On this episode of the Authors Corner, Ethan Yang sits down with former hedge fund manager and founder of Signals Matter, Matt Piepenburg, to discuss his book Rigged to Fail. Matt brings his years of experience in the financial industry and his academic scholarship to offer a nuanced discussion on both the stock market from an investor’s perspective and the Federal Reserve from a policy standpoint. His background includes managing billions of dollars for a variety of clients from individual investors to banks like Morgan Stanley. He holds degrees from Brown, Harvard, and a J.D. from the University of Michigan.
Piepenburg’s strategy as an investor is highly defensive and skeptical of short-term trends in favor of more reliable assets. His views on monetary policy are as pedigree as any guest worthy of appearing on this show, drawing from great economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, and Joseph Schumpeter.
This episode was one of the earliest on the podcast series so forgive us for the lack of video or Ethan’s awkwardness.
To start off, Matt discusses the title of his book, which immediately suggests that the stock market is fundamentally unhealthy due to heavy levels of intervention from the central government. He explains that although we don’t know exactly how the market will move, sound economics tells us that what’s going on isn’t good. There are natural economic forces of supply and demand and business cycles that are important for the normal functioning of the stock market. The Federal Reserve, through its constant involvement in the market, distorts these natural forces. Policies such as quantitative easing, bailouts, and low interest rates are often used for short-term political gain while potentially setting the economy up to fail.
From an investor’s standpoint, that means that many companies are likely overvalued or propped up by government support and can’t stand on their own. The market itself, which has recently been supported by constant money injections and low interest rates, may be highly overvalued. However, at the same time, the government can’t afford to let the market correct at this point. They would rather punt responsibility for that down the line to future generations. At the same time, the potential crash may grow in size as the bubble is inflated until it can no longer be sustained. A good analogy would be a frat party where everyone just keeps drinking to keep the party going and to avoid having a hangover. Eventually, that party has to end, and the longer it goes, the worse the hangover. The responsible thing to do would have been to simply not drink so much to begin with or to end the party earlier in exchange for a more manageable hangover.
From a policy perspective, the Federal Reserve is causing dangerous distortions in the market that nobody really understands the full consequences of. Politicians seeking to gain short-term popularity cheer on the use of money injections and low interest rates, even though in the long term these are not sustainable or safe. The longer they keep it going, the worse the potential crash could be. It’s a vicious cycle that will require bravery and honesty to confront. Although such a trend has been ongoing since the 2008 Recession, with quantitative easing following almost in lockstep with GDP growth, it has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 stimulus spending. Eventually, this debt-fueled party has to come to an end.
This perilous circumstance is what inspired Matt’s title Rigged to Fail because he justifiably sees tremendous danger in such reckless behavior. It’s possible that the crash could be soon, or it could be far into the future. However, nobody can deny that such behavior can’t persist in the long term without consequences. In response, he gives some basic investing advice. Be wary of trendy assets, especially those that are benefitting from short-term euphoria such as those that did unusually well because of Covid-19. Keep a lookout for signals such as 10-year Treasury Bond yield curves which can provide insight on whether or not the market is turning for the worse. Diversify into different sorts of assets, whether that be different industries or ETFs and certainly look into precious metals which could not only hold their value but serve as a hedge when fiat currencies go south.
The ultimate takeaway is to be skeptical of the current status quo of highly experimental and adventurous monetary policy. Wall Street often serves as a cheerleader for such policies rather than a critic, so you should always be skeptical. Finally, it is always better to be safe rather than sorry, especially now with the market in such uncertain territory.