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What’s neat about this isn’t what’s changed. It’s what’s stayed the same.

The line, “One million titles, consistently low prices” seems like marketing guff. But it helps explain why Amazon has dominated where others have failed.

The allure of the Internet in 1995 was betting on change. New paradigms born. Old strategies discarded. Something requiring radically different thinking.

Yet Amazon’s focus from day one was as old as it gets. Selection and price. Businesses have pursued the idea for millennia.

Jeff Bezos once explained why this was critical:

I very frequently get the question: “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” That’s a very interesting question.

I almost never get the question: “What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two.

You can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection. It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, “Jeff I love Amazon, I just wish the prices were a little higher.” Or, “I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little slower.” Impossible.

So we know the energy we put into these things today will still be paying off dividends for our customers 10 years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.

This is one of those important things that’s too basic for most smart people to pay attention to.


Things that change are amazing. They can fuel massive growth.

But change by itself is hard. Investors have to spot it before it’s obvious. Consumers have to change their behaviors to make it viable. Those two points repel each other like magnets. And things that change tend to keep changing. A company whose pitch is “We’re doing this entirely new thing” likely has to reinvent itself and its product line every year, maybe more. Each iteration is a front-line battle where you’re exhausted from the last war but overconfident from its victory. So the odds keep stacking against you. An investor hoping to ride successive changes in multiple industries over a 40-year career faces tenth-degree difficulty. Practically a claim of clairvoyance.

Change often creates bursts of opportunity. Huge opportunity, yes. But businesses and their investors need more than slippery bursts to succeed. They need endurance. And endurance resides in long-term bets. Things you can pour energy and capital into today with a reasonable chance of still bearing fruit ten years from now. Which tend to be things that are stable in time.

This might seem heretical to venture capital. Marc Andreessen was once asked how his investment style compared with Warren Buffett. He replied:

[Warren is] betting against change. We’re betting for change. When he makes a mistake, it’s because something changes that he didn’t expect. When we make a mistake, it’s because something doesn’t change that we thought would. We could not be more different in that way.

Seems directionally true. But I don’t think it’s that black and white. Both investors pursue the same things; they just weight them differently.

Every successful investment is some combination of change that drives competition and things staying the same that drives compounding. There are so few exceptions to this, regardless of size or industry.

Buffett has owned GEICO stock since 1951. During that time the company went from exclusively selling auto insurance to government employees in cafeterias, to selling several kinds of insurance to everyone on their iPhones. Analytics went from abacus to AI. These are not small changes. But one thing stayed the same, which is that an insurance company selling directly would have a cost and convenience advantage over those paying brokers. That’s been the driver of Buffett’s GEICO bet for 66 years. It’s timeless.

Andreessen Horowitz partner Frank Chen recently talked about two trends in insurance startups. One is better software. “Software will rewrite the entire way we buy and experience our insurance products,” he said. Second is capital structure. “We expect to see more crowdsourced insurance companies … it should be a cheaper way to pool capital.” Both innovations promise lower cost and added convenience. Which is as timeless as GEICO’s edge.

Investors weigh the importance of change and timelessness differently, but every great company has some element of both. The extremes are where things don’t work.

Take three companies in the 1990s: Sears, Beenz, and Amazon.

Sears bet the Internet changed nothing, to its detriment. Beenz bet the Internet changed everything – creating a points-based currency valid only at online merchants – to its detriment. Amazon bet the Internet changed distribution, but rooted its strategy in things that have never, and will never, change. It nailed the center of the Venn diagram of change on one side and timeless on the other. One drove competition, the other drove compounding. Every successful company does this.


In the last 100 years we’ve gone from horses to jets and mailing letters to Skype. But every sustainable business is accompanied by one of a handful of timeless strategies:

  • Lower prices.
  • Faster solutions to problems.
  • Greater control over your time.
  • More choices.
  • Added comfort.
  • Entertainment/curiosity.
  • Deeper human interactions.
  • Greater transparency.
  • Less collateral damage.
  • Higher social status.
  • Increased confidence/trust.

