Harley Bassman Presents: The White Swan

Harley Bassman Presents: The White Swan

The Black Swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact on markets or society, and is often considered painfully obvious with the benefit of hindsight. This raises the question: Why do we often ignore, to our detriment, the more commonplace White Swan?

[Editor’s note: The following is from the latest commentary by Harley Bassman. If you’re not familiar with Bassman, he created the MOVE — more here.]

Much is written about the Black Swan, famously described by Nassim Taleb in his 2001 book, Fooled by Randomness, and smartly summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker’s April 22, 2002 publication.

As a reminder, the Black Swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major impact on markets or society, and is often considered painfully obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

This raises the question: Why do we often ignore, to our detriment, the more commonplace White Swan? Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for shining a bright light on how cognitive bias leads to poor decision making. Seemingly by nature, people overly worry about low probability events and diminish their concern for truly risky behaviors. For example, many people are terrified of being bitten by a shark or struck by lightning, but then hop into a taxi and fail to snap on their seat belt.

As the calendar rolled into 2020, the -platycodon line- MOVE Index was under 50 while the more widely watch VIX Equity volatility index was kissing 12. There are no reasonable statistics to comprehend such levels, they are just too low. And of course, my in-box was bulging with investors wanting me to reveal the next “surprise” that would shock the market out of its doldrums. I could only reply that if I knew, it would (by definition) not be a surprise.

Notwithstanding that Bill Gates offered a TED Talk in 2014 on the risk of a Global pandemic, and that a dozen such science fiction movies were available on Netflix, indeed COVID-19 was a Black Swan surprise.

What is no longer a surprise is the Government’s proposed Monetary and Fiscal solutions to the havoc that COVID has wreaked.

At this stage, discussing the merits of FED’s (US Federal Reserve Bank) policies is pointless; it’s an activity best held in states where weed is legal. As pictured by the -dianthus line-, there seems to be no level of balance sheet expansion that is too high.

Not only is the FED employing QE (Quantitative Easing) to dampen an interest rate increase that would be extremely bothersome to our vastly over-leveraged economy, but they have signaled they will fund the -brunnera line- expansion of Fiscal spending.

Again, a debate about whether this is good public policy is moot; a huge Fiscal impulse is coming, and it will be funded mostly by debt issued to the FED.

Economic purists will insist that this is not “money printing” since the US Treasury is independently selling bonds into the market via public auctions. Many of these bonds are purchased by Wall Street ‘primary dealers’ (sometimes referred to as Vampire Squids) who soon sell them to the FED for a small profit.

Of course, this is “money printing” in the same way that one “borrows” beer at a Super Bowl party.

As a reminder, notwithstanding COVID, the financial road we are traveling has been paved with good intentions, especially by the FED; the pity is the expected result did not occur.

The GFC (Great Financial Crisis) in 2008/09 revealed that the US had too much debt, both -clematis line- public as well as private. The FED recognized that there are only two ways out of a debt crisis – either default or inflate, with the caveat that inflation is simply a slow-motion default.

Since the market would not allow the FED to reduce its balance sheet via asset sales (or even the slow bleed of letting bonds mature), the alternate solution was to create inflation as a way to reduce the value of debt. This policy was reinforced by the FED’s most recent communications where they indicated they would not mind inflation rising above their 2.0% target (for a short time).

The original plan was for the FED’s largess to inflate middle class wages; instead, the inflation occurred in assets, most notably in -hyacinth line- Global Equities.

When one hears hoof beats, look for horses not zebras. There is no reason to ruminate over exotic possibilities when the problems we face are quite clear.

Once again, ignore the merits of the public policy response – what is important is that there is wide support from both the Democrats and Republicans to offer significant Fiscal relief supported by massive Monetary expansion.

Will this be inflationary – Yes; but it is unclear how soon. I made the case in my December 2, 2020 commentary, ”The Wages of Fear”, that demographics will set ablaze the dry kindling of printed money sometime between 2023 to 2025; and nothing has occurred to change that prediction. What is clear is that a financial bubble is being inflated, and there is risk on both sides of the distribution. Ordinarily the bloviating pundits advise one to sell assets, or perhaps execute some sort of hedge such as buying puts or selling covered calls. They are looking in the wrong direction.

While I am not a stomping bull, the approaching monetary hurricane could well make the “surprise” a further rally in equities. Printed money should elevate stocks; either via a continued flow into assets, or into the pockets of consumers who will spend it and thus increase corporate profits. (Yes, higher taxes could be an offset, but let’s save that for another Commentary.)

