The Options Markets and Challenging the Traditional 60-40 Portfolio Model with Greg Babij

26th May, 2021

Episode 09: Show Notes.

On today’s episode of Pitchboard we speak with Greg Babij of Bunkport Capital, a long-short equity hedge fund manager with over 25 years of experience under his belt. We kick off the conversation with a conversation about Greg’s career history and introduction to Wall Street in 1995. Next, he talks about the ways in which computers and algorithms have changed and influenced the market. We touch on the influence of GameStop and other forms of meme stock and unpack how to identify stabilizing and destabilizing environments. Next, we talk about time decay and how this affects the options buying environment. Greg explains to us that it is counter-intuitive for humans to succeed at trading and the mindset shift required to become successful in this space and runs us through the impact of the pandemic on the market. He finishes our chat with a word of caution around leverage and the risks involved in permanent capital. Tune in too today’s episode for a whole lot of wisdom around the options market.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The details of Greg’s career history and introduction to Wall Street in 1995.
  • The replacement of large dealers and market makers with computers and algorithms.
  • The changes that have occurred in the options market since the mid-1990s.
  • How GameStop and other forms of meme stock have influenced the options market.
  • Stabilizing and destabilizing environments.
  • Where Greg finds the data he needs to identify the current environment.
  • What the two-fold job of a portfolio manager involves.
  • Why investors can’t go with a traditional 60% equities, 40% bonds model today.
  • How the time decay works when you are exclusively buying options.
  • How the market has moved from ‘buy low to sell high’ to ‘buy high to buy higher’
  • The ways in which humans are designed to be bad traders due to their survival instinct.
  • How new services for retail investors have made charting packages much easier to find.
  • Why the pandemic sparked interest in investment and how that is trailing off.
  • The difference in risk between investing in options versus using borrowed money.
  • A word of caution about leverage and permanent capital being called away.

[INTRODUCTION]

[0:00:18.5] JM: Hi, I’m Jenny Merchant, Co-founder of PitchBoard and welcome to The Pitch Podcast. We’re here to have thoughtful discussions with forward thinking managers who are taking unique approaches to professionally investing capital. Through these conversations, we hope to introduce you to new ideas and strategies that will help you better manage your own portfolios.

[DISCLAIMER]

Before we begin, we want to remind our listeners that everything in this podcast is for educational purposes only. Nothing here is tax, legal or investment advice. We don’t endorse any products, services or opinions made by our speakers. Some statements in this podcast may contain forward looking projections. These projections do not guarantee future performance and any past performance does not guarantee future results. Finally, nothing in this podcast is an offer to buy or sell securities. Speak to your own advisor before making any financial decision.

[INTERVIEW]

[0:01:05.1] AH: Hi, this is Andrew from PitchBoard. I had a great chat with Greg Babij of Bunkport Capital, a long-short equity hedge fund. Greg explained how markets have changed over the last 25 years, the role that options can play in exacerbating volatility, why the 60/40 model doesn’t work anymore. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation.

Hi, this is Andrew from PitchBoard. Today, I have the pleasure to speak with Greg Babij, CEO of Bunkport Capital, a long-short equity hedge fund focused on capturing momentum while protecting downside risk. Greg, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show.

[0:01:37.0] GB: Thanks Andrew, thanks for hosting us.

[0:01:40.2] AH: You’ve been in the capital markets for 25 years, do you want to give our listeners a sense of your career path?

[0:01:45.9] GB: Sure, happy to. I was educated as an engineer, civil engineer, never worked in engineering, went right to Wall Street in 1995 because at that point they were hiring a lot of engineers, spent a bunch of years doing investment banking and trading at a place called Bankers Trust, which became Deutsche Bank. Covered hedge funds there for a while, selling ideas to hedge funds and writing research and then I worked at a large hedge fund located in Florida for about a decade and then after that, I launched one fund with some partners then I launched one other fund with my brother a few years back.

[0:02:25.4] AH: How have the equity markets changed over your 25 years as an investment professional?

[0:02:32.3] GB: I’ve seen two notable changes and the first one is, the replacement of large dealers, market makers with computers or algorithms and then the second large change has been the options markets. When I started back in the mid-90s, there were these large bulge bracket dealers as I recalled, The Goldman Sachs’, The Morgan Stanley’s the Merrill Lynches and their job was to make prices for equities and equity options and they could warehouse risk. If a large trade came in, they could swallow it down and work their way out of it over time.