You can make big, long-term bets on these things, because there’s no chance people will stop caring about them in the future.


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The legal conflict between Donald Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller is escalating rapidly. New reports in the Washington Post and New York Times are clear signals that Trump is contemplating steps — firing Mueller or issuing mass pardons — that would seem to go beyond the pale. Except: Trump’s entire career is beyond the pale and, in his time on the political stage, the unthinkable has become thinkable with regularity.

Trump’s actions are best understood in the context of the overwhelming likelihood he, his family members, and at least some of his associates are guilty of serious crimes. The investigation might not produce proof of criminal collusion with Russia’s illegal hacking of Democratic emails. (Though reasonable grounds for suspicion already exists in abundance.)

Where Mueller seems to be creating special pain for Trump is in his investigation of financial links between Russia, Trump, and other members of the president’s inner circle. In his interview with the New York TimesWednesday night, Trump threatened to fire Mueller if he probed into what Trump called financial matters unrelated to Russia. The Post reports that Mueller’s examination of Trump’s financial dealings is the president’s “primary frustration” and that Trump is “especially disturbed” that Mueller will access his tax returns.

Trump’s lawyers have stated explicitly what Trump hinted at in the interview: He regards an expanding of the probe as a red line that might cause him to fire Mueller. “The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. A “close adviser” added, “If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation.”

Trump’s team is not merely warning Mueller to stay away from random, unrelated transactions. They are specifically holding up Trump’s financial dealings with Russians as out of bounds: “They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow tells the Post. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”

The Palm Beach transaction is a source of longtime suspicion. Trump purchased a property for $41 million and then, after improving it, sold it just two years later to a Russian oligarch for more than twice as much. This is a completely natural area for investigation. If the Kremlin wanted to finance Trump, overpaying for a property would be an obvious way to do so.

Mueller is also investigating other Trump financial transactions. Trump’s opaque business dealings include a lot of shady figures, including members of the Russian mafia. Why has Trump adamantly refused to disclose his tax returns, even at a significant cost to himself? And why does he appear to be so terrified at Mueller looking under these rocks? The simplest explanation is that he is probably hiding something deeply incriminating.

Trump has shown himself immune to widespread warnings that certain steps are simply not done. His hiding of tax returns, firing of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (who was investigating Russian financial crimes when he was let go), and ousting of FBI director James Comey were all steps that would seem to immolate his career. Ordering the Department of Justice to fire Mueller, or pardoning the targets of his investigations, would be an open announcement that Trump considers his financial ties to the Russian underworld and state to be beyond any legal accountability. The ominous threats emanating from the White House are that of an administration mobilizing for war against the rule of law.

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Like most people who write for a living, I have fierce convictions about the right and wrong ways to use words. Most of the time I keep them to myself; nobody likes being nagged by a grammar nanny. It’s boring and annoying to be — or to listen to — the pedantic style police.

But I’ve run out of patience with people using adverbs as insidious tools for marketing and propaganda. That misuse of language has made me so angry that the constant pain of biting my tongue has forced me to stop keeping my mouth shut.

So what follows is a rant to relieve my own frustration on why I hate adverbs. I hope, at the least, it will make you question words harder before you use them.

In shunning adverbs whenever I can, I’m in good company.

Mark Twain disliked them:

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me….

this is her demon, the adverb is mine….

I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more, I won’t.


Stephen King dislikes them:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.

And as for me, I really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs.

No: I hate them.

The simplest search-and-destroy mission — annihilate adverbs on sight — reveals them to be what they are. If parts of speech were foods, adverbs would be Twinkies: insipid, empty calories pumped full of air.

Look what happens when you delete the adverbs from my sentence above, “And as for me, I really, truly, actually, literally dislike adverbs”: You force yourself to justify the verb dislike and to ask why, if it is the right word, you needed to upholster it with all those modifiers in the first place.

