Chris Lau - Seeking Alpha

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Reject the Gaussian Curve (Notes from John Mauldin's Newsletter)

I am having difficulty accepting conventional wisdom in managing a portfolio. The reasons could not be better explained by Mauldin in his 'Thoughts from the Frontline' newsletter. The market is still in turmoil. We know that. This means that anything relating to "modeling," "forecasting," and "predicting" will have a far greater margin of error than we have ever seen.

There are many reasons for this, but the main one is because we are at the mercy of great economic experiments. It is simply not known which experiments will work out, but investors must embrace the unknown and be willing to adapt. In effect, investors must not hold too strongly to the established conventional wisdom.

My highlights are in bold:
  • We are in the middle of a Great Experiment, the one truly great experiment of this time; so the economists are fascinated. We have Keynes versus von Mises versus Irving Fisher versus Friedman, and they all have theories about what you should do after depressions and what works. Someone commenting on Keynes said, "In a world organized in accordance with Keynesian specifications there would be a constant race between the printing press and the business agents of the trade unions. With the problem of unemployment largely solved, the printing press could maintain a constant lead."

  • Let's get back to our discussion of the Great Experiment. Von Mises said there is nothing you can do about a deleveraging cycle, you basically just let it all go to hell and then pick up the pieces. The hair-shirt economists, I call the Austrians: just let it drop, take your medicine, take your 15-20% unemployment, and just deal with it, because you'll be able to come back faster from the lower base. By the way, to von Mises, the velocity of money was a meaningless concept. Gold was where you should have had your money to begin with.
  • Then there is Friedman, who produced his great work that says inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. He had his studies to prove it. But when he did his studies, in the 30 years that he analyzed, the velocity of money was remarkably stable. So of course, inflation had a 1-to-1 correlation with money supply.
  • Fisher says, "The velocity of money is important." For Fisher, debt deflation controlled all other economic variables. It was the driving economic force. You're going to have to rationalize all your debts. There's nothing you can do about it; but what you do is, do as much as you can to provide a soft landing for the people who lose their jobs. Do whatever you can to get them along and to keep the system working, but you are still going to have to go through a credit reorganization. We are going to find out in 5-6 years who was right. That is the experiment we are living through. My bet's on Fisher, just for the record.

How Did We Get It So Wrong?

  • So how did we get it so wrong? How did we get here? Let's go back to first principles: Ideas have consequences. And bad ideas tend to have bad consequences. We've taught two generations of financial managers theories that were patently absurd. Rob Arnott is going to be here later with us for the panel discussion. Rob recalls standing in front of 200 academics, professors in schools that teach economics. He asked them, "How many of you believe in the efficient market hypothesis?" Something like two or three raised their hands. "How many of you teach it?" All of them raised their hands.
  • We have been teaching generations of MBA students economic garbage. Gaussian curves and things you could model. The classic line is from Ibbitson, is a brilliant professor and a brilliant mind, who said economics is a science. No it's not. It's barely an art form. It's voodoo. That's what we practice. We look at the entrails of the Wall Street Journal and try to predict the future. Sometimes it's about as bloody as sheep entrails. CAPM... poor Harry Markowitz's Modern Portfolio Theory got so twisted beyond recognition. I remember being with Harry Markowitz. I gave a speech at a big hedge fund conference about five years ago, talking about why Modern Portfolio Theory was not going to work. The next year it was the 50th anniversary of Modern Portfolio Theory, and they brought Harry out to speak. He of course talked about why it was. I remember meeting him in the hall of this big hotel. And I asked him a couple of questions; I forget what they were because he so staggered me with, "Oh, you missed the whole concept of correlation and assets. Correlations change."

Comments: Reject the Gaussian curve. Know that it is less likely to apply now because the markets are still at the boundaries of non-linear patterns. Three things arise from Mauldin's points. First, correlations are no longer linear. Second, accept that markets do not operate under Efficient Market Hypothesis (yet know your enemy...the other believe in this which puts you at an advantage). Third, Modern Portfolio Theory is less likely to be a successful approach the next few years because of point one (correlation).


  • The future is going to look different, yet we think we can model it. The models are bullshit. (That's a technical economics term that requires advanced degrees to use.) They just are. Now you can take some comfort from them, and you have to try and figure stuff out, and you look for correlations. That's what I do, and we all do that. I confess I use models every day.
  • The model has a huge asterisk beside it. You just can't bet the farm on it. And God, have I learned that the hard way. I've got bruises on my back from making assumptions. That's why I don't go around half-naked, because it would just look ugly.


  • Stocks go from high valuations to low valuations to high valuations. They've done it in US markets and world markets, and we are halfway through the trip in a secular bear market. We haven't gotten to low valuations yet, I don't care what they say. The P to E at the end of July was something like 289 on the S&P. You can go to the S&P website and you can see that. Now you smooth it with five-year curves and performance, and it goes to 20. 20 is not cheap. But it's going to get cheap -- at least that's what history tells us.

  • Now maybe history is wrong, because past performance is not indicative of future results;
  • I think we are going to lower valuations, and when that happens we will have compressed price to earnings ratios just like we did in 1982. The world will be coming to an end and we'll be moaning and groaning. We haven't gotten as bad as we were in '82 -- whoever pointed that out is correct.
  • But what will happen? The stock market will be a coiled spring and we'll have a bull market and we'll get to have fun in the stock market again. Until then, be careful.

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: