The Clarity Paradox

Logos LP commentary for the month of July 2019, titled, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.”

Inclusive Theory

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Stocks fell from all-time highs on Friday after the release of stronger jobs data dampened hope for easier Federal Reserve monetary policy.

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Despite Friday’s losses, the major indexes posted solid weekly gains. The Dow and S&P 500 rose more than 1% each this week while the Nasdaq gained nearly 2%. Stocks also posted all-time highs on Wednesday.

The U.S. economy added 224,000 jobs in June. Economists had forecast the U.S. added 165,000 jobs in June, after a stunningly low 75,000 jobs were created in May, according to Dow Jones.

Our Take

Summer is upon us and the market has so far continued to reward the bulls after what has been a great first half of the year. In fact, we just witnessed the best June for the S&P since 1955. Pretty impressive given the noise we heard from the “Sell in May crowd”. The latest market high was the 210th for the S&P 500 since 2013. Funnily enough, for those paying attention, every one of them was called THE top…

Having said that, we are finding it more difficult than ever to find fairly/under priced assets of ANY kind. Looking across public, private, alternative and real estate markets we see little opportunity for outsized returns moving forward.

The balance of probabilities is beginning to tilt to the downside rather than to the upside as most of the silver bullets have been fired: tax cuts, rate cuts, accomodative monetary policy, share buybacks and animal spirits. What drives earnings higher and further multiple expansion we are beginning to become unsure...at the end of the day as Michael Batnick has recently reminded us the last 10 years have been the best ten ever for U.S. stocks: "Can this bull market continue? Yes, of course. It’s already gone on longer than many people thought it would, myself included. But is it likely to be as strong as it was over the last ten years? No, almost certainly not."

In other news our CIO Peter was featured on MOI Global to discuss Zscaler.

Musings

Last month I took a much needed week off and early into my European vacation, something startling occurred: my cellphone vanished. As someone typically attached to their phone, as a “necessary work evil”, my initial reaction was panic.

How was I to know what was going on without my notifications? How would I be aware of the “newsworthy” developments as they transpired? How were my clients to reach me on a whim? How would I be able to react with immediacy and urgency upon notification? How would I be privy to my professional network’s latest career “humble brags” on LinkedIn? And of course (I’ll admit it), how would I be able to observe what my “friends” on Instagram were up to?

I saw my options as two-fold: 1) get a new phone 2) spend my week of vacation without a phone and use my laptop which I had with me to periodically check emails

After a bit of deliberation, looking out over the Mediteranean, I decided to choose option 2. I found the first day without my phone hard. I became acutely aware of the habit I had built up which many of us seem to share: the urge to reach for my phone. I felt it on numerous occasions. At times precipitated by seeing my friends reaching for/looking at their cell phones and at other times simply a habit in which I would feel myself reaching for my phone only to find nothing to grasp.

As the days rolled by, the habit began to fade. Instead of yearning for my phone seeing others on theirs, I began feeling more intimately connected with the present moment. Riding in a taxi became about observing the beauty of the scenery as it flashed by and laying on the beach became about reflecting on my life, rather than scrolling through emails, reading the news or worse scrolling through curated images and videos of other people’s lives.

What I learnt in my week without a phone was the following equation:

No phone = less noise = more presence in the moment = more clarity. 

This isn’t to say I didn’t get a phone when I returned from my vacation, but it is to say that my experience brought to my attention what Greg McKeown has dubbed “the clarity paradox”.

The clarity paradox can be summed up in four phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.

Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.

Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.

Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, success can be a catalyst for failure. When we reach a certain level of success, we often then pursue more of it in an undisciplined way. We become attached and get side tracked. We get off course attracted by the allure of the “next opportunity” or “next thing”.

What my cell phone experience opened my eyes to, of were phases 3 and 4 of the clarity paradox. Unenlightened about our phone’s ability to clutter our minds with increased options and opportunities, we often allow our attention to be diffused at best, or completely monopolized at worst.

It's no surprise to me that in a recent article on CNBC, the biggest complaint millennials had about their lives is: “I have too many choices and I can’t decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?”.

