In Episode 83, we welcome fund manager, Randy Swan, who’s calling in from the Bahamas after being displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria.
The guys start with Randy’s backstory, which leads into why he started Swan Global Investments. In part due to his background in managing liability risk at KPMG, Randy was interested in a way to diversify away market risk. This led him to develop an option-based market approach called the Swan Defined Risk Strategy (DRS), which might be summarized with Randy’s phrase “always invested, always hedged.”
Randy walks us through his DRS methodology, which relies on asset diversification and the purchase of puts to protect against market drawdowns. He gives us more info on the duration of the puts, generally how far out of the money the system targets, and other trade specifics. This dovetails into a discussion of selling options as opposed to buying them. Randy uses selling strategies in an effort to generate positive returns on an annual basis.
Meb asks about the general response from investors, and how they view buying this type of portfolio “insurance.” Randy tells us most people think it makes sense, they just haven’t really been exposed to the idea. Rather, most people are used to hearing only about diversification.
The guys then discuss low volatility in the market. Randy gives us his thoughts, mentioning how now is a great time to hedge a portfolio given the low VIX. The conversation touches on whether you can still sell options in this low-VIX market. After all, it might be dangerous if volatility spikes. Plus, with so many investors having adopted a selling strategy in an effort to generate income, is this space crowded? Does it still work? You might be surprised to hear Randy’s take on it.
This is a great episode for options-fans and investors wondering how to stay in this market while adding some protection to their portfolios. You’ll hear more on volatility skew… the active versus passive debate (and how it misses the point)… Randy’s broad advice for listeners interested in implementing an options strategy… and of course, Randy’s most memorable trade.
Get all the details in Episode 83.
In Episode 82, we welcome trader, fund manager, and author, Vineer Bhansali.
Per usual, we start with Vineer’s backstory. It involves his physicist-origins, an unexpected move to an assortment of trading desks, and a run-in with the great, Fischer Black.
Meb soon dives in, asking about main strategies Vineer uses with his group, Longtail Alpha. Meb reads a quote from LongTail’s website…
“LongTail Alpha’s sole focus is to find value in the tails of financial asset return distributions. Either in the left tail as a risk mitigation hedge on multi-asset portfolios, in the right tail to add convexity to an investor’s risk exposures, or in both the right and left tails to produce alpha from convexity and volatility opportunities in a hedge fund structure.”
Meb asks Vineer to use this as a jumping off point, explaining his framework, and how he thinks about tail strategies.
Vineer tells us that, at LongTail, they believe the probability distribution of returns for asset classes and multi-asset portfolios is actually not bell-shaped. Rather, there are many imperfections and anomalies in the market. And the tails of the distribution are quite different than the central part. While the central part of the curve tends to have many, smaller moves, the tails tend to be dominated by infrequent, large events. With this in mind, the goal is to implement various options strategies to help you position yourself for these tail vents. Keep in mind, there are left tail and right tail events (and a hedged strategy in the middle). Vineer references them all.
Meb mentions how, right now, most investors are more concerned with the left tail events. So how should an investor think about implementing a tail strategy? And is it even necessary, given Vineer’s statement in a recent Forbes article:
“…people generally feel better when they believe that they have portfolios with built-in insurance, i.e. protection against losses, even though the expectation (or average return) of a portfolio with or without such insurance is the same.”
Vineer discusses the difference between “volatility” and “permanent loss of capital.” What you want from a left-tail paradigm is a methodology that keeps you in assets, serving your long-term benefit. Generally, you want to be invested in the stock market. Vineer tells us the name of the game is to be able to survive the relatively short-but-harsh pullbacks, and even accumulate more assets during those times. Given this, Vineer has a 4-lever framework he uses to help create a robust left-side portfolio. You won’t want to miss this part of the discussion.
As the conversation unfolds, you’ll hear the guys discuss how, even though there is some concern about a correction now, the markets are still severely undervaluing the price of a sharp downturn. And option premia are incredibly cheap by historical standards.
Meb then asks for more details about actually implementing a left tail strategy.
Vineer’s answer touches on understanding and identifying how much exposure one wants to equity risk and inflation risk. Then, there’s the need to understand one’s risk threshold tolerance – the “attachment point” at which you cry uncle, whether that’s being down 10%, 15%, 25% or more. Given this attachment point, an investor could then go to the options market and buy “insurance” at this level, for a duration of time suitable to the investor.
This leads Meb to wonder why people think of portfolio insurance differently than life, car, or home insurance. We all pay those insurance premiums without thinking much about it, but there’s so much resistance to paying for portfolio insurance.
Vineer actually wrote a paper on this challenge. He tells us part of the issue is an aggregation, disaggregation problem. The right thing to do would be to lump the cost of insurance into the portfolio and look at the overall portfolio returns. But people fixate on the “lost” cost of insurance when option premiums expire worthless.
