The Efficient Market Paradox

Two economists are walking down a street, discussing the Efficient Market Hypothesis, when one of them suddenly stops in his tracks. He points to the street and says “look, there’s a $10 bill!”

The other economist looks at him with a mixture of amazement and disgust as he replies in a reprimanding tone: “Obviously, if there was a $10 bill there, someone would have already picked it up.”

What this joke illustrates is the inherent paradox of the Efficient Market Hypothesis. For markets to be efficient, they are active participants. For participants to be active in a market, there needs to be an arbitrage. In a perfectly efficient market, the arbitrage is competent away by the activity of the participants. 

The Markets are Mostly Efficient

No market is perfectly efficient. New information is constantly entering the collective perception of the market. Once information becomes obvious, it will obviously be priced in, when markets are efficient. 

WIth the internet and other technological advancement in data gathering, analytics and distribution, markets have undoubtedly become more efficient. In the early value investing days of Warren Buffett, he would read through Standard and Poor’s manuals, making mental calculations of stock’s intrinsic valuation. Nowadays, this information is readily available and calculated, practically in real time. 

In a podcast interview on the Invest with the Best Podcast, Michael Mauboussin, presented a fascinating statistic:  

I think that one of my other favorite statistics in the paper is that in 1976, there were less than 1 CFA charter holder, for every public company in the United States, and today there are 27 CFA charter holders for every public company in the United States. So a lot more eyeballs on the companies that are out there. And maybe there is clearly more dispersion in smaller midcap companies. But look, the world is just a super dynamic place. You see these value changes are quite dramatic. You think about 2020 and hardly anybody had any idea what was going to go on. It was really hard.

Degrees of Market Efficiency

It goes without saying that there are different degrees of efficiency. When you invest in big S&P 500 stocks such as Apple, Amazon or Netflix, you should be aware that there are hundreds of analysts that cover those stocks. You have to ask yourself what kind of an edge you have over those market participants. 

At the same time, there are plenty of markets and asset classes that are less efficient. There are many publicly traded stocks that don’t have a single analyst covering them. Outside of the stock markets there are all sorts of asset classes and markets where an individual can develop expertise and investment edge. Internet domains, for example, is an asset class that has a very vibrant secondary market and dedicated investors. 

There are plenty of $10 bills out there, waiting to be picked up.

Leverage + Arbitrage

I like reading books on business history and biographies of business people. One thing that I feel is often a common thread in there stories is that substantial wealth creation often seems to stem from some combination of leverage and arbitrage.

I’ll elaborate. Often, the initial businesses are created around some sort of arbitrage. The arbitrage might be that the entrepreneurs have some information or ideas that others don’t. But an arbitrage usually doesn’t sustain. Once the word is out the trade gets crowded, which in turn erodes the profitability.

Some arbitrage are more sustainable than others and cane be ridden for longer. And I suapect that there are plenty of business people out there that found powerful arbitrages to take advantage of and did so for a long time. The reason we never heard about them, is because they were constrained. They were not scalable. They couldn’t not be levered.

If you have an arbitrage, however, that is defensible and has the potential to be leverad to a larger scale, you have the components of substantial wealth creation.

Here are a few examples:

  • Sam Walton realized that by buying cheap and pricing low, he would create operating leverage, by maximizing inventory turns. He realized that the big stores would not go to smaller towns, an opportunity that he was able to arbitrage for a very long time.
  • Kirk Kerkorian built his initial wealth through a unique albeit limited arbitrage. After WWII, Kerkorian borrowed money to bid on surplus bombers which he picked up abroad and flew home. At the time, there was a shortage of jet fuel and Kerkorian was able to sell the remaining fuel in the bombers’ fuel tank. Selling the fuel raised enough money to repay the loans he had taken. He essentially got the planes for free.
  • Sam Zemurray made a fortune in the banana trade. In his early days, he took advantage of a brilliant arbitrage opportunity. When banana cargo came to New Orleans, bananas that were spotted were deemed unfit for the travel to metropolitan locations and were discarded at the port. Zemurray bought the ripe bananas very cheaply and sold them locally to grocers within a day of New Orleans. To get the bananas to grocers fast, he leveraged the train system.