As noted, inflation is an eventual certainty, so one should own real assets; and over the longest run stocks will hold their real value. Notwithstanding the Robinhood day traders, stock equity is an ownership right in a real company.

Weimar Germany is the nightmare scenario for inflation; but contrary to expectations, stockholders were protected. While the -salvia line- German Papiermark vs. USD exchange rate exploded (4.2 Trillion per USD), the -zinnia line- German Stock Index, currency adjusted into USD, held its value. As such, when faced with nominal inflation – Do not sell call options.

Below, the -hellebore line- is the “skew” of Implied Volatility (IVol) for options that expire in one-year for SPY – S&P 500 ETF, and before GameStop, one of the market’s most actively traded securities. The path of this line details the IVol used in the pricing models for various strikes. The 100% dot is the current market level of 375 (or 3750 on the S&P 500 Index); similarly, 80% would be a strike of 300 while 120% would be a strike of 450.

The IVol for an at-the-money option of 23.0% is not unreasonable since SPY realized such a volatility as late as last September when the market stabilized near 350. Similarly, an IVol of 31% is not crazy for a strike of 300 since SPY had such a volatility when it was near that level last June.

What is anomalous is that the 450 strike sports an IVol of only 16.9%, a level not too far from the level realized from 2018 to 2019 – before COVID.

The -gentian line- profiles the skew for options that expire in two years with Ivols of 28.50%, 23.0%, and 18.75% respectively for similar strike levels.

Consider the results of the table above for two-year expiry options on SPY; is the risk of reaching the COVID lows (-36%) the same as a 20% rally by 2023 ? (Call px = Put px) I will not quibble with the put price as it offers “earthquake” insurance; but within the context of current events, the call price is too cheap.

By many measures the S&P 500 is expensive; in fact, the loudest pundits cite that we are in a “bubble”. I will submit those indicators are not false, but they ignore that the FED’s lips are tightly wrapped around a larger financial balloon.

The -centaurea line- maps the relative value of US equities to real interest rates; this is what supports my view that stocks are “fair”. However, if $1.9 Trillion of fiscal stimulus is funded by the FED holding real interest rates below zero, the surprise will be north. As such, I want to be long the distant strike call options; not because I know I am right, but rather it is so inexpensive to be wrong.


8 thoughts on “Harley Bassman Presents: The White Swan

  1. H- thanks for providing this amazing information flow.

    The other issue I keep my eye on is how much money printing the US is doing relative to Europe, Japan & China. If the other important economies are printing too ( just on paper- not backed by anything but their economy, rule of law and future opportunities), it seems less precarious.

  2. Being old enough to have voted against Reagan twice, I simply do not understand the concern about inflation. Let’s say the Fed and the Yellen treasury actually succeed in getting inflation above 3 percent and it stays there for a year — or goes even higher. The Fed could immediately engineer the rate on the 10yr to 4% — we wouldn’t need Volker’s 17 percent — and the whole economy would slow to a crawl, taking inflation down with it. Am I right?

    1. The main challenge for the central bank is taming inflation without causing an economic crisis: if you’re too slow to tame it, inflation keeps running away; too fast and the expected value of most assets suddenly use a new discounting rate.

      I suppose that as long as participants in the economy think the causes for inflation are temporary, they won’t take long term risks with the assumption that their assets will appreciate indefinitely.

      To me the main risk of engineering inflation as things stand is that with no wealth tax or poverty credit, there’s no way the poorest will improve their relative buying power. They’ll get further priced out of housing, education, and health.

      1. Great comment, Manuel. The point I was trying to (ham-fistedly) make is that the Fed (and the CBs of soverigns that print their own currency, more generally) always have it in their power to control/keep a lid on inflation. The question(s) is: At what cost, and borne by whom? You make the excellent point that that cost invariably will be borne by the people least able to afford it.

  3. I mean we keep talking about inflation coming and we’ve been talking for over a decade but I keep wondering how you get inflation when consumers are buried in debts with no possible way out. $15 min wage doesn’t handle the trillion dollars in student loan debt or the massive household debt. Even cutting $50k in student loans for a lot of people means that instead of paying for the next 30 years they’ll be paying the balance for the next 10-15. Without fixing healthcare and cost of living issues… where do you get inflation? I just don’t see it.

  4. So…buy the 450C Leap and sell the 300P leap and pocket $600 per contract…getting paid for having both up and downside insurance…hmmmm…or if you’re really bearish, do the same for the 275P…for free! Kinda makes a fella wonder…

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