The answer: because it wasn’t the right word. It wasn’t strong enough in its own right. Pick a hotter verb — hate instead of dislike — and the need for the adverbs falls away. The action speaks for itself once you figure out what it is that you were trying to say.

It isn’t that adverbs are never necessary. It’s that they are so rarely necessary and so often misused.

(Yes, I know: Never, rarely, and often are adverbs. Here, I’m using adverbs deliberately!)

But adverbs aren’t just chronically misused. They are intentionally abused.

Because they are emphasis words, dragooned into place as reinforcements for language and ideas that would otherwise be too feeble to defend themselves, adverbs are often a signal that someone is trying to deceive or manipulate you. At a minimum, adverbs should put you on notice as a reader that the evidence isn’t convincing enough to hold itself up without an adverbial crutch.

Look at this example:

He is truly a legend in his own time.

Now parse it by deleting the adverb and using basic skills of critical thinking to interrogate what’s left of the sentence:

He is truly a “legend in his own time.”

  • According to whom?
  • What does it mean to be a “legend in your own time”?
  • Who measures or determines how famous you have to be to qualify?
  • If the person is as famous as you imply, why do you have to remind your readers that he’s a legend?
  • And isn’t “legend in his own time” just a cliché anyway?

Look what has happened here. The adverb, a lexical wave of the hand intended to convince you without supporting evidence, is the weakest link in the sentence. Yank it out, and the whole sentence comes apart and falls clanking to the ground.

“Truly” is there as marketing, not meaning — to get you to suspend your disbelief about something that is at best unproven (or unprovable) and at worst untrue. A sign in the window of the restaurant declaring “TRULY THE BEST PIZZA IN TOWN” is telling you to prepare for a bad case of indigestion.

Thus, the ultimate reason I hate adverbs is because they so often mean the opposite of what they imply. Actually, certainly, clearly, obviously, really: All are noodge words, wielded by writers who are either too lazy to find a better way to make the point or too deceptive to use honest verbs and nouns that can stand on their own without being propped up.

The only way to see if a word is indispensable is to eliminate it and see whether you miss it. Try this exercise yourself:

  • Take any sentence containing “actually” or “literally” or any other abstract adverb, written by anyone ever.
  • Delete that adverb.
  • See if the sentence loses one iota of force or meaning.
  • I’d be amazed if it does (if so, please let me know).

Concrete adverbs, such as wildly or coldly, inject specificity into sentences. Conceptual adverbs like truly or really drain the vividness out of sentences, replacing it with unsubstantiated claims you have to take on faith alone.

Here’s my translation of what adverbs purport to mean, and what they do mean.

Even the way people use adverbs in everyday speech shows how weak many of these words have become in common usage. To make them work at all anymore, you have to festoon them with irony and air quotes. Think of how “absolutely” has mutated into “absof*ckinglutely,” or how people say “I literally died laughing” to mean “I literally didn’t die laughing.”

I would never advise you, of course, to avoid using adverbs completely! The world’s greatest writers have all used them. Added judiciously, appropriately and, above all, sparingly, adverbs make good writing great. Used lazily, mindlessly or deceptively, adverbs turn into neurotoxins that numb the minds of readers — and of many writers, too.




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Auckland house prices have been rising since 2001. This is not peculiar to only Auckland, there has been a number of cities so affected.

This has been fuelled from three main drivers (a) low interest rates and (b) low housing stock relative to immigration and (c) a belief that somehow, it’s different this time.

The average salary of a two person household in Auckland, could be $100K, possibly slightly more, the average house price is now $1M. That is 10X your average salary. Given that interest rates are/have been at all time historical lows, an increase in interest rates could trigger massive losses and/or foreclosures.

It is a bubble, I’m curious as to how much further it can inflate.

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It seems almost a bizarre question. Who thinks about whether zero was invented or discovered? And why is it important?

Answering this question, however, can tell you a lot about yourself and how you see the world.

Let’s break it down.

“Invented” implies that humans created the zero and that without us, the zero and its properties would cease to exist.