Next up, the guys discuss the current volatility environment. Vineer address two questions from Meb: “why is volatility so low?” And “is there a sweet spot on the option scale (how far out of the money) for investors looking to purchase portfolio protection?”
There’s way more in this episode: option selling strategies (instead of buying insurance, you’re the one selling it in order to generate yield)… A great piece from Vineer about selling bonds as a way to hedge your portfolio… How the traditional inverse relationship between market direction and volatility might not be holding up as much (look at Japan recently – surging markets and volatility together)… Vineer’s thoughts on artificial intelligence and “how to beat the machines”… And of course, his most memorable trade.
All this and more in Episode 82.
In Episode 80, we welcome commodities and gold expert, Claude Erb.
As usual, we start with Claude’s back-story, but it’s not long before the guys jump into investing, with Meb asking about Claude’s general framework and view of the markets.
Claude tells us there are three concepts that guide his broad investing thinking: first, framing investment opportunities in terms of price/value relationships; second, the concept that no one gives away anything of value for free; and third, the idea that there really is no difference between a successful traditional fundamental approach to investing and a successful quantitative approach to investing.
This leads into a quick conversation about how market wisdom compounds over the years, but it’s not long before the guys jump into the topic of “gold.” Claude and his writing partner, Campbell Harvey, wrote the seminal paper, “The Golden Constant”, which explored the possible relationship between the real, inflation-adjusted price of gold and future real gold returns. Meb mentions how gold elicits far more emotion in investors than nearly any other asset, with different investors having an array of reasons or themes as to why they own gold.
Clause gives us some great commentary on the link between fear and gold, touching upon VIX contracts, volatility, and even Buffett’s and Dalio’s take on gold. The guys continue with the gold discussion, with Claude referencing some of the concepts from “The Golden Constant”. All you gold bugs (and historians, for that matter) won’t want to miss this.
There’s way more in this episode, including a discussion of commodities, various practical takeaways, and Claude’s thoughts on something called “the sequence of returns.” And of course, there’s Claude’s most memorable trade. What are the details? Find out in Episode 80.
Episode 81 is a radio show format. Meb starts with a note of thanks to listeners. It involves a milestone Cambria just passed as a company.
Next, Meb walks us through the common themes he’s hearing from his office hours. In short, all listeners are generally making the same investing mistakes (though everyone seems to believe his/her situation is unique). Meb tells us what everyone is doing.
Then, it’s on to listener Q&A. Some of the questions and topics you’ll hear are:
As usual with the radio show formats, there are plenty of rabbit holes. Plus, Meb is about to do some travelling overseas. Where’s he headed? Find out in Episode 81.
In Episode 79, we welcome Jason Goepfert, founder of SentimenTrader.
Per usual, we start with Jason’s background. It involves listening to margin calls, when “real emotion” would come out. Jason tells us anger and panic were what you would hear, and that people are not necessarily rational.
These experiences and others eventually led Jason to launch Sentimentrader which is, according to its website: “an independent investment research firm dedicated to the application of mass psychology to the financial markets… Our focus is not market timing per se, but rather risk management. That may be a distinction without a difference, but it's how we approach the markets. We study signs that suggest it is time to raise or lower market exposure as a function of risk relative to probable reward. It is all about risk-adjusted expectations given existing evidence.”
The guys discuss some of the mechanics of Sentimentrader – the time-frames of the various models, the inputs, and how most people want just one indicator (but that’s not the best way).
Meb asks for an example of one of Jason’s favorite indicators – it turns out to be the VIX, sometimes known as the market’s “fear gauge.” As of the time of the podcast, the VIX is quite low. One might assume this means it’s about to pop, but Jason tells us nothing works 100% of the time, with Meb noting it can stay low for a long while.
Meb asks how investors – specifically long-term investors – should use indicators like the VIX. Should they pay attention at all? Jason tells us you can use these indicators for color.
Meb throws in a funny aside about a “seafood tower” indicator – the idea being when times are bad, no one orders the seafood tower, but when times are good, towers are stacked at all the tables. And it just so happens, Meb recently had a meal out in which the table wanted a seafood tower…as did at least three other tables at the restaurant that night.
The conversation bounces around a bit, with interesting back-and-forths about the AAII and Investor Intelligence surveys, the potential for “observer effect” to be skewing some results, and how every bull/bear cycle is different and people put too much weight on the market event that’s just happened. Jason tells us that many investors are now saying, “well, stocks probably aren’t going to peak because we’re not seeing the same kind of optimism we saw in 2007.” But 2007 was probably a once-in-a-lifetime type of a peak (and 2009 was a once-in-a-lifetime type of a bottom) – so we shouldn’t expect to see the same readings at those turning points.
