want to sponsor this letter. Extra cash would make it easier to justify doing stuff like hiring a designer. I have some fairly irreverent ideas for Moontower swag that would be decidedly, umm, [lowers voice] befitting of the namesake?
So I was open to the idea. Especially since I will never paywall this letter. The only issue was most of the potential sponsors didn’t get me too excited. And the higher their bid, the less exciting they are. Go bumhunt somewhere else.
When I write to “find the others” I mean it. You make this effort worth it for me. You see, if I had to pick a single external metric to grade the body of work I’ve been calling Moontower, it would be the quality of its subs. By quality, I mean thoughtful people who care about getting better as co-passengers on this ferris wheel.
Out of respect to both you and me, I’ve been guarded about who I’d let get mindshare here. While I haven’t done a formal survey (I’m working on one though), I can tell this readership is smart and has many ultra-successful people within it. Almost all of you want to invest better and live better. You’re a pretty dream demographic to marketers. Fortunately, instead of me wrestling with which sponsors to match with, the answer landed in my lap.
My friends Jason Buck and Taylor Pearson asked me to sponsor the letter. They manage a fund of funds that comes from the “all-weather” style of investing. Many of you are familiar with that term because of Ray Dalio, but Bridgewater is to Kleenex as all-weather is to “permanent portfolios”. I have been invested in Jason and Taylor’s fund for nearly a year and I’m doing my own research now on how to be more hands-on transitioning my own portfolio to be more “permanent”1. The exhaust of this research will be making its way into these letters so we can learn together.
In addition to the sponsorship and in keeping with my desire to keep this totally inclusive to everyone I have added the ability to be a patron of Moontower.
If you hit this button you will see the choices.
If you pay you don’t get any special posts, but if there were interest amongst patrons for higher levels of 2-way interaction I’d be happy to explore that.
There’s no pressure. It’s not like tipping in U.S. restaurants where it’s expected because servers don’t make a serious wage. I pay for about 20% of the publications I sub to. And it’s never about “is it worth it?” for me. It’s just, “do I want to support this?” I turned the feature on this week and there is seriously zero pressure. I already get a lot from your attention.
[For the more accounting curious…since I’m not a W2 employee and I incur expenses to run these sites and have a home office, any income I receive up until my costs are recouped is like an untaxed dollar. We aren’t talking real money, but eventually, I expect to have built a biz where I re-purpose a portfolio of solutions to my own problems so that it solves other people’s problems too. So these moves can be seen as practice with live rounds.]
By the way, a quick shout-out to my first paying sub, Max S., who signed up shortly after I turned that feature on. As soon as I get some swag made, I’ll be asking for your address man!
Today’s letter is brought to you by the team at Mutiny Fund:
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Disclaimer: Investing is risky, and you are reminded that futures, commodity trading, forex, volatility, options, derivatives, and other alternative investments are complex and carry a risk of substantial losses; and that there is no guarantee the strategy will perform as intended.
I feel lucky that Jason Buck reached out to sponsor the letter because I love what he’s doing (Yinh and I were early investors in their latest fund). In addition to managing a fund, Jason is co-host of what I think is the most underrated show on investing YouTube, Pirates of Finance.
In season 3, Jason and Corey Hoffstein changed the format so that there is zero preparation. The conversation is totally off the cuff. And it totally slaps.
It is free, buried booty that our theoretical economist says can’t exist because of efficient markets. But it exists. I’ll prove it by digging up 3 themes from their amazing recent episode Decision-Making Under Uncertainty and mix them with my own thoughts. We’re blending Moontower and Pirate rum up in here today.
Why ETFs Might Be Unsuitable For Some Strategies
ETFs are liquid structures designed to faithfully track NAVs (“net asset values”) because the arbitrage mechanism is outsourced by the issuer to an Authorized Participant. These AP’s are a subset of the market-making community.
The Pirates wonder:
Is the ETF structure, whose allure is transparency, the correct home for opaque, illiquid, or bi-lateral (ie there’s credit risk in the basket) instruments such as inflation swaps? What about semi-liquid holdings like corporate bonds or even TIPs?
The answer to such questions partially rests on the liquidity of the underlying holdings. Consider a question they allude to but I’ll make explicit:
If you hold long option or long convex positions via ETFs (or for that matter directly) will you be able to monetize them when they pay off?
This is a real and highly underrated concern. Bid/ask spreads are positively correlated with volatility. So how useful is it if the paper profit on a convex position can’t be crystallized because the bid-ask is wider than the parted Red Sea?
Suppose you buy a way OTM put option for $1. It explodes to $20 but the bid-ask is now $16-$24. Sure, you can sell it for a 16x return, but when that option was originally valued for $1, the pricing incorporated the idea that in some rare states of the world the option is worth $20. If you can never realize that $20, then you entered into a pretty negative expected value situation when you paid $1 for it in the first place.
Trading is hard enough, you can’t afford to not maximize small edges. In a separate interview Corey talks to option trader Darrin Johnson.