“Discovered” means that although the symbol is a human creation, what it represents would exist independently of any human ability to label it.

So do you think of the zero as a purely mathematical function, and by extension think of all math as a human construct like, say, cheese or self-driving cars? Or is math, and the zero, a symbolic language that describes the world, the content of which exists completely independently of our descriptions?

The zero is now a ubiquitous component of our understanding.

The concept is so basic it is routinely mastered by the pre-kindergarten set. Consider the equation 3-3=0. Nothing complicated about that. It is second nature to us that we can represent “nothing” with a symbol. It makes perfect sense now, in 2017, and it’s so common that we forget that zero was a relatively late addition to the number scale.

Here’s a fact that’s amazing to most people: the zero is actually younger than mathematics. Pythagoras’s famous conclusion — that in a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides — was achieved without a zero. As was Euclid’s entire Elements.

How could this be? It seems surreal, given the importance the zero now has to mathematics, computing, language, and life. How could someone figure out the complex geometry of triangles, yet not realize that nothing was also a number?

Tobias Dantzig, in Number: The Language of Science, offers this as a possible explanation: “The concrete mind of the ancient Greeks could not conceive the void as a number, let alone endow the void with a symbol.” This gives us a good direction for finding the answer to the original question because it hints that you must first understand the concept of the void before you can name it. You need to see that nothingness still takes up space.

It was thought, and sometimes still is, that the number zero was invented in the pursuit of ancient commerce. Something was needed as a placeholder; otherwise, 65 would be indistinguishable from 605 or 6050. The zero represents “no units” of the particular place that it holds. So for that last number, we have six thousands, no hundreds, five tens, and no singles.

A happy accident of no great original insight, zero then made its way around the world. In addition to being convenient for keeping track of how many bags of grain you were owed, or how many soldiers were in your army, it turned our number scale into an extremely efficient decimal system. More so than any numbering system that preceded it (and there were many), the zero transformed the power of our other numerals, propelling mathematics into fantastic equations that can explain our world and fuel incredible scientific and technological advances.

But there is, if you look closely, a missing link in this story.

What changed in humanity that made us comfortable with confronting the void and giving it a symbol? And is it reasonable to imagine creating the number without understanding what it represented? Given its properties, can we really think that it started as a placeholder? Or did it contain within it, right from the beginning, the notion of defining the void, of giving it space?

In Finding Zero, Amir Aczel offers some insight. Basically, he claims that the people who discovered the zero must have had an appreciation of the emptiness that it represented. They were labeling a concept with which they were already familiar.

He rediscovered the oldest known zero, on a stone tablet dating from 683 CE in what is now Cambodia.

On his quest to find this zero, Aczel realized that it was far more natural for the zero to first appear in the Far East, rather than in Western or Arab cultures, due to the philosophical and religious understandings prevalent in the region.

Western society was, and still is in many ways, a binary culture. Good and evil. Mind and body. You’re either with us or against us. A patriot or a terrorist. Many of us naturally try to fit our world into these binary understandings. If something is “A,” then it cannot be “not A.” The very definition of “A” is that it is not “not A.” Something cannot be both.

Aczel writes that this duality is not at all reflected in much Eastern thought. He describes the catuskoti, found in early Buddhist logic, that presents four possibilities, instead of two, for any state: that something is, is not, is both, or is neither.

At first, a typical Western mind might rebel against this kind of logic. My father is either bald or not bald. He cannot be both and he cannot be neither, so what is the use of these two other almost nonsensical options?

A closer examination of our language, though, reveals that the expression of the non-binary is understood, and therefore perhaps more relevant than we think. Take, for example, “you’re either with us or against us.” Is it possible to say “I’m both with you and against you”? Yes. It could mean that you are for the principles but against the tactics. Or that you are supportive in contrast to your values. And to say “I’m neither with you nor against you” could mean that you aren’t supportive of the tactic in question, but won’t do anything to stop it. Or that you just don’t care.

