“The German president just resigned. We are selling everything. This is it.”
It is May 31, 2010, and Horst Köhler, the president of Germany, has resigned.
I saw the news flash across my inbox in one of the hundreds of news items that I skimmed every morning, but I ignored it. I had triaged it, along with most articles that day, for the sake of sanity; I thought it was irrelevant.
Several hours later, I stare at the Polycom in the middle of the boardroom at Stratfor, the Austin, Texas–based geopolitical analysis firm that gave me my first job. My decision to ignore this one news item is about to cost me that first job. The knot in my stomach has knots.
The saleswoman whose client – a large Connecticut-based hedge fund – is on the line bores a hole in the side of my head with her gaze. I almost hear her thinking, Oh my God … this foreign kid is out of his depth.
I have no idea why the German president resigned or why it is market-relevant to a hedge fund (I have only a vague idea of what a hedge fund is in the first place). I have no idea who the German president even is!
* * * * *
By May 2010, the Euro Area sovereign debt crisis was already in full swing. The 2008 Great Recession had come and gone without the collapse of Western civilization, but things were still touch-and-go. People were on the lookout for the next shoe to drop. In October, 2009, incoming Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou revealed that the previous government had massively underreported the budget deficit. Instead of 6.7%, the figure was 12.7% (later revised to 15.4%!). The shoe dropped. By December 2009, the greatest economic crisis in the developed world since the Great Depression was afoot.
Nobody at my firm really cared. It was not the fault of the folks running the place; the firm was simply not designed to care about financial markets. For most of the past three decades, the investment and geopolitical communities rarely communicated, in part because they struggled to understand each other. They had become over-professionalized, erecting barriers to entry largely for job security, like medieval guilds.
When the Euro Area crisis hit, my marching orders at the firm were not to spend too much energy on it. I was told to focus on US ballistic missile defense in Europe and some other geopolitical matters that nobody outside the Beltway cared about. We had no edge in covering capital markets – few of the firm's analysts understood their own credit card statements. But as the firm's Europe analyst, it was impossible to ignore the evolving imbroglio. Not only did it flood my inbox with scary headlines and client emails, but I also sensed that this was the career opportunity of a lifetime.
By early 2010, my own career had stalled before it had even really begun. I was on leave from a PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin. Political science coursework and research ware easy, but not interesting. I would have coasted for the rest of my life teaching Poli Sci 101, but the oversupplied labor market in social science PhDs meant that I had to take whatever job was available, even if it deposited me and my family in some academic colony in the middle of nowhere.
I took the job at Stratfor because it was based in Austin. I got lucky. The place was fast-paced, young, and brutal. It taught me not to waffle, to digest information quickly, and to create knowledge shortcuts. But I was still missing the sense that I was making a difference in anybody's life.
My feeling of inadequacy was, in large part, a product of my job description. At the start of the decade, Europe had not produced geopolitical risks for a quarter of a century. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the world's largest trading bloc were all epic events, but they were all tailwinds in the sails of the global economy. There was a sense that history had ended in Europe and that Jean-Claude Juncker was its Last Man.
At the same time, I was expressly hired to be the firm's Europe analyst. Given Stratfor's roots in “Great Power geopolitics,” my position was the equivalent of being the admiral of the Swiss Navy. Most of the all-hands meetings were about Tomahawks, car bombs, and jihad. I usually got to fight with the Africa analyst for the scraps left over by the Middle East, counterterrorism, and East Asia analysts.
“But … the Lisbon Treaty …” I could feel the sneers before I finished my sentences – sneers from the “real analysts” who subsidized my EU-watching.
Thankfully for my career – and sadly for 400 million European citizens – the Euro Area crisis hit with a vengeance. Even though I couldn't navigate my credit card statement either, I knew that this was my moment to add value.
That said, all this was not clear on the morning of May 31, 2010. I was ushered into the conference room by the salesperson who handled the firm's financial relationships. I tangentially knew what these clients did for a living. Most were passive in their use of the firm's services. They read the analyses we posted online. They gave little feedback. Most of the time I didn't know if anyone cared what I was writing. But over the course of the next 12 months, I would have the most professionally intense period of my life. I realized a lot of people who definitely understood how interest rates worked were reading my research.
* * * * *
“The German president just resigned. We are selling everything. This is it.”
I look at the Polycom. I have a choice to make. Do I waffle my way out of the conversation, or do I bite the bullet?
Something about the accent on the other end of the line instills fear. I think it is a Long Island accent. I cannot tell precisely, as I'm a Serb living my fourth year in the US. Before arriving, all I really understood about America came from movies and The Simpsons. My gut tells me not to waffle “Long Island”; he will know. So, I take a deep breath and ‘fess up.
“Guys, I don't know who the German president is.”
Silence. Uncomfortably long. I glance at my colleague; she is revising her résumé in real time. I imagine my boss decapitating me on the same boardroom table at the next all-hands meeting.
“What do you mean? Aren't you the Europe guy at this shop?!”
Ok, here we go. Long Island is angry. The man pays for a service and is not getting it. I respect that. But the Serb in me now starts to come out. I get irrationally confident for no good reason.
“No … sorry, I apologize. You misunderstood me … yes, I am the Europe guy. And if I don't know who the German president is …” Silence on the other line … time to go on the offensive.
“… Then it is not a significant piece of news. The president of Germany is the equivalent of Queen Elizabeth; he cuts ribbons, kisses babies, and shakes hands at the airport. I don't know why he resigned, but this event has zero relevance.”1
* * * * *
This was a risky move. The resignation could have been related to the Euro Area crisis.
