In Episode 67, we welcome Simon Black, founder of the newsletter, Sovereign Man.
We start with Simon’s military background, having been an intelligence officer. He spent lots of time overseas, yet became disillusioned after the promises of WMDs failed to prove accurate. From this, he began challenging the status quo.
Underpinning everything was an ethos of personal freedom, which is at the core of what Simon’s newsletter, Sovereign Man, is really about.
Meb asks what global red flags and/or issues Simon is seeing now which might be challenging our personal freedoms. Simon tells us “I see a lot of red flags.” Specifically, he’s seeing a global trend toward socialism. People have a sense that the system is rigged. There’s an intuitive understanding that something is wrong, though people aren’t quite certain what it is, so they blame capitalism. But when people gravitate toward socialism (“I want more free stuff”), we run into the challenge of too many people wanting to jump on the cart, without enough people actually pulling the cart.
This leads to an interesting conversation about the effects of socialism in Venezuela, where Simon is located. He mentions how there are vast quantities of soil where the Venezuelans could be growing crops, yet there is starvation. He steers the conversation back to challenges here in the U.S., which leads toward the need for what Simon calls a “Plan B.” In essence, this is a plan intended to protect yourself and your assets from the various risks we face today on many levels – financial, personal, governmental…
Part of an effective Plan B ties to diversification. Simon mentions how if all of your assets are in the same banking system, then you’re not diversified. So, Simon suggests at least some money should be kept in banks outside of the U.S. – after all, there are many global banks that are better capitalized than those here in the U.S. He offers Hong Kong as an example.
The conversation drifts toward an example of personal diversification – getting a second passport. Simon thinks this is the ultimate option, providing tons of opportunities and benefits – all upside with no downside, for minimal cost.
Next up is Simon’s suggestion to legally reduce your tax burden. He tells us “reducing your taxes…that’s the easiest return on investment you’ll ever make.” Simon tell us a favorite tax-reduction technique upon Meb’s request.
Next up, the guys discuss having cash outside the U.S. banking system. The conversation references why this is important – just look at what happened in Cyprus and Greece a few years ago. This leads into a discussion of cryptocurrencies. Simon tells us how so many people putting money into crytos today now have no idea what they’re doing – do they even understand Bitcoin and Ethereum? Who has actually read the original white paper on Bitcoin?
There’s way more in this episode: where Simon is looking now for safe, margin-of-safety-style investments around the globe… how private equity can help your portfolio… Simon’s entrepreneurial advice… what Simon’s readers are most concerned about today… and of course, Simon’s most memorable trade – it involved day-trading Compaq (and losing everything).
How’d it happen? Find out in Episode 67.
Episode 66 is a radio show. We start with Meb referencing the just-published book, The Best Investment Writing, which he edited. It’s a great collection of essays from some of the smartest minds in investing. Check it out.
Next, we jump into market commentary, using Meb’s recent “office hours” as our vehicle for discussion. What that means is Meb had some extra time over the last few weeks, so he opened his calendar to his followers, scheduling loads of 30-minute phone calls with various individual investors and RIAs looking to pick Meb’s brain on a variety of subjects. Meb tells us the topics which came up the most often, as well as his thoughts. There’s talk of U.S. equity valuation (and at what level Meb would start selling even before a crash), angel investing, portfolio allocation weightings, and far more.
We end with several listener questions. The first involves how Meb views market breadth in light of the growth in index investing; the second solicits Meb’s thoughts on the dangers of ETF investments if the market heads south; the third is at what valuation level the buyback component of a shareholder yield strategy ends up being a headwind.
What valuation level did Meb indicate? Find out in Episode 66.
In Episode 65, we welcome CTA and commodities expert, Emil van Essen.
Meb starts with a fun bit of trivia – if you mesh his and Emil’s name, coming up with “Emil Faber,” can you guess in which movie that name appears?
It turns out it’s from the classic comedy, Animal House. “Emil Faber” was the founder of the movie’s “Faber College” and under his statue was his quote, “Knowledge is good.”
After Emil gives us a bit about his background, the guys jump into the deep end. Emil trades managed futures, and while most people think “trend following” when they hear “managed futures,” there are other styles. Emil tells us about a style he uses often, spread trading.
Emil looks at the term structure in commodities futures contracts. There’s a price for every month going out in time. You can trade the differences between those months (calendar spreads). He also trades relative value and roll arb. Emil likes these strategies because there’s tons of alpha available.
Meb pauses to explain a bit for any listeners who are less familiar with all this. He explains exposure to the futures markets, using oil as an example. This leads into a discussion about the growth of commodities markets. Back in the 2000s, commodities went from being just a product to an investment vehicle. So the powers that be created indices and various commodities products to meet this demand. Investments in commodities exploded, driving up prices.
This dovetails into what Meb calls “one of the dirty secrets of indexing,” which is how many indices can be front-run. Meb tells us how, for some 1.0 commodities indices, the slippage was in the order of 3-4% per year.
