Warhol, Charlie Brown, and the Balkanization of Politics and the Economy

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I am a deeply superficial person. – Andy Warhol

This past Thursday I took two of my daughters to see the great Andy Warhol retrospective currently on display at the Portland Art Museum. Most people are familiar with his work, the most famous of which consists of highly colorized sequences of reworked photos of Mao, Marilyn Monroe, and the Campbell’s Soup can series. We got lucky with our timing, as Jordan Schnitzer, the scion of a local real estate family who also happens to own all the works on display in the show (he owns the largest collection of works on paper in the country), was there to give a talk about the collection. I’ve heard Jordan speak on a number of occasions, and he always has some interesting insights into the lives and moitvations of the artists he collects, so I was excited for my girls to get a chance to hear him explain the backstory of the most famous of Warhol’s works (included in the show are 10 Maos, 10 Monroes, and a few dozen Campbell’s soup prints). Instead, I got a lesson in American commerce from the 1950s and 1960s that explains a lot of what we are seeing in today’s economy and global politics, but in reverse. Stick with me on this.

Briefly, Warhol’s works, especially the Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup can pieces, were a commentary of the commoditization of culture in America that occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Warhol started his career working in advertising as an illustrator. Before the widespread advent of television advertising, if you wanted to market a product across the whole of the United States, you had to place ads in about 150 local newspapers. There was no national culture in the sense we know it today. There were a series of local cultures, with local products, local tastes, local production, etc. With the rollout of national television networks during the 1950s, companies could now advertise nationwide. Culture became commoditized, via the Madison Avenue Mad Men. Now to reach everyone, you just had to sponsor a popular show on one of the big three networks and off you went. Hence, the growth in national brands like Coca-Cola, which could create a brand image that was consistent nationwide. It was this commoditization of culture that Warhol was critiquing with his art.

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke. Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. – Andy Warhol

In a bit of a weird coincidence, later that same evening we decided to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. I hadn’t seen it in awhile, but was immediately struck by its focus on the same themes that Warhol was skewering: the over-commercialization of American culture. (Ironically, the production was commissioned and sponsored by…Coca-Cola). Warhol’s first exhibition of the Campell’s soup cans was in 1962. The Charlie Brown Christmas special came out in 1965. This timing coincided exactly with the mass-adoption of television and the building of the interstate highway system. In 1946, only 0.5% of U.S. households had a television, in 1954 this was 55%, and in 1962, it reached 90%. For the first time, everyone in the country could see the same shows, be sold to by the same companies, and get the same products shipped to their stores. The significance of this for our culture and the nature of business for the next 50 years cannot be overstated – it literally reshaped the way companies were constructed, how products were produced, and the winners and losers in the battle for the consumer. And I think that era is over.

Today, we are experiencing the dismantling of a national culture. It is occurring not only because we have hundreds of TV channels instead of three, but because we can all choose which news media fits our worldview and only listen to the news we want to hear. Advertisers have a harder and harder time reaching everyone, which is why print advertising is dying and the only television advertising that has retained pricing power is for the Super Bowl, which may be the last truly national experience we share. While the recent presidential election made the echo chamber problem more visible to more people, it has been occurring for years, as power to influence tastes and desires has shifted away from Madison Avenue to Youtube influencers and organic, authentic marketing campaigns aimed at more subtle associative feelings of good, or bad, will. Culture is splintering in hundreds of mini-cultures, each insulated from the others. And it’s happening all over the world. The world is becoming more insular, more closed-off from other cultures, and more intolerant. The Silicon Valley version of the future had the internet at the nexus of a global culture in which everyone would finally love their neighbors, because they finally got to know them. (This was a lot of the thinking behind the European Union as well). But a funny thing happened along the way – the more people got to know their neighbors, the more intolerant of them they became. Familiarity bred contempt, not compassion. The vision of Twitter as a distributed information network has devolved into a sort of hellish hate-transmission vehicle for the radically intolerant on both the far-left and far-right, with the middle left wondering what the hell is going on and why are so many people apparently so angry all the time.

Now and then, someone would accuse me of being evil – of letting people destroy themselves while I watched, just so I could film them and tape-record them. But I didn’t think of myself as evil – just realistic. Andy Warhol

The increasing Balkanization of politics in western democracies is manifesting itself in incredibly intolerant micro-cultures on both ends of the political spectrum. The victimhood culture that relies on extreme reactions to perceived microaggressions only serves to reinforce this phenomenon and further isolate its proponents from mainstream society, while the rise of the “alt-right” for lack of a better term is a mirror-image manifestation of a similar victimhood culture that expouses violence instead of whining as a solution. Neither is useful for resolving societies problems, and both will continue to eat away at the foundations of western civil societies as the ability to only hear what you want to hear and only read what you want to read becomes increasingly prevalent. Facebook and Twitter really have ushered in an information revolution, but not the one they were expecting. The Balkanization of thought has turned out to be a very nasty thing to unleash.

