My biggest insecurity when it comes to my investing comes from the concept of momentum.  For the past 7+ years, I’ve been leaning against the wind, buying companies with bad momentum, and for the most part, it worked.  In general, falling stocks have bounced back.  Over the last six months it has not seemed to work so well.  Now, I had a period that was much worse in the middle of 2002.  I even scraped excess money together to invest in late September of 2002.  I am less confident here.

I have a number of ideas that work with respect to momentum:

  • In the short run, momentum persists.
  • In the intermediate-term, momentum reverts.
  • Sharp moves tend to mean revert, slow moves tend to persist.

My own proprietary oscillator indicates that we are very close to a short-term bounce point.  The recent move down has been too rapid, and sellers should be tired.  One more hard down day, and a bounce should occur.

Back to my own portfolio management.  Since I am a value investor, I have leaned toward longer holding periods, which implies to me that I should be playing for the intermediate-term reversal of momentum phenomenon.  But the short-term momentum anomaly is probably stronger.  Consider these two pieces from Crossing Wall Street.  Eddy illustrates the point well.

So, as I head into my next portfolio reshaping, I am scratching my head, and wondering how I should use momentum in my investing.  Suggestions are welcome.

A few random notes:

  1. When I left my prior employer, one of the first things I did was buy a new laptop from Dell. It was much slower than I expected, and I began experimenting to see if I couldn’t speed it up. Now, here are a few tips: a) install sysinternals process explorer — it gives you much more information than task manager, and will show you what programs are hogging system resources. b) shut off or cripple the many little programs that lurk in the background, many of which occupy a decent amount of resources while waiting for program updates to be released over the internet. Do the updates manually, say, once a quarter. c) Reduce the number of programs that load at startup. d) I turned off the advanced graphics that were kind of pretty from Windows Vista. e) all of these helped, but the big bopper was removing McAfee and replacing it with ZoneAlarm Security Suite. McAfee was a real resource hog, and after removing it and installing ZoneAlarm, everything is faster. Everything. There is a limit to security systems; if they are pressed too far, they kill productivity. Productivity and security must be balanced.
  2. QBE’s gain is the Nasdaq’s loss. North Pointe, a not-all-that-well-known property-casualty insurer has sold out to QBE of Australia. Personally, I really liked NPTE’s management team, and thought they were on the right track. I appreciate insurance management teams that can focus on profitable niches, and are willing to let business go if they can’t make an underwriting profit. If QBE is smart, they will give prominent positions in their US operations to James Petcoff (the CEO) and Brian Roney (the CFO).
  3. Just as an aside, I felt like republishing this off topic post from RealMoney:

David Merkel
How to Sell More Popcorn
11/3/2006 2:07 PM EST

When I was in college, I needed to make money, so I got a job working at a convenience store. The young lady who trained me showed me how to operate the popcorn maker. After adding the oil and the popcorn, she reached for the flavoring container and dumped the lot in. Her comment, “Just watch, the extra flavoring really creates sales.” She was right. As people walked in the door, a larger number than I would have expected bought popcorn. But there was a problem. The popcorn didn’t taste good. Too much salt and fake butter flavor. It led to few, if any repeat customers.

About a month later, when I was on the night shift, I tried an experiment where I cleaned out the popcorn maker, cleared out the old popcorn, and the popped a fresh batch using a little less than the instructions would indicate, much less the young lady who trained me. The smell was there, but it wasn’t overpowering. Since popcorn wasn’t usually done on the night shift, though, it would be noticeable.

The surprise: repeat customers for popcorn in the graveyard shift because it tasted good. Word of mouth spread, so I made popcorn regularly.

I believe in UPOD (underpromise, overdeliver) as Jim Cramer often points out. It applies to investing in two ways: first, buy companies whose managements do UPOD, and not OPUD. Positive surprises drive stocks higher, negative ones drive them lower.

That said, there is a second way that UPOD plays into investing. It’s what you tell your investing clients or readers. No strategy works all the time. No strategy is perfect even in the long run. No analyst is always right. Underselling your investment abilities, and demonstrating humility, may not attract as many clients in the short run, but it keeps them in the longer run, with continued diligent work.

And with that, I have to grab lunch; writing about the popcorn has made me hungry.

Position: None

Tickers mentioned: NPTE DELL

Give the Fed some credit. Not literally, of course. Isn’t it their job to give us credit?

I haven’t talked a lot about Fed policy in a while, so I thought it was time to do an update. Five months have passed since my 3% sometime in 2008 call was made, and now it is becoming the received orthodoxy. That’s why I have to ask what is wrong with it, or better, what is the next phase beyond it?