That has changed a lot today, according to JP Morgan, 80% of the prices that are made for equities and equity options are all done by computers or algorithms. That’s fine, actually, you might say that’s more efficient with the exception of these algorithms are designed to step away when markets get dangerous or the volatility increases and the Vic’s goes up.

What happens is, as liquidity is needed and markets get more volatile and portfolio managers want to reduce positions, there’s less availability for them to actually reduce their positions. What that does is it means that market declines can go a lot further and get there a lot faster because everybody’s trying to sell on a time where there is no one to take the other side of that trade or to warehouse that risk.

[0:03:56.1] AH: In the past, when the large dealers did warehouse at risk, were they hedging the positions they were taking on or was it sort of like a liability desk where they were really taking the other side of the trade and –

[0:04:08.8] GB: Sure, it’s a great question and the answer, it was a bit of both. They were certainly hedging when they took on positions but it was a position they really liked, they actually could hold it or maybe they would hedge it in a way where they would sell a different stock against it, they didn’t have quite the tight restrictions that came in with Dodd-Frank. Once Dodd-Frank came in, their ability to manage those positions was decreased significantly.

[0:04:35.3] AH: Right, because I guess Dodd-Frank limited what proprietary trading desks could do, right?

[0:04:41.2] GB: Sure. Large trading desks probably had a bit of a – at least when I was sitting on them, a bit of a market-making component and a bit of a proprietary component as well. The whole goal was to facilitate trades to get done with large clients and sometimes taking the opposite side of the trade, you’d be willing to do for a little bit.

[0:04:59.4] AH: Going back to the options markets, there was a lot of hype, especially early this year and in January and February about investors and individual investors as well, not just institutional. Buying co-options in GameStop and some of the other meme stock. What can you tell us about that?

[0:05:18.5] GB: Yeah, it’s a really interesting point that you bring up. The options markets have grown in size, much bigger impacts, particularly over the last few years and auctions have always been very popular and relevant on the indices like the SMP 500 or maybe NASDAQ 100, but in the past – let’s call it six to nine months, auctions on single name stocks like GameStop, like you mentioned are also on the arc funds, ETFs, those have exploded in popularity.

Just stepping back, let’s just talk about some options mechanics for a second and don’t get too complicated but it’s important to help understand what happened. When a dealer makes a market in an option, they’re no longer in the business, they were never in business but they’re certainly now, not in the business of taking the opposite side of the trade.

They don’t want to make a down market direction. What they want to do is they will put on a hedge or an opposite direction trade to the risk that the option has. This hedge and the adjustment of this hedge that dealers do is one of the largest flows in the markets all day every day. That’s why you have to at least be aware of that.

There are a lot of podcast and a lot of write-ups going on around that talk about options delta and gamma. Sounds very complicated but it’s actually pretty easy. Delta is a measurement of the option price changes relative to the underlying price change or another way to think about it is it just tells the market maker, “Here’s the size of the hedge you need to do versus the option you just sold someone on GameStop.”

Gamma is the change in the delta or the change in the size of the hedge and when people bring up delta and gamma, I always tell you  to think about driving a car. You’re driving a car, you have your speed and you have your acceleration. Delta is speed, how fast you’re going but you see it on the speedometer, gamma is acceleration, meaning, how fast is that speedometer changing? Now let’s unpack the facets of the options marketing a little bit.

Yes, in terms of GameStop, other meme stocks for sure in January, investors are buying these very highly leveraged call options or another way to think about it is they were options with high gamma or high acceleration. You got into this really unique environment where the stock moved up, the market maker who sold the retail investor, a call option had to buy the stock as their hedge and then as the stock moved up, they had to buy more stock, which pushed the stock up further, which told them they had to have a bigger hedge, which means they had to buy more stock again, you got into this loop and that’s what caused the mediocratic rise in these stocks.