Feelings, in particular, are a realm where the binary is often insufficient. Watching my children, I know that it’s possible to be both happy and sad, a traditional binary, at the same time. And the zero itself defies binary categorization. It is something and nothing simultaneously.

Aczel reflects on a conversation he had with a Buddhist monk. “Everything is not everything — there is always something that lies outside of what you may think covers all creation. It could be a thought, or a kind of void, or a divine aspect. Nothing contains everything inside it.”

He goes on to conclude that “Here was the intellectual source of the number zero. It came from Buddhist meditation. Only this deep introspection could equate absolute nothingness with a number that had not existed until the emergence of this idea.”

Which is to say, certain properties of the zero likely were understood conceptually before the symbol came about — nothingness was a thing that could be represented. This idea fits with how we treat the zero today; it may represent nothing, but that nothing still has properties. And investigating those properties demonstrates that there is power in the void — it has something to teach us about how our universe operates.

Further contemplation might illuminate that the zero has something to teach us about existence as well. If we accept zero, the symbol, as being discovered as part of our realization about the existence of nothingness, then trying to understand the zero can teach us a lot about moving beyond the binary of alive/not alive to explore other ways of conceptualizing what it means to be.

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Speaking in London, Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen Tuesday predicted that the “the system is much safer and much sounder” and explained that the Federal Reserve is prepared to deal with numerous enormous shocks to the economy.

In her conversation with Lord Nicholas Stern, Yellen also went on to list the reasons that, thanks to central bank intervention, there is unlikely to be another financial crisis “in our lifetimes.”

For those who have lived through more than one business cycle, however, alarm bells tend to go off every time an economist, central banker or high-ranking government official declares that there’s little to no danger of economic turmoil in the near future.

There is a long history of spectacularly bad predictions being made shortly before economic crises. Famously, shortly before the Crash of 1929 — one of the earlier crises that occurred on the Federal Reserve’s watch — Herbert Hoover proclaimed that “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”

But, we certainly don’t have to go back that far.

Indeed, in the late 1990s, it became nearly routine to hear economists announce that “the internet changes everything” and “the business cycle is dead.”

Economist Rudi Dornbusch — a close associate of current Fed vice chair Stanley Fischer — even wrote a July 1998 column in the Wall Street Journal titled “Growth Forever.” Dornbusch concluded that the possibility of an imminent recession “is remote” and the country “will not see a recession for years to come.” So sure of the benefits of the “new economy” was Dornbusch, in fact, that he declared, “This expansion will run forever.”

Then came the dot-com bust of 2001. After that came a short expansion from 2002 to 2007. After that came the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2015, according to the federal government’s data, real median household income was flat. Only over the past two years have we seen any of that expansion that many were venturing to say was permanent back in the late 1990s.

Economists and policymakers were no more insightful when examining the possibility of a new crisis post-2007.

In 2005, for example, Milton Friedman could have been paraphrasing Yellen’s Tuesday comments when he concluded that “the stability of the economy is greater than it has ever been in our history. We really are in remarkable shape.” Friedman went on to give Alan Greenspan credit for the expansion.

In early 2007, Ben Bernanke predicted, “We’ll see some strengthening in the economy sometime during the middle of the new year.”

As late of mid-2007, Bernanke was downplaying any problems associated with the sub-prime housing market, allaying any fears of a bubble or bust and claiming, “I don’t know whether prices are exactly where they should be, but I think it’s fair to say that much of what’s happened [i.e, enormous home price growth during the housing bubble] is supported by the strength of the economy.”

If housing bubbles do prove to be a problem, Bernanke concluded, it’s “mostly a localized problem and not something that’s going to affect the national economy.”

The US would officially begin to contract in December 2007, followed by a financial crisis the following autumn.

Even on the eve of the crisis — in September 2008 — John McCain announced that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

A year later, the unemployment rate would reach 10 percent, foreclosure rates were surging and total employment would collapse from 116 million to 107 million. Employment would not return to pre-crisis levels until late 2013.