The conventional view at the time was that Germany would not bail out the EU member states. Germans were obsessed with fiscal austerity, risks of inflation, and that “the Swabian housewife saved every pfennig.” Maybe the president was a “hard-money” zealot who objected to bailing out profligate Euro Area peers like Greece. Maybe he thought that the crisis was an opportunity to “liquidate everything” – in the words of former US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who almost single-handedly turned a severe recession into the Great Depression.
And yet … I had a reason for dismissing this news. I had a framework, and it had taught me to push hard against the Eurosceptic narrative for months. This view on Europe would become a successful investment theme, and the proto framework that I had developed would become my profession and passion over the ensuing decade.
This framework – which focuses on the material constraints policymakers face – is what this book is about.
The framework boils down to this: Niccolò Machiavelli was wrong. No amount of Virtù will help the Prince overcome Fortuna. So don't study the Prince. Study his constraints.
* * * * *
Back in 2010, I take a gamble because “Long Island” pushed my buttons. It is an educated gamble. Long Island's singular focus on relevance – the “so what?” – forces me to make a call. Not to waffle, not to talk about “on the one hand” and “on the other hand,” not to split hairs about “hard-to-estimate probabilities,” but to give him an investment-relevant view in three sentences. The resignation of the German president does not matter. Go back to making money.
“Oh … got it. Thank you. We'll talk later.”
I straighten up and turn to my colleague, chest flexed, a “What's up?” look on my face while maintaining an air of “I had this the entire time.” (I did not.)
In a slow, staccato voice, she says, “These guys don't know what they are doing.”
Boom. There it is. My Jerry Maguire moment. If we were in a cartoon, a lightbulb would have pulsated above my head and burst. I reply:
“They're not stupid. That guy could literally … buy me … to tutor his kids for the rest of my life. These guys are not stupid. They are just … busy.”
* * * * *
And human. And over-professionalized. To become an investment professional in 2010, one had to be confident in a lot of subjects, but a basic grounding in political science was not among them. This failing is not because investors suddenly became ignorant of global affairs and history but because those skill sets had not mattered for most investors since at least 1985.2
That moment led to a career-altering decision for me. I decided that I wanted to devise a framework for geopolitical forecasting rooted in the real world. Not based on conversations with “wise men in smoke-filled rooms” or on a narrow, inflexible view that geography and history predetermine outcomes, but on actual research and fundamentals. A framework that was not only easy to use but that was replicable by others who sought insights into the future.
There were two reasons I felt confident to declare that the resignation of the German president was irrelevant, both rooted in material constraints. First, the president was constrained by Germany's constitutional irrelevance. Second, I already had a framework for what German policymakers and voters would be forced to accept in the Euro Area crisis. Even if I had been wrong about this particular news item, I had a structural, macro view of what would happen next in the Euro Area crisis, one that was unlikely to unravel due to a single resignation. As I explain in Chapters 4 and 5, the Euro Area crisis illustrates how material constraints impact not only policymakers but also voters. European integration is not only going to continue, it will accelerate over the next decade due to these epochal constraints.
After downloading the constraint-based framework, the reader will be able to stop relying on the news flow for analysis. Much as an anchor keeps a ship from being blown out to sea, constraints anchor the smart investor to a subjective probability grounded in material reality.
I take one chapter to describe this framework. The punchline: investors (and anyone interested in forecasting politics) should focus on material constraints, not policymaker preferences.
Preferences are optional and subject to constraints, whereas constraints are neither optional nor subject to preferences.
The era of geopolitical ignorance is over. The days when investors and corporate decision-makers could be successful without much understanding of politics will be a footnote in the annals of history. In the first chapter, I go over these paradigm shifts rather quickly because, at the time of this writing, the idea that “we're not in Kansas anymore” is obvious.
At the same time, not everyone needs to rush to enroll in political science courses. The constraint framework has worked well for me by providing the tools sufficient to make sense of politics. As such, I hope to offer professionals who must take politics seriously a shortcut – not a foolproof, scientific method – to forecasting geopolitics.
The focus of the rest of the book is on the framework itself. While I initially built the constraint framework to help investors make sense of geopolitics – and make money in the process – the C-suite can also use it to make long-term investment decisions. Journalists can use it to find the right buttons to push in an interview, and voters to become more politically informed.3
Chapter 2 describes the inspiration for the constraint-based framework. It is a mix of political science, political theory, intelligence analysis, and social psychology – as well as voodoo and trial and error.
Why read beyond the first part that describes the framework? It is one thing to hear the framework described; it is another to see it in action. It would be like telling a budding skier that skiing comes down to balance and reading the terrain. Sounds awesome. Now plunge yourself down a double black slope. I therefore take the framework for a spin, using recent geopolitical and political events as the racetrack. The book concludes by operationalizing the framework in a process that gives us the title: Geopolitical Alpha. Alpha, in the context of this book, refers to a return on an investment against a benchmark, in finance-speak, rather than the leader of a pack or someone spending too much time in a gym.
There are three things this book does not aim to do.
First, it cannot teach you about the world. To wield the constraint-based framework competently, you must know a lot. For instance, that the German president = Queen Elizabeth. If you don't know, speak to experts. That potential absence of a knowledge base is why I include a chapter on how to use expert judgment.
Second, this book will not tell you the future. This is a methods book. I offer up my framework because many investment professionals have found it useful. But I am not a prophet, nor will focusing on constraints make anyone else a prophet. This book is simply my attempt to share what has worked for me. There are other frameworks out there that work for other investment strategists.
Third, this book will not tell you what I think should happen.
I don't care. Not in this book, not in my field. I am a professional nihilist. And if you analyze politics for a living – especially if you have a fiduciary duty to your investors – you should be the same! To competently use my framework, meditate on your biases and bathe yourself in indifference. If you are not up to it, you should not be in the forecasting business, let alone finance.