This has happened in the past, this isn’t the first time it’s ever happened but it isn’t the normal option market behavior. The other facet of the options market that’s probably just as important or more important to be aware of is this persistent force from the index options and those are the ones on the SMP 500 or the NASDAQ. If you think about it, most investors are generally long risk assets, they’re long stocks, they’re long at home, they’ve got 401(k)s, they have other investments whether they’re public or private, they’re generally long risk assets.

What can hurt them is a decline in these assets. Investor desire protection and one of the most popular places to get it is in the options market, they buy what’s called a put option, which makes money when risk assets go down or prices go down. Occasionally they will also pay for this protection by selling a call option, which is the upsides. They might give up some of their upside because they want to really protect their downside.

You have this large option market and you have these demand for put options and you also have some – what are called, more popular exploration dates or even more popular prices where people will want that protection and the popular exploration dates are the – there’s one day every month where it’s a very popular day and there’s also this large quarterly dates as well.

Options have one other component to them, which is called time decay and all that means is they will lose a little bit of value over time as time passes. When you mix in all these variables of investors requiring some downside protection and they have a little bit of this herd mentality of buying protection at certain prices and also, protection that expire on certain dates, we get some really interesting cross-currents on how the options impact the equity markets.

What we have found and what others have seen this as well is, there are times the options markets can be a stabilizing force for the stock market and there are other times where it can actually be a destabilizing force. When people think about this or I talk to you about this, I was telling, imagine a bowl and a marble in the bowl, sometimes the bowl is right side up and if you grab the marble and you pulled it up to the side of the bowl and you let it go, it would go right back to the center. It’s a convergence type of effect.

That’s called a positive gamma environment in the options market and it just means that if the market rallies, the dealers are selling the markets and they bring it back to the center. If the market sells off, dealers are buying and they kind of bring it back to where it started.

There are other times where the bowl is upside down and the marble’s on top of it and if the marble starts going in any direction, it’s going to roll right off the edge of the bowl and right down off the table onto the floor, a divergence type of effect. That’s called a negative gamma environment.

What this means is there are times during the option cycles where options help keep the markets stable and there are other times where they can be a very big destabilizing force and it’s very important for an investor to be able to identify which regime are we in? Are we in the stabilizing environment, or are we in the destabilizing environment?

[0:11:19.4] AH: How do you determine what regime we’re in at any time, is there certain data you look at as a portfolio manager?

[0:11:28.2] GB: There is a fair amount of data available and yes, we run some of our own models but for those who are interested in this, they’re actually a lot of other data sources out there, there are some great guys on Twitter who share details on their models. There’s a firm called Spot Gamma and you can purchase the data from them and what all of these entities do is they basically help you as that investor determine, “Are we in a stabilizing environment or destabilizing environment?” We certainly monitor some of those things but we run our own lots as well.

[0:12:01.6] AH: How do portfolio managers like you utilize all of this information?

[0:12:06.4] GB: It’s another great question. If you think about a portfolio manager, they only do two things, whether you’re a retail investor or running a large fund, you have two jobs, and Howard Mark said this the best. Your first job is to buy the best securities and either avoid or short the worst securities, that’s job one and job two is figure out when the dial up risk, when it’s out, down risk. When to put your foot on the gas and when to put your foot on the brake.

Really, all portfolio management boils down into those two buckets if you will or those two jobs and some portfolio managers use this options market and information explicitly as part of their strategy or maybe it’s the vocal point of their strategy and other portfolio managers’ use this sort of information is more of a tangential input. It may not be the main philosophy of their strategy but it’s something to be aware of.

We use this sort of information as a tangential input at our firm. We run an equity strategy and I can’t say too much about it in a public podcast, we’ve got to be careful with what the regulations allow us to share but what we can say is, we have multiple models that we’ve developed to tell us what sort of regimes the markets are in, whether it’s a good environment to be invested in equities or bad environment to invest in equities.

We use these other factors as tangential inputs as well. The whole point of it is for us to be able to generate a good return for investors but we also want to avoid the large market drawbacks again. Particularly as they’re becoming faster and more frequent.

[0:13:41.8] AH: Why can’t investors simply go with the traditional 60% equities, 40% bonds asset allocation and call it a day? Why doesn’t that work these days, sort of given what you’ve mentioned?