Millions of workers would need to change careers, be retrained, scratch for other forms of income to avoid foreclosure or eviction and put off retirement indefinitely. The economy was so weak for so long, in fact, that the Fed felt it necessary to keep the key target interest rate near zero for seven years to add “stimulus.”

Of course, just because Janet Yellen says the economy won’t experience a crisis anytime soon doesn’t mean a crisis is imminent. A truly strong economy isn’t going to be “jinxed” by a declaration that things are fine. On the other hand, given the record of eminent economists and Fed board members in the past, Yellen’s predictions are hardly anything that should inspire confidence.

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With no material change to our investment outlook, I’ll keep this comment brief. On the basis of the most reliable valuation measures we identify (those most tightly correlated with actual subsequent 10-12 year S&P 500 total returns), current market valuations stand about 140-165% above historical norms. No market cycle in history, even those prior to the mid-1960s when interest rates were similarly low, has failed bring valuations within 25% of these norms, or lower, over the completion of the market cycle. On a 12-year horizon, we project likely S&P 500 nominal total returns averaging close to zero, with the likelihood of an interim market loss on the order of 50-60% over the completion of the current cycle.

As I’ve observed for decades, even a richly overvalued market can move higher, providedthat investors remain inclined to speculate, which we infer from the uniformity of market action across a broad range of market internals (when investors are inclined to speculate, they tend to be indiscriminate about it). In prior market cycles across history, however, even favorable market internals were overruled once extreme “overvalued, overbought, overbullish” syndromes emerged. The half-cycle since 2009 was different. In the face of zero interest rates, yield-seeking speculation persisted even after those extreme syndromes emerged. The best indication of that speculative mindset is that market internals remained uniformly favorable during most of the period prior to mid-2014. Importantly, even since 2009, the S&P 500 has lost ground, on average, in periods when extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes were accompanied by deteriorating market internals. That’s the situation we observe at present.

Put simply, with market internals unfavorable and interest rates off the zero bound, the two main supports that made the half-cycle since 2009 “different” have already been kicked away. From here, we expect the dynamics of this market cycle to resemble other periods when offensive valuations and extreme overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndromes were joined by deteriorating market internals (particularly when interest rates were off their lows). Short term market outcomes are anybody’s guess, but across history, that overall combination has typically defined crash dynamics.

Notably, we’ve observed a widening of internal dispersion in recent weeks. For example, weekly NYSE new lows have averaged about 4% of traded issues recently, with nearly 6% last week, even with the S&P 500 near record highs. Meanwhile, nearly 40% of stocks are already below their 200-day averages. I’ve noted before that raw “Hindenburg Omens” (days when both NYSE new highs and new lows exceed about 2.5% of traded issues) are typically not ominous at all. The exception is where they are accompanied by a broader syndrome of tepid market breadth even with the major indices still elevated, when multiple signals appear in close succession, and when market internals are unfavorable on our own measures. On that note, we’ve observed 4 such daily signals in recent weeks, with two last week alone. We saw similar widening of internal dispersion in December 1999, July and November 2007, and July-August 2015. Still there are a few signals such as 2006 and 2013 that were followed by only minor hiccups. That improves the average outcome, though the average is still negative overall.

Overall, our current market outlook remains strongly negative, but we would be inclined to adopt a more neutral outlook if our measures of market internals were to improve. As I’ve often observed, the most favorable market return/risk profile we identify typically emerges when a material retreat in valuations is joined by an early improvement in market action. Whether that occurs after a moderate correction, or after a market collapse, that’s the combination most likely to move us to a constructive or aggressive outlook, depending on the status of valuations and other conditions at that point. The most extreme overextended syndromes we identify are now accompanied by deteriorating market internals and interest rates that are well off the zero bound. My impression is that without a shift back to uniformly favorable market internals, the continued faith in monetary support may prove to be the same awful bet it was during the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 collapses, both which were accompanied by aggressive monetary easing all the way down.

We’ll take our evidence as it arrives.