My latest quarterly ramblings to my Financial Professionals list are out: Financial Professionals Summer 2021
I thought this paper was excellent. Our language influences what we see and think and having the term “Veblen Entrepreneur” available is very useful. (For example, in cultures without words for certain colors, they can’t easily see that color. We have trouble thinking about concepts without appropriate terminology; this is where jargon is useful to experts.)
I think most people with business/economics backgrounds are familiar with Veblen goods. The term comes from Thorstein Veblen who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Veblen goods are valued for their conspicuous cost rather than for their utility (usefulness). Many luxury cars, watches, handbags, etc. are in this category. They are interesting in that the demand curve, which normally is downward sloping (the cheaper it is the more demand there is), may be upward sloping (the more expensive it is the more demand there is). Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” – it isn’t a new phenomenon!
The authors of the paper are focused on businesses seeking venture capital, but, further down the food chain, I think there are lots of folks who do this on a smaller scale. In my (misspent) youth, I was very active in networking activities through the Chamber of Commerce, BBB, was president of a BNI group, etc. As far as I can tell, these groups are primarily useful to their participants by feeling like work without actually being work. They are frequently people with few (or no) prospective customers talking to each other in the vain hope that one of them will perhaps stumble upon one eventually. Thus, most (not all) of the folks participating were low-end Veblen Entrepreneurs. I think virtually every MLM participant, most real estate agents, and many purchasers of inexpensive franchises are Veblen entrepreneurs, and I love having a good term for it.
I also think that there are many Veblen investors (and I am apparently the first to coin that term!) where the fun, excitement, or social cachet are far more important than the expected returns. Here are some examples of what I believe are Veblen investments:
- Penny stocks
- VC/PE/Hedge Fund investments (for individuals, not institutions)
- Crypto currencies
- SRI/ESG/impact investments
You may have seen articles about Veblen investors joining Robinhood recently… frequently for the LOLs rather than the risk-adjusted returns. (But sometimes, it’s tragic.)
Anyway, back to Veblen Entrepreneurs. I typically give two pieces of advice to people (such as clients) who are thinking of starting a business:
- Read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It
- Set a hard stop on how much you will sink into the venture
I want to elaborate on that second item. Many clients have too much money to start a business. I’m sure that sounds odd. What I mean is, to start a business you must be optimistic – you have to believe that even though most new businesses fail you will be the exception. So suppose a client has $1,000,000 portfolio and is unhappy in their job (or loses it). Rather than get another, similar, job, they decide to start a small business – let’s say a restaurant. The problem is that, because of their optimism, they can delude themselves that success is “right around the corner” until they have spent the whole $1,000,000. They need to in advance set a hard stop of some sort. If they only had $200,000 then running out of those funds would force them to close the restaurant and get a job again. With $1,000,000 there is less pressure to get profitable or to abandon the attempt until the whole $1,000,000 is gone. The appropriate metric will depend on the client and business, but it should be 1) specified in advance, 2) in writing, 3) specific, and 4) inviolable.
Recent research has come out that supports my concerns. Here’s the abstract:
We examine how wealth windfalls affect self-employment decisions using data on cash payments from claims on Texas shale drilling to people throughout the United States. Individuals who receive large wealth shocks (greater than $50,000) have 51% higher self-employment rates. The increase in self-employment rates is driven by individuals who lengthen existing self- employment spells, and not by individuals who leave regular employment for self-employment. Moreover, the effect of wealth reverts for individuals whose payments run out. Rather than alleviating a financial constraint, our evidence suggests that unrestricted cash windfalls affect self-employment decisions primarily through self-employment’s non-pecuniary benefits.