[0:13:56.8] GB: Sure, that’s actually a great plan five or 10 years ago and the reason is, the whole theory behind it was buy and hold at that point were four, five, six, seven, even eight percent. In times when stock prices fell, money would rush into bonds and that means bond prices would move up or yield, it would move down and the losses in equities are partially offset by the gains and bonds.

If you look at the bond market today, to your treasury notes, 0.15% in 10-year treasury notes yield 1.65%. When equities fall, it’s a little bit of a limited room on how much gain bonds can actually have, the Fed has been vocal about not wanting to bring interest rates into the negative rates as some of the other countries have done.

Bonds are starting to push up against the wall if you will, they can’t generate that offsetting win when equities lose. What’s happened is, investors have to find another way to construct a portfolio because the 60/40 portfolio is no longer protecting them.

We’ve noticed smart investors and family officers are doing the following. They’ve taken their equity exposure and they put it in two different buckets and bucket one is a passive long exposure, whether it’s in the SMP 500 or Nasdaq or small caps. That, they just hold and they leave there and they’re going to ride out the bumpiness in the equity markets. And then en they have taken another bucket of the equity exposure and they put it into what I’ll call tactical managers and those are managers who are trying to avoid drawdowns and the invested when markets are attractive and either be hedged or out of the market when markets become dangerous or unattractive.

It is sort of an opportunistic long if you will and what this does is it’s a lot of that putting your foot on the gas, putting your foot on the break that we talked about. They’ve got some exposure all the time and then they have another bucket of exposure that is invested when times are good and steps aside or is hedged or protected in times of bad and there’s a lot of different ways to do this or a lot of different managers to do it.

Everyone has a different strategy and there are even some ETFs now that are coming out that are trying to mimic this tactical sort of strategy and they’re relatively new so it’s unclear how well they’ll work but it’s a good idea.

[0:16:19.8] AH: Does that say anything about the regime that we’re in? The fact that equity prices have rallied so much over the last number of years that the people are perhaps more worried about downside risk and that’s why you’re seeing some of those ETFs come to market.

[0:16:34.9] GB: I think that’s definitely what’s going on for sure. We have the large Covid selloff and that caught a lot of professional firms and also retail investors off guard. They hadn’t seen a 35% market decline so quickly before and then everyone who stayed invested saw a 70 plus percent rally off of those lows and now, they’re certainly saying, “Well, the market seemed like they are running out of gas.” There is a lot of uncertainty going on, are we going to have another big run similar to what we had?

With that concern and again, we talked about investors being long-risk assets and always wanting to hedge anyway, of course, they are looking for some way to now keep those gains but not just be sitting in cash.

[0:17:18.3] AH: What are the downsides to the strategy of opportunistically – of having some sort of a passive long but then also hedging that with some sort of option, your short position or something like that?

[0:17:33.2] GB: If you are buying options exclusively, as we said, they have a time decay.

[0:17:37.4] AH: Yeah.

[0:17:38.2] GB: Imagine an investor who just buys a bunch of equity, that buy the S&P 500 and then they buy or put option to protect it. Well, that put option is really nothing more like an insurance policy. You might have a fire insurance or flood insurance on your house or something or insurance on your car except in the equity markets that put option or that insurance is relatively expensive. If you are constantly just buying insurance all the time, you’re going to eat away a fair amount of your upside in the equity markets.

That was a theory that was popular back in the 1970s and early 1980s just buy the put options and then people realized and investors realized, “I’m giving so much of my upside and spending so much money on insurance and I really don’t need or want the insurance all the time. Wouldn’t it be better if I could find a way to buy the insurance when there’s a higher probability of my car getting into an accident or a higher probability of my house getting flooded” and that sort of thing.

You could think of it almost as in a way if you were going away for six months and your car is sitting in the garage, you probably would want to decrease the amount of insurance you have on that and if you are getting ready to go on a big trip or you’re going to be travelling around the country for three months, you probably want to make sure you have as much insurance coverage as possible.

[0:19:02.4] AH: Rather than just constantly spending premiums that you are incurring additional opportunity cost, right?

[0:19:10.7] GB: Exactly.

[0:19:11.4] AH: You run a momentum fund, have we entered a different regime? Where I think everyone who is probably listening to this podcast has heard the term buy low and sell high but actually, a lot of professional investors do the opposite, right? They buy high to sell higher. Have things changed the way that the market trades that they’re rather than sort of being mean reverting, they tend to – just going back to what you mentioned about the different – about the game environments that you actually have a situation where things get taken to more extremes on the upside and the downside?