I paraphrase Darrin:
When you sell tails, you need to capture the entire premium. The hit ratio of selling tails is high but when you lose you lose many multiples of the premium. If you fail to collect the full premium, it will not make up for the losing trades. The difficulty of selling tails is even trickier yet.
Darrin explains how betting against longshots leaves you uncertain if you have an edge in the first place. In my words: good luck differentiating between a 50-1 shot vs a 100-1 shot. That’s the difference of 1 probability point but it’s massive in payoff space. [I discuss that idea further in Tails Explained.]
When volatility increases, transaction costs go up for everyone. Since market-makers are part of “everyone” then the cost of their own hedging (ie replication) goes up as well, so they charge wider-bid ask spreads to keep them whole. MMs represent the marginal supply of liquidity so can they pass the transaction costs of their own “COGs” to those demanding liquidity. We know the house wins both ways, but the house edge itself is correlated to what markets are doing. If the house’s margins above their “COGs” expand in times of stress, you need to haircut the expected risk mitigation from defensive positions. That cost will show up when you try to roll or monetize.
There are cases where that bookie’s vig will not be too punitive even in a volatile market. For example, if the option you buy is now so far ITM that it no longer has meaningful extrinsic value, then you can simply trade the underlying to monetize (although re-hedging will put you face-to-face with the market-makers again).
This brings us to the next theme.
Destination vs Path
If you have a view about the expected return of an asset in 5 years should you care about the path? Depends who you ask. Anyone marked-to-market (HFs, market-makers, futures traders) will say yes especially if they are managing money for others. PE, RE, and bond investors are more likely to say no. The Pirates have a nuanced discussion about whether it’s even possible to manage to path versus manage to terminal value.
I’m biased by my path-or-die experience in trading. Mark-to-market is the goddess of tomorrow, you can’t afford to piss her off.
Here are a collection of arguments that I offer her as tribute.
Bond investors who ignore path are fooling themselves.
In Why Volatility Still Matters To Buy-And-Hold Investors, I summarize one of Cliff Asness’ pet peeves:
You may hear some people say they want to buy an individual bond rather than a bond fund. They worry that bond fund prices move around and have no real expiration, so when interest rates rise your losses are somehow more real. But if you buy a bond and hold it to maturity you can put your head in the sand, and never lose.
This is nonsense.
You have lost in a real sense since the money you are being returned is worth less in a world in which rates have risen to compensate for inflation. The bond fund is effectively taking your loss today rather than later. If you sell your bond for a loss, you can reinvest at a higher yield going forward. That’s a similar experience to just being in the bond fund. Holding to maturity does not mean you have less risk. It’s an illusion. A real vs nominal illusion.
Using stale marks to “smooth volatility”
Having a preference for private assets that are less volatile simply because their marks are stale is like not getting bloodwork because you don’t want to find out your cholesterol and blood sugar are too high.
The slow-to-mark investments are still volatile. The fundamentals of the private business are correlated with the public market volatility.
Even if you don’t believe your investment should be marked down, then you should be sad you can’t redeem your private investment at par to rebalance into public stocks after the market drops 20%. Giving up liquidity without a premium because it will behaviorally “save you from yourself” sure feels like you sold the option to rebalance at zero.
I walk through that argument in How Much Extra Return Should You Demand For Illiquidity? (7 min read)
Market prices are clever. They can balance the wagers of path vs terminal value investors simultaneously!
In What The Widowmaker Can Teach Us About Trade Prospecting And Fool’s Gold, I show how the calendar spread options are priced so that the path of the gas price is highly respected, even if there’s strong consensus about the terminal value of the spread (ie the March-April futures spread which is a pure bet on in winter gas being in short supply).
The OTM calls are jacked, because if we see H gas trade $10, the straddle will go nuclear.
Why? Because it has to balance 2 opposing forces.
It’s not clear how high the price can go in a true squeeze or shortage
The MOST likely scenario is the price collapses back to $3 or $4.
Try to think of a strategy to trade that. Good luck.
Let me repeat how gnarly this is: The price has an unbounded upside, but it will most likely end up in the $3-$4 range. The vertical spreads all point right back to that price range.
The market places very little probability density at high prices but this is very jarring to people who see the jacked call premiums.
That’s not an opportunity. It’s a sucker bet.
Another common example:
In options land, many investors like to buy 1x2 ratio spreads because the payoffs look amazing for low-probability events. For example, if a stock is $100 and you can buy the $115 call and sell 2 of the $120 calls for zero premium, you think to yourself:
a) “If the stock does nothing or goes down I break even”
b) “If the stock goes to $120, I make $5” (or $1 if the stock goes to $116)
c) “I don’t start losing money until the stock goes over $125. That’s 25% away! This is risk-free return”
Nah dog. That’s first-time-at-the-rodeo thinking.
The reason the 1x2 is so cheap is the call skew on the $120 strike is pumped up because someone has been buying them like crazy. That’s where the bodies are hidden. The question you need to ask yourself is “conditional on the stock going to $120 did it get there fast and sloppy, or slow and grindy.” If it goes there in a fast way, the market-maker community will be short beaucoup gamma and be scrambling to buy the $120 calls back. You sold some teenies and went to Santorini and are now getting a margin call on the beach because the 120s you’re short are blowing the f out.
