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16 February 2023   |  

Researchers, investors, the occasional interviewees[1] and even the CEO of Artisan are often incredulous when I say my undergraduate anthropology major is a cornerstone of my daily investment process. Occasionally I get feisty and defend myself, but I often defuse the situation with what passes for humor in the investment world and move on. No more! Gillian Tett’s 2021 book Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life will be my public defender. Anthro-Vision received great jacket reviews from Daniel Kahneman and Melinda Gates. With an anthropology degree and my tens of loyal readers, I’m genuinely surprised I wasn’t asked to review the book. Maybe the email got stuck in my spam folder.

Ms. Tett provides insight on anthropology and anthropologists throughout her book. A unifying trait she notes is “obsessive curiosity; anthropologists are devoted to peering into cracks, immersing themselves into odd places, creeping into the undergrowth of society around the world.” I’ll admit this is a self-serving quote, but after enduring 23 years of outsiders trash-talking my major I don’t care! I’ll take a win! And yes, I consider the word “obsessive” in this context, a win. Ms. Tett also notes “the type of students who migrated into anthropology tended to be nonconformist and antiestablishment.” True to this nonconformist streak I became what very few anthropologists dream to be: a middle-aged finance guy. Take that, Big Anthro, how you like me now!?!?!

We’ve spoken to many of you before about our generalist model. Once you read the book, you may see we employ elements of Anthro-Vision. The members of our team parachute into new sectors and industries where there is trouble, assess the landscape and invest if we find something interesting. We need to translate industry jargon ourselves, in a concise manner—much as Ms. Tett describes her efforts to understand the alphabet soup of CDOs and ABS before the financial crisis. Every industry has jargon, and the specialists in the industry know all the jargon, which can be intimidating. The specialists tend to focus on “the quarter” or if they are long-term thinkers, the next six months. We need to be humble and willing to take risks with questions that others aren’t asking. We might sound dumb with a few, but eventually we aim to trigger a Rosetta Stone moment to translate the strange world of a hypothetical new industry to our team’s common investing language. On a lighter note, when us value-investing generalists show up at a conference, it often means the industry is under stress. But if I see distressed debt investors at the same conference, it’s time to go!

I’ve included a link to an IMF paper where Ms. Tett summarizes another concept of her book, listening to the social silence. “Culture…matters…and not just the pieces of our cultural systems that we openly notice (the “noise”) but also the pieces we tend to ignore because they are embarrassing or familiar or too complex to discuss (the “silence”).” The noise of the past three years has been deafening. Somehow the amplifier has been cranked up to 11 this year in what noted cross-asset strategist Charlie McElligott has termed a “neon swan” series of events. I mean the UK government collapsed last October and I don’t think many market participants even remember it happened, let alone why it happened. On this side of the pond all I hear is “Fed Fed Fed Fed Fed Fed Fed JPow JPow JPow Soft Landing No Landing Goldilocks!” as if the Fed will be the only input to the model. It won’t be, as we are reminded by a certain Chinese spy balloon. Some items remain out of JPow’s purview. With all this noise it is hard to remember the silence. In our case we view the silence as the fundamentals. Instead of getting caught up in where our stocks fit in a never-ending noisy market narrative, we can focus on if they are advancing their businesses, executing on strategy, and improving free cash flow. We can only control what we can control.


[1] They did not get the job

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