[0:19:51.4] GB: Sure, momentum is a very interesting concept and it’s been selling, it’s been persistent for a very, very, very long time in the market. The nice thing about the markets are even though they are all these algorithms and the markets changed in terms of the plumbing or the infrastructure. What hasn’t changed is the market is a collection of individuals and as individuals, we’re all designed to be very, very bad traders. We’re not designed to be good traders.

We’re designed for survival. We’re designed to try to avoid risk and you can read about all sorts of different cognitive biases leading to this result. Things like they hold their winners not long enough, they’re quick to sell at a profit but they hold their losers too long. If they buy a stock and it starts going against them, they will tell themselves, “Well, I am going to hold this for a long time and I think this is a great stop. It’s just worth holding for forever” kind of thing.

They play all these kinds of games with themselves and there’s another cognitive bias where investors don’t like to buy stocks higher. They like to buy things on a discount like if you were going to the mall and you were looking for a sweater and the sweater is on sale, it must be better. That is not necessarily always true with stocks however. Sometimes the higher price is better because the price is higher because something has come out on the company and it gives you a higher conviction that the company is a better company than you thought it was yesterday.

Yes, you’re right. Professional investors often will buy high in the hopes of selling higher and there is a lot of research that shows stocks that hit 52-week highs or all-time highs don’t tend to be reserved aggressively. A lot of times they tend to keep going more, going higher I should say and stocks that hit 52-week lows or all-time lows tend to keep going down and again, a lot of this is we all think we’re smart. We all do this different research and we think we understand everything.

No one understand everything but everyone’s collective wisdom is in the price and if a stock keeps going up, there could certainly be something there that maybe you don’t even know but the collection of investors does [inaudible 0:22:05.2]

[0:22:06.1] AH: I’m thinking about when you mentioned the 52-week lows that people often try to I guess as the adage goes, catch the falling knife, right?

[0:22:13.7] GB: Sure. That’s exactly right.

[0:22:16.2] AH: Has momentum as a strategy or as a regime, has that increased overall in the market since when you’ve been creating?

[0:22:25.7] GB: I think it’s increased more in the retail investor level and that’s come from technology. When I started in the markets, there weren’t all these services for retail investors and by services I mean smart traders who will publish their daily list of this is the stock to buy or here is the way I’m looking at the chart, charting packages are easy to find now. There’s tons where you can choose from where when I started in market, there really weren’t any charting packages if you will.

There’s more information, which allows a somewhat but not that sophisticated investor to stand on the shoulder of giants and just leverage the expertise that others have so that’s become more popular, yes but I don’t think those slows are so large relative to the institutional professional close that they completely change the market. If anything, there are times where it will help momentum, maybe add a little fuel to the fire but there are other times like over the last few weeks where it probably does the opposite.

Again, that’s sort of the difference of the experience of the professional trader, the professional portfolio manager to recognize, “Hey, you can’t just put all of these trades on all the time and assume they’re always going to work.” There’s going to be environments where they work really well and those times you probably want to have bigger position sizes and there are times where it’s like pushing on a string and it’s just not working well and you should probably have smaller sizes.

[0:23:58.3] AH: Going back to the GameStop saga and what happened in the other meme stocks, you mentioned that I think that that tends to happen in sort of euphoric market environments. Does that suggest the fact that we’ve had recently? Does that suggest that we’re perhaps in the tail end of this bull market?

[0:24:19.3] GB: I don’t think it necessarily tells us where we are in a bull market. Bull market cycles tend to run 15 or 20 years or further, so that isn’t necessarily telling us a lot. What is really interesting is that there’s a few different factors that I think brought this retail demand for call options and wanting to trade and obviously we had the COVID situation, everyone was locked in at home, a lot of people were still earning money.

The government gave some money out to help support those who didn’t have the ability to go to work if you will and people sat at home and became investors in a way and they opened brokerage accounts or they saw Robin Hood account or saw their friends on Robin Hood accounts, they learned a little bit about options and they took some of these money that wasn’t getting spent on vacations or going out to dinner or anything else and figured, “Hey, I might as well take a crack at it. There are no sports to watch, there’s nothing else to go do, let me try it.”

