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Environmental and Social Imperatives

Our Mission is a simple one. We have only this planet to support us and must therefore maintain its habitability so that we may persist. The gargantuan scale of this mission requires that we collaborate as a species. We will not be able to collaborate with a broken social compact. This contextualises the environmental and social imperatives. 
Our efforts to restore the environment may or may not be sufficient and it is under this uncertainty that we must strive. We cannot allow the risk of futility to deter us. 
We have long worked against the planet to shape it to our requirements. Often, we influence the natural cycles of the planet without considering longer term and longer ranging consequences. The current rising temperatures and climate volatility are examples of our impact and neglect. Our future solutions need to consider these complexities so that the true and total costs of our actions can be recognised, measured and managed. We need to work with the planet as we shape it, and we need to recognise that sometimes we need to shape our behaviour to the requirements of the planet and all our co-tenants. 
We need all hands. Injustice and inequality risk alienating and losing the efforts of some of our number. This we cannot afford. The cost of the campaign is high and needs to be borne by all, but most of all by the strong. Not because they should but because they can. 



Environment and Social Impact. Public Goods. Private Capital?

What sets us apart from the planet’s other tenants is our ability to collaborate. We are the most intelligent known species on the planet, but even this intelligence pales before our ability to work together. This ability to collaborate has allowed us to not just live with what we have, but to shape our environment to suit our purposes. When our influence on the planet was yet small, we didn’t have to think too much about the consequences. The planet had the ability to absorb the collateral effects of our growth and development. As the impact and complexity of our constructs have grown, feedback has become more significant. Many living things change their environments but none with the scale that humans do. We build cities, roads, rail, infrastructure. We mine the earth for resources to build and to power. We enact laws and frameworks to guide how we interact with one another. We change the world. 

Every now and then, our relationships with one another become strained and unsustainable leading to wars and revolutions. We are naturally driven to improve our wealth, power, and prestige, and often this leads to competition which can reach unsustainable levels. Wars and revolutions are the system-resets of society.

Every now and then, our relationship with our habitat becomes similarly unsustainable. In the past this has occurred on a local scale. Today our industry and technology are sufficiently developed to allow us to threaten the environment on a global scale. What are the system-resets of environmental sustainability? A lower planetary carrying capacity? More competition for resources?

By 2023, climate volatility has reached acute levels with heatwaves, floods, and fires all around the world. The evidence supports anthropogenic causes. We urgently need to address this climate crisis. Decarbonisation and net-zero initiatives are means to this end. All dynamic systems are cyclical and net zero will be achieved with or without our efforts. Whether net zero is achieved with a planetary carrying capacity of 10 billion or 5 billion is the real question.

We have the means to achieve a more stable and habitable planet. If by working together we were able to house in cities 50 million people in 1900 to 4.4 billion people in 2020, we can reverse global warming. We need to work together, and we need incentives to encourage collaboration towards this common goal. Standing in our way is the tragedy of the commons or the free rider problem. A healthy and habitable environment is a public good. It is non-rivalrous, and non-excludable. Public goods tend to be undersupplied by the free market and hence must be provided by government. Without an international framework and enforcement, climate initiatives are likely to fall short.

Capitalism and free market economics have worked well for growth and development at the aggregate level. The natural tendency towards growing unequal outcomes stresses the social compact. Inequality has disadvantages beyond social justice impairing our understanding of economics and the efficacy of policy. Indeed, inequality likely impairs the functioning of the market economy as allocative and productive decisions become less diversified and less well-informed. As a result, we find that some goods which may be demanded by the many are undersupplied while goods demanded by the few are oversupplied. A more equal society is a public good and government has a duty to provide it through a more progressive tax code and appropriate fiscal redistribution.

In both addressing a sustainable planet and social justice, the private sector simply is not incentivized to provide solutions in scale. Private philanthropy through grants or concessionary capital will never completely meet demand or need. Only regulation and government can bridge the gap. Yet private capital is important to the cause.

High net worth individuals, foundations and family offices play an important role in funding impact investments. While regulation is needed to create the incentives to mobilize private capital, impact investments are often either too risky or earn concessionary returns. The mass of private individual balance sheets may not have the risk appetite for these investments. Investors whose wealth exceed, especially when they far exceed, subsistence requirements, are well placed to provide solution capital to de-risk impact investments for smaller investors. The unequal distribution of wealth in this case provides the capacity for different risk appetites and the opportunity for a class of larger, purpose driven investors to facilitate the impact investments of smaller ones. This is an opportunity for turning inequality, a bad, into a catalyst for good. 

 

 




FICTION. Males are Alien Viruses. XY and XX.

Consider the possibility that once the planet was populated only by species reproducing asexually. The Y chromosome was absent. Along comes an alien pathogen that infects the indigenous species, introducing the Y chromosome into their DNA. This parasite creates the male of each species and changes the course of evolutionary history. It is bery successful since for a species to persist and proliferate, it must propagate the Y chromosome with a probability of 50%. What circumstancial evidence might support this wild theory? What are the implications?

Disclaimer. The above is FICTION and SPECULATION. It’s just an intellect exercise, a what if, thought experiment.