The guys breeze through a fun topic next: whether Twitter should be considered a useful sentiment indicator. Jason tells us it’s wonderful and horrible. The problem is we self-select and tend to follow people with a similar mentality as our own. So, we’re largely just in a bit of an echo chamber of our own opinion.
Meb and Jason go on to cover margin levels and the commitment of traders before discussing the contrary indicator of magazine covers. It turns out magazine covers are not the great contra-indicator they’re purported to be.
Finally, the guys turn to today’s markets, with Meb asking how the world looks to Jason given his experience with sentiment. Jason tells us U.S. equities are optimistic, but not necessarily overly optimistic, and bonds and gold are both “meh,” neither registering any extreme sentiment readings.
Meb asks which asset classes around the globe are, in fact, registering extreme readings. Jason tells us we’re seeing some extreme readings in cocoa, coffee, and grains – the soft commodity complex. He actually provides the name of a specific fund if you’re interested in playing this as an investment.
There’s tons more in this great episode: how today’s cryptos are resembling the internet stocks of the late 90s… why it’s hard to buy, even when the sentiment indicators are signaling you should do so… and the time when sentiment called the markets nearly perfectly.
And of course, there’s Jason’s most memorable trade. It involves a times when all the sentiment indicators were lining up together nearly perfectly. So Jason went in big…and lost big when things didn’t play out as he expected.
What are the details? Find out in Episode 79.
In Episode 78, we welcome angel investor, Alex Rubalcava. As Meb and Alex are friends, we start with Meb recalling the first time he met Alex over some egg tacos. Alex goes on to give us more about his background, which took him from pension funds, to dot.coms to VC investing.
Meb asks for more information on Alex’s group, Stage Venture Partners. Alex tells us that Stage is a classic seed venture fund. They invest in enterprise software companies that are about a year or two old. They look for companies that have a product in the market and are generating some early revenues. This dovetails into a broader discussion of how Alex landed on being a seed-stage investor, and the VC climate here in L.A. The guys talk about what Alex looks for, the size of the investment in a typical round for him, and where good ideas come from.
It's not long before Meb references our podcast with angel investor, Jason Calacanis. We received a great deal of feedback after that show from listeners eager to start angel-investing. But Meb juxtaposes that interest with William Bernstein’s idea that most people shouldn’t invest their own money. Meb asks Alex if seed investing is harder than the way it’s presented.
Alex responds with some interesting points about seeing the deal, understanding the deal, and winning the deal. In short, to see the right deals, you have to be in the right places, actively participating in the community. If not, you’ll never see the next Uber. To understand the deal, you must recognize what you’re seeing. Lots of people passed on Facebook, AirBnB, and Uber, because they didn’t have the vision to see what it could be. And in terms of winning the deal, often, the really great startups are oversubscribed, meaning they might need $2M of funding, but have $20M worth of interest. So it can be a challenge to convey your value to a startup to win a seat at the table.
The guys then discuss how most of Alex’s deal flow comes across his desk. They discuss incubators, accelerators, going to conferences, calling people, you name it. But at the end of the day, Alex tells us he’ll look at about 1,000 start-ups this year, but will only make eight-to-ten investments.
This bleeds into a conversation about the attrition rate as startups move throughout the funding process. As you’d guess, there’s a huge failure rate. The guys discuss the drop-offs through the various rounds, as well as the major reasons for them. Meb also asks when to double down on your bets?
As part of this conversation, Alex tells us how attrition rates really vary by sectors. He discusses how investors in the consumer-based sector who didn’t get in on the big dogs like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat didn’t see anywhere near the returns that they would have otherwise. Meanwhile, other sectors have far more companies with successful exits (just not as monstrous as the Facebooks et al) – as Meb says, “more singles, doubles, and triples.”
A bit later, the guys discuss the idea of “why now?” When Alex is considering an investment, the founder must be able to effectively answer “why now?” Many times, the idea is there, but the timing isn’t, perhaps due to cost, or the market simply isn’t ready. This eventually morphs into a conversation about the three biggest risks that a founder faces when starting a company: building the product, hiring the right people, and getting the customer.
Meb switches gears, asking about about syndicates and funds. Are they right for investors looking to get exposure to angel investing?
You’ll want to hear Alex’s perspective on this. He tells us that “If you’re going to be an angel investor…you have to be devoting significant time to it.” He goes further, saying that unless it’s close to your job, angel investing isn’t likely to be great for most people – yet investing in angel funds might be a good answer. Alex goes on to give us his reasons, and tells us there are some great angel investing funds that are worthy of consideration. He even mentions specifics.
There’s way more in this episode, including the little-known angel-investing tax benefit that can save you millions – literally… Where Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are likely headed… A mnemonic Alex uses to sort through the hype… And of course, Alex’s most memorable trade. All of you would-be angel-investors will be feeling the FOMO (“fear of missing out”).
What are the details? Find out in Episode 78.