I think that’s where the euphoria came. It’s already starting to subside and you can track a lot of different values in the options markets, how many call options are being purchased by retail investors versus larger institutional investors and you saw this huge explosion of auction demand starting on the height of the lockdown and as the countries opened up again, you are actually seeing that demand trail off.

[0:25:49.7] AH: Right because you started – I guess, a lot of the money is probably grounding towards the real economy, right?

[0:25:56.3] GB: Exactly. People want to go out again and they want to go back to events and go out to dinner or go on trips. They don’t want to sit around and have to trade all the time and a lot of times, being a portfolio manager can be a relatively unexciting process. It’s not fireworks all the time. There is plenty of times where it is making sure you’re sticking to whatever your investment rules or your approach is and you’re watching and observing more than doing.

[0:26:25.2] AH: Going back to options, the thought occurs to me that you know, someone could rather than use an option they could just use borrowed money on an individual security or something like that as opposed to dealing with the time decay associated with an option. How does the risk compare, the risk-reward compare if you were to say use leverage like that as opposed with a book on a leverage embedded in option?

[0:26:51.4] GB: Sure, it’s a really great question and leverage is a funny thing. When it’s working for you, it’s really magnificent and when it’s working against you, it’s horribly painful. You’re right, instead of buying a call option if you will where you outlay an initial premium and that is your maximum loss but if the stock goes in the direction higher that you’re betting on, you can have a multiples gain. You’re right, you could just borrow money and then make a [inaudible 0:27:22.1] investment and then you could say, “Well, if starts going against me, I’m just going to sell the entire position.”

Well, there are a few problems with that. One, markets have the ability to gap. They close at 4:00 and they open the next morning at 9:30 and even if you look at the early morning sessions or anything like that, they can still gap overnight. In an option, no matter what happens, if you are buying the option, your loss is limited to the premium you spent. The market gap is completely the wrong way, you have a limited downside.

When you are using leverage on any instrument, you don’t have a limited downside. You can get wiped out plus more and some people talk about that’s what happened recently to this Archegos fund, Bill Hwang, which was in the paper about a month ago using a significant amount of leverage. That’s one reason why trying to synthetically create an option doesn’t always work out as well.

[0:28:24.9] AH: Right. I was just doing the math and I realized you’ve been in the markets for 25 years and I guess that means that you’re only there two years for I guess LTCM happened, right?

[0:28:36.6] GB: Yeah.

[0:28:37.2] AH: Probably one of the most famous examples of leverage gone wrong.

[0:28:41.9] GB: That’s exactly right. Exactly and they were using leverage to isolate these pricings if you will. They were looking at the bond markets, yield curves and finding different bonds that looked mispriced relative to the bonds around them and buying the cheap ones, selling the rich ones and using a lot of leverage and that strategy is a strategy I’m very familiar with and it can work really well. The one time it doesn’t work well is when your leverage gets called away.

You are doing all of this borrowing and then the person you’re borrowing from says, “I need that money back now. You can’t borrow it anymore” which means, you then have to go sell out of your trades where it could be a particularly bad time to do so and then everything starts to unravel relatively quickly. The one thing about leverage is if it can get called away then it’s particularly dangerous.

[0:29:36.6] AH: Right because it is not permanent capital, right?

[0:29:39.5] GB: You’re borrowing it from someone else or it depends on how you’ve structured the deal. If it’s not permanent capital, then yeah, then it can get called away and it usually gets called away at the worst time.

[0:29:50.5] AH: I think that is probably a good note to end on, a good note of caution for investors about leverage. I’d like to thank Greg Babji of Bunkport Capital for this insightful conversation. I learned a lot and I hope our listeners did too and thank you to our listeners and we’ll be back here again soon with another episode.

[0:30:08.6] GB: Thanks.

[0:30:09.1] AH: Bye for now.

[END OF INTERVIEW]

[0:30:09.5] JM: Thanks for joining us on this episode of The Pitch Podcast. Make sure you check us out online at thepitchboard.com. If you liked our podcast today, please make sure to subscribe to The Pitch Podcast so you don’t miss an episode.

[END]

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