Truly, I don’t know for sure, but I will offer out my thinking process. We are seeing rising unemployment and inflation at the same time. The bond market is rallying, anticipating falling Fed funds rates, but not forecasting rising inflation rates. (Buy TIPs!) In the spirit of watch what they do not what they say, let’s review the relevant Fed data.

We are in a period of asset deflation and consumer price inflation, so this is a difficult period to negotiate through. You can listen to facile comments from PIMCO; everyone is focused on economic weakness, and few are focused on rising inflation.

I think we get to a 3% Fed funds rate, but we don’t get much below it, because by that time, a 3% Fed funds rate will imply a negative real interest rate on the short end. Congress will have an implied inflationary bias, because the complaints will come more from asset deflation. They will kick nudge the Fed that way to the extent that they can.

The TED spread is not as wide as it once was, but it is still in a historically high range. Anything above 60 basis points implies stress. To reduce this the Fed has set up an auction facility, called the TAF. The TAF has been expanded, which allows for a greater variety of securities to be lent against. That’s the real novelty of the TAF. Not new liquidity but new collateral. That said, even the discount window is getting greater use. As a result, the Commercial Paper market is showing some life, even for asset backed commercial paper.

So, liquidity is increasing on the short end, to the point where a 1/4% cut in Fed funds has for practical purposes already happened. A formal 1/4% cut at the next FOMC meeting would do little except ratify what has already been done. Now there is weakness in the job market, and the PMI is signaling some weakness as well. The yield curve has moved down, particularly on the short end, to reflect expectations of more cuts from the Fed.

But TIPS yields are quiet, at least for now, and viewing the Fed as quasi-politicians, whose main goal in life is to avoid political pain, the path of least resistance is to loosen policy further. Fed funds futures and options are indicating the most likely outcome in on January 30th is a 50 basis point loosening. Ordinarily, because of the “gradualist” culture that has built up inside the Fed, I am reluctant to argue for loosenings other than 25 basis points. I think at this point, I have to argue for 50 basis points, but with the usual squishy language that pays heed to all potential threats, effectively saying, “But no more after this! Conditions are balanced!” We know better, though. The only real question is when rising consumer price inflation or a deteriorating Dollar (think of 1986) will be a sufficient counterweight to economic weakness.

The US Dollar is weak here, and that reflects the judgment of many actors as to the value of what they get paid back will be. My guess is that foreign investors sense that inflation is higher in the US than is stated in the Government’s statistics. Too many dollar claims (internal and external) chasing too few goods that they want to buy. What will dollar-denominated bonds be worth at maturity? (Judging by current yields, quite valuable for now.) And will the US Government allow significant US companies to be owned by the Chinese, or by Arabs? How free market is the US really? Will foreign governments stop policies that disfavor the purchase of US goods? Perhaps once they import enough inflation, they will.

With gold, crude oil, and a host of agricultural prices high, and with structural reasons for them to remain high, the FOMC won’t feel too happy as they cut rates. But cut they will, and then we get to see where the excess liquidity flows. Some will bail out banks, which will invest in safe instruments in areas of the economy not under threat. Loans in or near default will not be affected. Well, more on that later. Tonight’s post will be on credit issues.

In closing, a return to the problem that I posed at the beginning: So what’s wrong with the 3% Fed funds forecast, or better, what is the next phase beyond it? It could go several ways:

  1. Rising price inflation and a deteriorating dollar lead to an end to the cycle, and the Fed funds rate either stops falling, or has to rise to squeeze out inflation.
  2. Continuing asset deflation, and declining but still positive economic growth (as the government measures it) leads the Fed to continue to loosen, or stand pat in the face of rising consumer price inflation.
  3. Liquidity difficulties in the banking system morph into solvency difficulties, leading pseudo-M3 and credit to contract (after all the banks are doing the heavy lifting here, not the Fed) and the Fed starts to loosen aggressively.
  4. We get a “bolt for the blue” leading to something not currently predictable, but which leaves policymakers in a bind.
  5. We muddle along, get to something near a 3% Fed funds rate, and continue to muddle (think of 1992-1993).

Personally, I favor scenario 2. And, for those that like to invest, TIPS are reasonably priced. Insurance against scenario 2 is inexpensive, and relatively high quality. But be wary, because particularly in a Presidential election year, there could be significant surprises (part of scenario 4).


Sorry for not posting yesterday, there were a number of personal and business issues that I had to deal with.

