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Passive Investing and the Fragility of the Medium Dr Peter Warburton looks at Christopher Cole's essay 'What is water in the markets?'

The Economist

Christopher Cole of Artemis Capital Management in Texas, published a research article in July entitled, What is water in the markets?, which has resonated powerfully with the investment community and performed a valuable service in identifying the inherent dangers of passive investing. Cole asserts that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and discuss. His title came from an apocryphal tale, summarised in Figure 1. His essay foretells a coming volatility storm in which confidence in the entire medium of modern credit creation and the formation of asset prices, from which all measures of financial wealth are derived, is shaken.

Figure 1. 

The essay spans liquidity, volatility, and passive investing, challenging conventional wisdom at multiple points along the way. He posits a shift in the dominant view from believing that value is independent of the medium and intrinsic to the asset, to believing that the medium (liquidity) is the sole determinant of value, as defined by continuous bid and ask prices. If an asset is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and value is ‘created’ by the medium of money, then there is no need to pay someone to find value through active investment management.

Figure 2. Data source: Thomson Reuters Datastream.

Hence the triumph of passive investing. Value investing has now had the longest period of underperformance in history when compared to buying whatever is ‘hot’, illustrated for the U.S. in Figure 2. The U.S. has reached a tipping point, according to Bernstein Research, when more than half of the assets under management will be passively managed. JP Morgan suggests that only 10% of trading volume in stocks comes from discretionary trading. Cole maintains that passive investing is just a crowded liquidity momentum trade and its outperformance compared to active managers may become self-fulfilling and ultimately de-stabilising in the long-run. When passive investing becomes dominant, excess returns diminish and volatility tends to rise. 

Cole’s model simulation work finds that the excess returns available to active fund managers is highest when 42% of the market is passive, but as the concentration exceeds 60%, the model (Figure 3, left frame) becomes increasingly unstable and subject to wild trends, extreme volatility and negative alpha. He reckons that in real life the upper threshold would be lower than 60%. Cole contends that the volatility (VIX) spike in February was not a volatility event, but a liquidity event. Traders were not buying options because they thought that volatility would increase, they were buying options because they were facing insolvency. 

The Economist

About Peter Warburton

Peter Warburton

Dr Peter Warburton is director of Economic Perspectives Ltd, an international consultancy, and managing director of Halkin Services Ltd. He was economist to Ruffer LLP, an investment management company, for 15 years and spent a similar length of time in the City as economic advisor and UK economist for the investment bank Robert Fleming and at Lehman Brothers. Previously, he was an economic researcher, forecaster and lecturer at the London Business School and what is now the Cass Business School. He published Debt and Delusion in 1999. He has been a member of the IEA’s Shadow Monetary Policy Committee since its inception in 1997. He is a contributor to the Practical History of Financial Markets course run by Didasko, an education company, at Edinburgh University, and teaches occasionally at Cardiff Business School.

Articles by Peter Warburton

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