When faced with too many choices: 

  1. Quality of decision making goes down
  2. Satisfaction with choices goes down 
  3. Decision paralysis sets in and no choice is made at all 

Now home with a new phone, armed with a more enlightened understanding of its impact on my psyche, I’ve resolved to do things a bit differently in my personal and professional life, to engage in the “disciplined pursuit of less”:

  1. Remove clutter by narrowing focus:  If you don’t absolutely love something then eliminate it. Don’t settle for good opportunities, focus on great ones which sit at the intersection between: your talents, what the world needs more of and what you are passionate about.
  2. Ask what is essential and eliminate the rest: We naturally gravitate towards clutter and attachment, we hoard, we suffer from loss aversion, the sunk cost fallacy and the endowment effect ie. we value an item more once we own it and we make the things we are attached to a part of our identities. We prefer to hold onto people, places, things and investments rather than let them go. If we can instead ask “is this necessary?” we will quickly realize most things aren’t. Remove them. Want to try something new? Get rid of something old first.
  3. Practice self-awareness and equanimity: This is the most important factor in attaining and maintaining clarity. Make a habit of looking in the proverbial “mirror” and asking “who am I?” What is important to me right now? How do I feel about my current situation? We as humans suffer from attachment which refers to the unrelenting drive to succeed, to acquire, to compete, to control, and to the inability to let go. Without the things we attach to, our views of ourselves become unacceptable, as if the house, the car, the job title, the watch or the fancy friends make us worthy and enhances our self esteem and position in the world. On the other hand equanimity refers to the ability to accept what is without resistance. When you resist, not only do you suffer but you also perpetuate suffering. The reality is that when you resist, suffering persists. Resisting what arises internally causes concentration, clarity and equanimity to decrease and as they decrease, suffering increases. Lost the promotion? Couldn’t afford the new watch? Startup has collapsed? Practicing equanimity and non-attachment allows us to avoid suffering and maintain clarity. This isn’t to suggest a passive or indifferent attitude. It is instead to embrace “a gentle matter of factness” with your sensory experience. “Equanimity” means balance; and in practical terms means “don’t fight with yourself” accept people and situations for what they are not as you wish they were. 

Whether as an organization or as an individual the ability to establish and maintain clarity will have an enormous impact on whether outcomes will be positive or negative. Purposefully having the courage to address “the undisciplined pursuit of more” by practicing “the disciplined pursuit of less” will differentiate your outcomes from the crowd, whether you throw your cellphone to the wind or not.

Charts of the Month

The current expansion has just tied the 1990s' expansion for the longest in history, and then anything after that will be a record. Good news, but the recovery has also been the weakest.

Disciplined Pursuit

Monthly data from the Conference Board showed that the leading versus coincident indicator ratio was down slightly on the month.

Disciplined Pursuit

Household debt in the USA may be at record levels yet household debt as a percentage of personal income is at a 40 year low.

Disciplined Pursuit

Logos LP June 2019 Performance

June 2019 Return: 5.57%

2019 YTD (June) Return: 25.35%

Trailing Twelve Month Return: 3.25%

Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) since inception March 26, 2014: +15.31%

Thought of the Month

"An intense love of solitude, distaste for involvement in worldly affairs, persistence in knowing the Self and awareness of the goal of knowing-all this is called true knowledge.” -The Bhagavad Gita