The path-aware trader is plotting how to be long the scenario where your vacation abruptly ends.
If path is so important, how can you manage to it?
a) Avoid excessive leverage
b) Pre-determine when you will cut losses (beware this can be a big topic with lots of room for disaster)
c) If you insist on betting on terminal value, do it in fixed premium ways where your max loss is bounded. Now you don't have to worry about mark-to-market risk.
In There’s Gold In Them Thar Tails: Part 2, I cover the topic of path, how to exploit investors’ lack of appreciation for it, and how Jon Corzine became a symbol for path-blindness.
“Long-Short Portfolios All The Way Down”
You’ve heard the expression, “turtles all the way down”.
Corey says “Long/short portfolios all the way down”.
This is an acknowledgment that every trade you make is relative to something else. If you buy a stock denominated in dollars, you are betting that the stock will outperform dollars. It’s a powerful idea. If you want to short XOM but can’t get a borrow, you can buy all the components of XLE except XOM while shorting XLE. Voila, you are now short XOM.
The pirates offer more great examples:
You start with a 60/40 portfolio and stocks go up so the new portfolio is 65/35. You can think of a regular rebalance to get you back to 60/40.
Or you can re-frame the accounting to an algebraic equivalent:
You own a 65/35 portfolio + a long 5% bonds/short 5% stock overlay
It seems like semantics, but just as different words can refer to very similar things, there remains meaning behind the distinctions. And the subtlety here is useful because it forces you to look at the accounting of subsets of a larger position. Corey argues that this lets you think about how things are contributing to your portfolio at any given time or even over time
This lens is the gateway to better p/l attribution. In the 65/35 example, the intuition is fairly basic. Rebalancing trades profit when the market mean reverts and lose money if the market trends. Gamma-scalping works the same way. It’s just rebalancing for option traders. If you trend, your “daytrading p/l” will be negative if it is dominated by gamma scalps and you’ll regret going into work that day (because you will presumably have been hedging your growing delta, for example, you sold the VWAP but the market closed on its daily high.)
I agree with Corey. Seeing the world as long/short portfolios focuses you on the relative nature of every decision! Every time you are long X, you are short [not X]. If you buy a house and it goes up in value along with every other house in your state, when you sell it, did you really make money if the neighboring cost for shelter has appreciated all around you. Start seeing your decisions as long/short portfolios and it has a funny way of focusing you on what you’re specifically rooting for.
2. Corey poses another thought exercise:
Which do you think has a higher tracking error to a passive 60/40?
a) Replacing the passive equity with small-cap value exposure
b) Layering 60% exposure to the SG CTA Index on top
I promise the discussion thread will make you smarter.
I’ll sprinkle in a related idea that comes from options land.
It’s natural for vol traders, especially dispersion traders, to think about positions as a series of long/short portfolios. That’s because all dispersion is “dirty” dispersion. [If you need a refresher see Dispersion Trading For The Uninitiated].
If you sold SPX index vol and only bought vol on value names, your net position is:
short growth volatility
long value volatility (you are net long, because if you tried to balance your gross index and single name greeks, you’d necessarily have to overweight the value names. This is extra true if you theta-weight the spread since the value names are lower volatility than the growth names.)
If you had this position on before Softbank started buying the hell out of tech calls in the summer of 2020, you got rocked.
But if you put that same position on right before the Covid vaccine was announced, you killed it as value names surged while growth names barely moved relative to their vols.
Index traders are keenly aware of these “synthetic risks” because at some point you’ve been unknowingly exposed to a risk factor that took a bite out of your p/l. That prompts you to slice and dice your risk to further your understanding of positions. Risk management evolves one bruise at a time. The inevitable body shots and jabs hurt, but also teach. You just have to get your overall controls robust enough to survive the haymaker.
[Speaking of teach…did you know that if a stock is halted, you can compute what price the market is implying it will open at? Just compute the price the SPX cash index would need to be at for the futures to be priced fairly to back out the halted stock’s implied price.]
Corey is spot on. It’s long/short portfolios all the way down. This is native vision for derivatives traders.
In closing, know that I’m not just shouting my friends when I say to watch Pirates. That’s seeing causality backwards. Jason is sponsoring Moontower and I met these guys in the first place because I was attracted to how they think (well that’s half of it…there are plenty of brilliant people out there I have zero interest in hanging out with. These are friends that got through the important funnels after I noticed they were smart.) I always learn when I listen to these guys. They’re entertaining and always have good stories.
Actually, you know what? F those guys. Hoggin all the cool in the room.
This was a dense issue. Reading is the worst. I know.
Instead of more links to ignore, I will leave you with an invitation to learn in-person.
Me and 2 old friends who all traded at SIG together are going to host 3 free teaching sessions in NYC the first week of October.
We are ridiculously stoked to meet many of you. That said space is limited so there’s a short application.
You can find the details and application in this thread:
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