Impact Investing 0.5

Impact investing is about purposefully making investments that achieve certain social and environmental benefits while generating financial returns. It is by construction a specific investment strategy that defines the non-financial outcomes explicitly, up front. There is, however, a more general type of impact investing which the purists will not consider impact investing but which we do. Aside from orthodox impact investing, we apply widely a concept best termed Impact 0.5.

The purpose of investing is to make a positive return. A consequence of investing is that the capital one invests is used by others. If it is used profitably, the investor can profit but if it isn’t then the investor will likely make a loss. But what if how the capital is used by others is also a purpose to the investor? This is the essence of Impact 0.5.

When we invest in anything, we of course consider the potential financial returns. In addition, we consider what we are enabling with our capital. Does the user of our capital employ it purposefully? There is a reason and a place for everything. This is best illustrated by an example such as investing in banks. The most basic analysis is to determine if said bank is sufficiently profitable and stable to repay capital and dividends or coupons, and if the profitability is recognized by the market to the extent that their securities rise in value. However, banks are more than a machine for making money for investors. Banks serve a purpose. If they serve it well, they prosper and they profit their investors. What is that purpose? Banks intermediate in the allocation and distribution of credit and liquidity. When we invest, we should determine if they do this function well and profitably. If they do it poorly yet turn a profit, it is likely that the profitability is not sustainable, and they may be vulnerable to disruption from competition or regulation. Thus, a pharmaceutical company serves to address the health of its customers. A media company seeks to inform and entertain. A software company seeks to enable other enterprises. An auto company seeks to provide affordable and sustainable mobility.

Purpose focuses management, unites people and promotes collaboration. Can a business profit while acting against its purpose? Not for long and certainly not forever. As long-term investors, we do not invest in such businesses. Granted, businesses are more likely to fail from inability to adapt and innovate than for lack of purpose but innovation is best pursued when it has purpose. How do we make autos cheaper and cleaner? How do we transport more people and more material with less energy and waste? How do we cure more sickness with less stress on the public or private purse? How do we intermediate more capital with less friction? There will be businesses which impair the well-being of their customers, and some have persisted a long time. Tobacco and gaming are examples.

Impact 0.5 is transitive. When we consider a business we ask if management considers their supply ecosystem with the same lens. Every action has costs. Do they count all the costs and identify who bears them? If there are costs borne by others who may not benefit, is it acceptable? Life is seldom completely fair and we only seek to understand the extent of free riding both as parties who bear the cost or reap the benefits. We will not be able to mitigate all market imperfections but by recognizing them we can try, and at best we can avoid amplifying.

There will be successful companies that free ride, that corner markets, that appeal to our weaknesses, but the risks of disruption by market, enlightenment or regulation are high and investors who only recognize damage and not risk may find them investable. We don’t. Impact 0.5 believes that there is a natural purpose for every consumer, producer, individual or collective. If we deploy capital supporting them, we can align profit and purpose. Investing to make things better.




Ten Seconds Into The Future. 2023 Outlook.

2022 was the first time since 1969 that equities and bonds fell in unison in a calendar year. The proximate cause of the declines was rising interest rates as central banks tightened financial conditions to rein in higher inflation. Rising interest rates affect both profitability and asset valuations via higher discount rates applied to future cash flows. The future of financial assets from equities to bonds and real estate therefore depends significantly on inflation and monetary policy.

I expect inflation will be structurally higher.

To understand why inflation might be higher in future it is useful to recognize why it had been so low in the last two decades. Globalization and in particular the rise of China as a manufacturing hub was responsible for keeping prices from rising too fast even in the face of steady growth. Unfortunately, the demographic dividend of China was already fading, sped up by the US China rivalry and decoupling. China will no longer exert the same disinflationary pressure as when it first opened up to international trade. No other nation has the potential to have the same disinflationary impact as China had in the last few decades. In addition, whereas the last few decades have seen a rise in globalisation and a focus on productive efficiency at all costs, notably resilience, the US China rivalry has accelerated a trend towards robustness and national self-sufficiency, a trend exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. Finally, efforts towards a more environmentally sustainable world will initially increase costs everywhere, an impulse that will fade eventually but not soon.

I expect that economic growth will be structurally higher.

The COVID pandemic has seen a global adoption of expansionary fiscal policy. While the pandemic has mostly faded and economies have recovered, fiscal support cannot be abruptly ended. At best a gradual phasing out will be undertaken. More likely, fiscal policy will now be an accepted policy tool. Expansionary fiscal policy is more redistributive which will lead to less unequal incomes and wealth. This is positive for the velocity of money and is supportive of growth.

At the same time, less expansionary monetary policy, an inflation response, redistributes wealth and income away from asset owners to labour which is also positive for growth.

The tendency of transfers from rich to poor and from firms to employees will have an equalization effect which encourages economic growth. The capital expenditure that the greening of the economy and self-sufficiency will require will further support growth.

The growth will be of higher quality. 