Articles and Ideas of Interest

  • What you lose when you gain a spouse. What if marriage is not the social good that so many believe and want it to be? The Atlantic explores the notion that marriage is the best answer to the deep human desire for connection and belonging finding it to be incredibly seductive.
  • The advantage of being underemployed. The five-day, 40 hour workweek is incredibly outdated. The irony is that people can get some of their most important work done outside of work, when they’re free to think and ponder. The struggle is that we take time off maybe once a year, without realizing that time to think is a key element of many jobs, and one that a traditional work schedule doesn’t accommodate very well.
  • Why startups are more successful than ever at unbundling incumbents. These companies are essentially product design teams that are focused on iterating fast to find product-market fit. They are able to offer fundamentally better products and services than the incumbents because of the product-centric DNA of the management teams. Second, these companies rent all aspects of operational scale from partners and eliminate any capital expenditures or operational inertia from their execution plans.
  • Liquidity and a ‘Lie’: Funds confront $30 trillion wall of worry. Now, with warnings growing louder about the risks money managers have taken with hard-to-trade investments, Wall Street is starting to wonder: Just where will this end? That question is reverberating across the financial world after the head of the Bank of England warned that funds pushing into a host of risky investments -- in some cases, without investors fully understanding the dangers -- have been “built on a lie.’’ Some $30 trillion is tied up in difficult-to-trade investments, he noted earlier this year. The big worry is that the now-troubled European funds that embraced such investments, only to stumble when investors asked for their money back, are just the tip of the iceberg. Exposure to illiquid assets and poor-quality bonds has crept into funds as managers hunt for whatever returns they can find in today’s low-interest-rate world. The troubles in Europe are reminders of the Icarus-style demise that active managers can meet when they wander into tough-to-trade products, while promising investors the ability to cash out easily. Lets also note that private equity dealmaking has reached new heights. It has swelled to its highest level(paywall) since before the 2008 global recession, and there’s no sign of slowing: buyout firms have nearly $2.5 trillion in unspent funds primed for investment.
  • Random darts beat hedge fund stars - again. A stock-picker’s market? Not so much. Can you successfully pick stocks with a dart board? The writers at The Wall Street Journal thought so. To test their idea, the writers threw darts at a stock list in the newspaper. From those random hits they built a portfolio to stack up against highflying financial elites. Those elites meet at the Sohn Investment Conference, held each May in New York. The attendees are full-time active investors, people who spend 365 days and nights a year thinking hard about what investments to own and why. So how did the dart-throwing journalists do this year? “The results were brutal,” recounts Spencer Jakab of the Journal. The random writer picks beat the pros by 27 percentage points in the year through April 22. “Only 3 of 12 of the Sohn picks even outperformed the S&P 500. Choose your managers wisely.. 
  • Could the U.S. be heading to a future of zero interest rates forever? It’s the obvious way to avert national bankruptcy as the country keeps piling on debt. If it decides to let the debt grow, it will have to borrow more and more in order to cover its increasing interest, and both borrowing and interest costs will snowball. That could provoke what the CBO calls a fiscal crisis -- a private investor panic about the government’s ability to repay its debt, causing a drop in bond prices that render financial institutions insolvent and causing an economic crisis. The government thus has a good reason not to let debt spiral out of control. And the easiest way to keep that from happening is for the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates to zero and keep them there. Welcome to Japan!
  • To succeed in America it’s better to be born rich than smart. Children in the U.S. are told from an early age that hard work pays off, starting with their time at school. But according to a recent report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose, ” being born wealthy is a better indicator of adult success in the U.S. than academic performance. “To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the CEW and lead author of the report, tells CNBC Make It.  “People with talent often don’t succeed. What we found in this study is that people with talent that come from disadvantaged households don’t do as well as people with very little talent from advantaged households.” How much longer will the majority allow this sorry state of affairs to persist?
  • Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think. There is a message in this for those of us suffering from the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation. Say you are a hard-charging, type-A lawyer, executive, entrepreneur, or—hypothetically, of course—president of a think tank. From early adulthood to middle age, your foot is on the gas, professionally. Living by your wits—by your fluid intelligence—you seek the material rewards of success, you attain a lot of them, and you are deeply attached to them. But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.

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About the Author

Jacob Wolinsky
Jacob Wolinsky is the founder of ValueWalk.com, a popular value investing and hedge fund focused investment website. Prior to ValueWalk, Jacob was VP of Business Development at SumZero. Prior to SumZero, Jacob worked as an equity analyst first at a micro-cap focused private equity firm, followed by a stint at a smid cap focused research shop. Jacob lives with his wife and three kids in Passaic NJ. - Email: jacob(at)valuewalk.com - Twitter username: JacobWolinsky - Full Disclosure: I do not purchase any equities to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest and because at times I may receive grey areas of insider information. I have a few existing holdings from years ago, but I have sold off most of the equities and now only purchase mutual funds and some ETFs. I also own 2.5 grams of Gold