Elsewhere in the paper:
[W]e find that, once individuals stop receiving shale royalty payments, they tend to exit self-employment for regular employment, consistent with the idea that shale royalty payments were subsidizing their income in a way that allowed them to be self-employed. This evidence also supports the view that the wealth shocks were not being used to fund self-sustaining or otherwise productive projects…
It is an accepted economics principle that returns will flow to the scarce factor of production. In other words, if you have the coffee shop franchise in Grand Central Station the landlord will extract the excess rents, not the coffee shop. Similarly, capital is abundant but the ability to generate excess returns scarce. Thus, you would expect those capable of producing excess returns to charge fees bringing the net excess returns to zero. These two recent papers (on hedge funds and private equity) support that view – indeed, adjusted for risk and illiquidity, the excess returns (net) are probably negative!
Investing should be done with a clear and unflinching objective of adequate risk-adjusted returns to meet your financial goals – an investment is no place to be stylish!
There are three ways to beat the market:
- Know something no one else knows
- Process known information better that the collective wisdom of the market
- Exploit a structural or psychological anomaly
The first one is generally insider trading, but maybe on occasion you can learn something relevant unknown to the marketplace at large. (I had it happen once with a microcap company that I was involved with as a corporate customer.) The second one I think is pretty much impossible. On occasion someone may think something different from the market and might even be right, but I suspect that they would be wrong as often as right. In other words, it’s luck not skill and won’t lead to excess returns.
The third item is where we think there are opportunities. I have two standard examples of each:
- Structural anomalies
- Barely non-investment-grade bonds
- Low volatility stocks
- Behavioral anomalies
Let me talk about the structural ones briefly. Many investors are not allowed (by law or charter) to own non-investment-grade fixed income (i.e. junk bonds). Active managers need high returns to make up higher fees so they will own deeper junk to try to make those returns. Thus BB bonds are “under-owned” and may have a higher risk-adjusted return than other bonds. Similarly, many active managers have a benchmark such as the S&P 500 and people don’t really do a risk-adjusted return comparison, they do an unadjusted comparison. So the managers, needing alpha to at least make up the fees, will buy higher beta stocks. It’s not skill it’s just another way to get leverage. They (generally) are limited to being long-only and not using explicit leverage so they can’t really own low-beta stocks even if the risk-adjusted returns are higher.
As far as the behavioral anomalies, people like owning exciting growth stocks (aka “story stocks” or “lottery ticket stocks”) thus the expected returns on those investments are, on average, poor. (Just as with the lottery someone will likely be a winner, but on average people will lose.) Value stocks win because people really don’t like owning boring, stodgy, or distressed investments. Thus those investments have tended to outperform in the long run (again on average). Momentum has a few behavioral explanations. Investors may under-react to new developments, or assume too much short-term mean reversion (a term I dislike) in the short run. People also like to win and don’t like to lose, but they tend to frame their winning and losing irrationally. If an investment goes up, they sell quickly to “take the win” and if it goes down they hold on so they don’t have to admit (if even to themselves) that the investment didn’t work out. It just didn’t work out yet. Large numbers of investors doing those things will keep investments from rising or falling as much as they should initially which leads to momentum.
It’s important to know where you have an edge. Knowing something or understanding the implications of what you know better than the collective wisdom of all market participants is highly unlikely to be one despite the amount of effort spent on those activities. (Indeed, the amount of collective effort spent on those activities by market participants is precisely why an individual is unlikely to succeed by doing them!)
My latest quarterly ramblings to my Financial Professionals list are out: Financial Professionals Spring 2021
We should be optimists because, in general, economies grow and life gets better (see Triumph of the Optimists). But we should worry about risks in the short run. The concept of “permanent impairment of capital” is relevant here. While you should expect success, you should avoid risks that, if they occurred, you could not recover from (hence the “permanent”). So, it’s okay to be predominantly exposed to stocks, but not exclusively, and only in a diversified manner. Also, buy appropriate amounts of life insurance, disability insurance, umbrella insurance, etc. Have an adequate emergency fund. Save more than might seem to be strictly necessary.
Another key phrase in financial planning is, “but what if it doesn’t” and variations.
Some examples you may have heard or said yourself:
- Stocks have earned 10% a year historically. (But what if they don’t?)
- I plan to work until 70. (But what if you can’t?)
- My job is safe. (But what if it really isn’t?)
Bottom line: “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.” – Dennis Waitley