Whereas the years 2010-2020 saw tepid growth and growth concentrated in corporate profits and a few narrow industries, the current and future progressive, redistributive nature of the confluence of monetary and fiscal policy is likely to promote a more balanced and broad based growth. The impact on innovation is hard to say. Higher cost of capital may limit experimentation but raises the hurdle for investment, encourages capital discipline and is less wasteful. A less unequal population is also a better resource allocator and can expect to yield better economic outcomes. 

The fate of asset prices is obscure. 

Higher growth rates may not translate to higher earnings. Corporate operating margins are at peak and likely to decline as labour’s share of profits reverses a multi decade trend. Higher interest rates will struggle to support high equity multiples. Multiples contracting meets top line growth with indeterminate outcomes. Higher debt service costs will directly erode the bottom line. 

The shorter term is even harder to see.

Current trends have momentum and will likely overshoot long term tendencies. For example, inflation may fade from 7% to below 5%, where I think the long term sustainable average should be, to pre covid levels before rebounding to respect the fundamental picture drawn above. The Fed may ease too early and repeat the initial errors Volcker’s Fed in the early 80s. Asset values are cyclical and volatile and could rise despite challenging fundamentals. 

 

2023

Inflation is likely to abate further given base effects and a sharp retracement in commodities prices. Headline CPI is likely to hit 5% sometime during the year with an overshoot to 4% likely. The underlying pressures will not likely abate, and the labour market will likely be stronger than the Fed intends or the market expects. How the markets react to this complicated scenario is hard to predict. 

Economic growth is strong and a policy induced recession, if we even get one, will be shallow. The Fed’s rate hikes have inverted the short end sufficiently to induce a slowdown, however, the impulse of China’s recovery from zero Covid could well compensate for the slowdown. A recession may be averted for a number of other reasons. Deglobalisation and environmental sustainability will encourage investment which would support growth. Even as monetary policy is moderated fiscal policy will remain accommodating even if less so than in the last two years. Fiscal deficits should continue for some time even if they are reduced. At best fiscal policy will maintain expenditure on the back of a more progressive tax code, an expansionary if budget neutral strategy. Even if we do see a slowdown, the risk that the Fed cuts rates aggressively in response is low. I expect the Fed may tolerate slower growth and hold rates higher for longer than the market expects. 

Fixed income. Duration. 

Rates likely to remain elevated longer than the market expects. Rates are, however, close to peak and likely to close to a range of 5.00-5.25%. The risk is that the Fed may have to raise rates further than they planned or investors expect. Position net short duration being alert to signs of a reversal. Use any overshoot on rates on the downside to reposition long duration. Buy the USD curve steepener long the 2 to 5 year and short the 10 to 30 year. It’s positive carry at a point of pretty extreme inversion from a historical perspective.

Credit. 

Corporate credit will likely underperform. Operating margins are likely to mean revert as interest expense and labour costs erode profitability. Actual defaults are likely to be deferred for a number of years but markets will pre-empt distress. Investment grade bonds are preferred to credit sensitive high yield. However, markets will present unreliable exits and so it is important to have contractual or visible exits within a 2-3 year time frame. Generally, risks remain to the downside in corporate credit as spreads have not widened sufficiently to compensate for the risks. Bond market liquidity is also very variable and spreads need to widen further to compensate for this risk.

Household balance sheets remain robust. Consumer loan securitisations are positive relative to corporate credit. The long and steady rise in US housing provides strong collateral cover. The housing market will soften but as a result of expensive funding rather than over leverage and is a good risk. Vanilla beta strategies may be sufficient to earn a decent return.

Equities. 

Maintain an overweight value and underweight growth posture. The interest rate picture is still difficult for growth stocks. It’s probable that we will revert to the conditions that underpinned French and Fama’s 1997 paper on Value versus Growth.

Margin pressures will remain, less from materials but widening out to employment supply chain and distribution. The rate scenario cannot support elevated multiples and coupled with weaker earnings recommends a general underweight position in equities. 

Beyond the US, Europe is already in stagflation. The implication for European equities is not straightforward as European companies are highly dependent on exports to Asia and the US. 

China is difficult to invest in as policy is opaque and unpredictable. The reopening of the economy, however, clearly signals higher growth potential in the near term despite the initial and immediate spike in infections. Inflation is less of a problem in China and policy has more room to be accommodative. China is good for a short term trade perhaps lasting a year, maybe longer. In the long term, however, no command economy can compete with decentralized free markets.

India has been one of the best performing markets in 2022. One of the best strategies in 2022 has been to lie outside the main narratives of deglobalization, inflation and trade war, keep a low profile, be competent but unspectacular and stay out of trouble. The potential of the Indian economy is steadily being realized. The demographic dividend is paying off, the informal economy is being formalized and is being recognized as larger than previously thought, and the acceleration to close the gap in per capita income to the likes of China recommend India as an investment opportunity.

Generally, the risks still lie to the downside. Valuations have retraced close to the mean but haven’t overshot, as they normally do whether rising or falling. Margins and earnings will come under pressure from inflationary input, labour and debt costs and liquidity conditions are likely to remain tight. Maintain an underweight position in equities.

Alpha opportunities are likely to be richer, although alpha can be negative; optimistic investors sometimes forget.