Meb then asks Emil to describe what he looks at when establishing a position. Is it fundamental? Technical? Emil tell us it’s very important that you use both, because “you have to understand the fundamentals because things change.”
Next is a great conversation about front-running trend followers. This is something that Emil does. He knows that if there’s a big move, the trend followers are likely all on the same side of the position, so when it comes time to roll the front month, and Emil generally knows when that will happen, Emil takes advantage of the price movement. Meb and Emil then discuss the easiest way to implement this strategy.
A bit later, the guys discuss what themes/positions Emil is interested in right now. He tells us how there has recently been a shortage in gasoline, so gas has been running up against crude oil. It’s at high levels now, and Emil thinks it’ll come down. Emil also tells us that he’s looking at grains, the energy markets, and certain metals including platinum and palladium.
This leads into a discussion on oil. Meb asks Emil’s take on the industry.
Emil gives us some great background on what drove oil up so high, and why it crashed. Then he discusses the technological revolution in oil drilling, the result of which is that the cost of finding and developing oil has collapsed. There are some great details in here which oil investors won’t want to miss, but Emil wraps up this part of the conversation by saying “the days of $80 oil – that’s a long way away.”
Meb then asks what areas of commodities Emil likes right now. Emil tells us his thoughts on at what level crude is buy. And he mentions a certain metal which he considers a “no brainer.” You’ll have to listen for the details.
There’s way more in this episode: how Emil views gold in light of new cryptocurrencies… A Twitter poll Meb conducted that reveals just how stubborn some investors can be when it comes to selling out of overvalued equities… Where Emil has seen the most investors make the biggest mistakes over his 25+ year career… The dangerous false belief that “we’ve seen this before” in the markets, and how computerized investing is taking us into uncharted waters… And finally, Emil’s most memorable trade (which was a loser that will get your blood racing).
What are the details? Find out in Episode 65.
In Episode 64, we welcome David Varadi from Blue Sky Asset Management.
David tells us a bit about himself before he and Meb jump into investing. Meb starts by referencing a quote from Blue Sky’s website:
“Unlike endowments, investors do not have an infinite time horizon. For this reason, we believe that a traditional strategic asset allocation approach based on modern portfolio theory is suboptimal. It makes more sense to adapt to changes in the economic environment. We favor a dynamic approach to asset allocation using market information to guide our investment decisions. Most importantly, we believe that a systematic, quantitative approach is necessary to avoid emotions and biases in decision-making.”
Meb’s a fan of all the ideas in that quote, so he asks David to expound and discuss his general market framework.
David tells us how it’s easy to be a buy-and-hold investor when market is going up; much harder so when the market is falling – especially when nearing retirement. Significant drawdowns can be devastating. So David tells us that “managing risk is absolutely critical.” Investors need to be able to adjust their strategies to handle a wide variety of market scenarios – bear markets, varying interest rate scenarios, and inflation. And “if you have a dynamic asset allocation, you have the ability to be more in tune with the market regime that is currently going on.”
Meb asks David to dig deeper – what are the rules and frameworks in place that make his models dynamic?
For David, much goes back to fundamentals, trend, momentum, and volatility. David starts with a strategic allocation that reflects longer-term assumptions. But what’s interesting is how David uses volatility in concert with trend/momentum, helping him know when to be in the market versus cash. Most people think time-series momentum is a binary decision, but David brings probabilities into the discussion.
Meb then asks about the challenges a retail investor faces when trying to implement the strategies David has been discussing.
A big challenge is tracking error. The more dynamic you are (moving away from buy-and-hold indexing), the more potential tracking error. Another issue is how often you trade. David tells us that the investor has to ask himself what is most important – does the investor want to reduce the drawdown in a 2008 scenario, and if so, is he willing to take the tracking error associated with that?
Meb echoes this tradeoff between buy-and-hold versus active. It’s very hard to look “different” than the market and/or your neighbors when you’re underperforming.
Next, Meb references a chart from one of Blue Sky’s white papers that shows the most successful asset managers (presented in our show links). The top three are all quant/trend guys. Buffett is at six. Meb asks why, then, everyone knows Buffett’s name, but most average investors aren’t familiar with the trend asset managers.
David gives us an interesting answer, referencing how trend is less known, as well as the behavioral challenges of its implementation. But he tells us that a big reason why many of those trend investors are on the chart is because “when you stay in tune with what’s actually happening in the market, you’re much more likely to survive over a long period of time.”
It’s not long before the guys switch to a fascinating new topic – using equity option data to select stocks. In essence, looking at the implied volatility between puts and calls to get a feel for which equities are more likely to climb. David is searching for “high implied skew.”
Next, Meb brings up another Blue Sky whitepaper, this one about retirees and risk. David hits the high points, discussing the challenges of volatility in retirement.
There’s plenty more in this episode, including the new areas David is researching… David’s most memorable trade (one involves put options, the other Bitcoin)… And David’s one piece of investing advice to listeners, involving three mental “buckets” for your asset allocation.
What are they? Find out in Episode 64.