I think we’re going to see this same Balkanization in the upcoming European elections. Brexit wasn’t an outlier, it was a warning shot. The danger is that Europe has a history of interstate warfare, and a rise of intolerance could quickly spiral into a shooting war if the migrant crisis and the rise of Islamic terrorism isn’t met with more action than words in the future. The risk is low, as Europe is steadfastly against action of any kind apparently, but a frustrated populace combined with a resurgent right could combine to create a push for military solutions to the problems that Brussels has created. Is this likely? I don’t know. But it’s possible. Especially when the clueless bureaucrats running the ECB and EU are more upset about Italy bailing out its banks than about the complete inability of the German intelligence service to monitor a terrorist suspect because they didn’t have the resources. Where are their priorities? Apparently not on public safety, which throughout history has been an extremely costly mistake to make by those in power. I literally read back to back articles in the FT last week that demonstrate the blindness of those in power to what is happening in the world. In the first, a German functionary at the Bundesbank was “aghast” and “appalled” that the Italians were considering breaking the EU imposed limit on debt issuance to preemptively backstop a bank in which tens of thousands of depositors stand to lose their savings if it fails. In the second, Merkel said she was going to “seriously look at” the shortcomings in intelligence that allowed Amri to go unmonitored after he was known to German intelligence to be a terrorism risk because of a lack of resources. Think about those two statements for a bit and then ponder the Warhol quote above. Sometimes life does imitate art.

I always like to see if the art across the street is better than mine. Andy Warhol

What does this Balkanization of thought and culture have to do with investing? Everything. The same forces that are making splintering our national culture are making it increasingly harder for big brands to create a connection with their customers. You can see this in any number of industries, where the concentration of market share is declining. Look at microbrews taking significant market share from Budweiser (BUD), or the multitude of specialty waters and teas taking share from Coke (KO), or the locally sourced hip restaurants stealing share from McDonalds (MCD) and Applebees (DIN). Today’s buyers want authenticity, and they think they can find it in local, small-batch products. I think this fracturing of markets is just starting, and it’s going to make sales gains for the large brands difficult. This is a big versus small battle, and while no one small producer will make an impact on a Budweiser or McDonalds, collectively, I think they are going to be quite meaningful. Just like one red ant is a nuisance, but a swarm can be deadly, I think this continual pecking away at the big brands is going to be an inexorable headwind for years to come. I think a wave of disaggregation is coming. It will be like the creation of General Motors (GM) 100 years ago, but in reverse, as smaller becomes better. This will reshape the investing landscape, and management teams that engage in insular thinking will destroy value. I’ve seen it happen over and over, where a management team is so emotionally and financially invested in the status quo that they can’t see the secular decline that is eviscerating their industry. Sometimes making the best buggy whips isn’t enough. A secular decline is incredibly hard to fight. I met with the CEO of Peabody Energy (BTU) a few years ago. He was a nice guy. But he was too “inside” the industry to see that coal was done no matter what he did. I kept asking about solar, wind, and natural gas all getting cheaper every year, and how he could fight that, and he said he’d make it up by exporting to China, which was growing demand rapidly. I replied that eventually the shipping costs would kill the cost advantage, they’d dig their own or find cheaper alternatives, and then what? He just couldn’t see it. Peabody filed for Chapter 11 in April of 2016.

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. Andy Warhol

At this point you’re probably wondering if I’m going to do the usual New Year predictions thing where a pundit makes a guess where the stock market will be in twelve months. Well, sorry, I don’t do that, because I don’t know. Stocks are fully-valued, but shorting on valuation is notoriously difficult to time right. Bonds are the clearer play, with high-yield spreads quite tight to a treasury yield that is still quite low by historical standards. Yes, U.S. treasuries have fallen sharply since the summer, but with global rates still near 500 year lows, do you think a 10% drop is all that we’re going to get? Yeah, me neither. If we ever get a recession again, high-yield will crater, but right now, it’s a painful short. I’m sticking with it. How about instead of looking at stock market pundits’ guesses in order to place a big macro bet, we instead make many smaller ones on companies we know well? That’s what I’m doing. If you want some specific stock ideas, my StockPicker newsletter is coming out this week and its free to try for awhile. Just reply to this email and I will send it to you when it’s ready. The themes I think will move markets in the years ahead are being driven by the increasingly fractured nature of society, and therefore small will beat big, authentic will beat artificial, and craftsmanship will beat mass production. As people become more and more afraid of each other, I think a search for safety and comfort is taking hold, with a nesting instinct manifesting itself in more cooking at home, less eating out, more Netflix and HBO binging, and a focus on safety and security. The problem, besides the obviously negative implications for society as a whole, is that most of the beneficiaries of this trend are private and the losers are public. Good for a long-short portfolio, but bad for the overall market. Invest accordingly.

My positions haven’t changed much since the last letter. Right now I’m market neutral, with small bets via options on a SPX decline. I am still short international sovereign debt, along with small shorts on the Italian and Chinese stock markets. I’m leaning long in some tech companies, consumer discretionary stocks, and defense in the U.S., with a number of shorts in other sectors offsetting that.
This week’s Trading Rules:

  • Disruptive technologies often have unforeseen consequences, many of which are bad for the incumbents in both politics and markets.
  • Sometimes the obvious answer is staring us in the face. Being deeply superficial can be profitable.

SPY Trading Levels:

In our last letter we said resistance was about 229. The market stopped at 228.34 before retreating to 225.66 on Friday. That has created some overhead just above here. This week’s levels:

Resistance: With the pullback there is now a lot between 226 and 228. Then its moved up to 229.50. Not a lot above that.

Support: 219/220, then a lot at 214/216. After that it’s 212.50, then a little at 210.
Positions: Net neutral stocks (both long and short stocks). Short XLU, SPY, and BWX. Long options on SPY, KRE, XLF, HYG.

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