Sometimes I write a post like my recent one on Warren Buffett, and when I click the “publish” button, I wonder whether it will come back to bite me. Other times, I click the publish button, and I think, “No one will think that much about that one.” That’s kind of what I felt about, “If This Is Failure, I Like It.” So it attracts a lot of comments, and what I thought was a more controversial post on Buffett attracts zero.

As a retailer might say, “The customer is always right.”  Ergo, the commenters are always right, at least in terms of what they want to read about.  So, tonight I write about benchmarking.  (Note this timely article on the topic from Abnormal Returns.)

I’m not a big fan of benchmarking.  The idea behind a benchmark is one of three things:

  1. A description of the non-controllable aspects of what a manager does.  It reflects the universe of securities that a manager might choose from, and the manager’s job is to choose the best securities in that universe.
  2. A description of the non-controllable aspects of what an investor wants for a single asset class or style.  It reflects the universe of securities that describe expected performance if bought as an index, and the manager’s job is to choose the best securities that can beat that index.
  3. A description of what an investor wants, in a total asset allocation framework.  It reflects the risk-return tradeoff of the investor.  The manager must find the best way to meet that need, using asset allocation and security selection.

When I was at Provident Mutual, we chose managers for our multiple manager products, and we would evaluate them against the benchmarks that we mutually felt comfortable with.  The trouble was when a manager would see a security that he found attractive that did not correlate well with the benchmark index.  Should he buy it?  Often they would not, for fear of “mistracking” versus the index.

Though many managers will say that the benchmark reflects their circle of competence, and they do well within those bounds, my view is that it is better to loosen the constraints on managers with good investment processes, and simply tell them that you are looking for good returns over a full cycle.  Good returns would be what the market as a whole delivers, plus a margin, over a longer period of time; that might be as much as 5-7 years.  (Pity Bill Miller, whose 5-year track record is now behind the S&P 500.  Watch the assets leave Legg Mason.)

My approach to choosing a manager relies more on analyzing qualitative processes, and then looking at returns to see that the reasons that they cited would lead to good performance actually did so in practice.

Benchmarking is kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in that the act of measurement changes the behavior of what is measured.  The greater the frequency of measurement, the more index-like performance becomes.  The less tolerance for underperformance, the more index-like performance becomes.

To the extent that a manager has genuine skill, you don’t want to constrain them.  Who would want to constrain Warren Buffett, Kenneth Heebner, Marty Whitman, Michael Price, John Templeton, John Neff, or Ron Muhlenkamp? I wouldn’t.  Give them the money, and check back in five years.  (The list is illustrative, I can think of more…)

What does that mean for me, though?  The first thing is that I am not for everybody.  I will underperform the broad market, whether measured by the S&P 500 or the Wilshire 5000, in many periods.  Over a long period of time, I believe that I will beat those benchmarks.  Since they are common benchmarks, and a lot of money is run against them, that is a good place to be if one is a manager.  I think I will beat those broad benchmarks for several reasons:

  • Value tends to win in the long haul.
  • By not limiting picks to a given size range, there is a better likelihood of finding cheap stocks.
  • By not limiting picks to the US, I can find chedaper stocks that might outperform.
  • By rebalancing, I pick up incremental returns.
  • Industry analysis aids in finding companies that can outperform.
  • Avoiding companies with accounting issues allows for fewer big losses.
  • Disciplined buying and selling enhances the economic value of the portfolio, which will be realized over time.
  • I think I can pick good companies as well.

I view the structural parts of my deviation versus the broad market as being factors that will help me over the long haul.  In the short-term, I live with underperformance.  Tactically, stock picking should help me do better in all environments.

That’s why I measure myself versus broad market benchmarks, even though I invest more like a midcap value manager.  Midcap value should beat the market over time, and clients that use me should be prepared for periods of adverse deviation, en route to better returns over the long haul.

Tickers mentioned: LM

I thought I did worse this quarter, but I ended up trailing the S&P 500 by less than 50 basis points. That meant that I trailed the S&P 500 for the first year in eight by somewhat less than 1%. So goes the streak.

On the bright side, it happened in a period where growth was trouncing value, and large capitalization stocks were trouncing the small.  My investing style is value-oriented, and all-cap, so I will always be smaller than the S&P.  I did better than value indexes, and better than small caps.  Is this examination of factors an excuse?  I don’t know.  The wind was at my back for the last seven years, and it is in my face now.  What I do know is that I’ve had my share of bad decisions, and I will try to rectify them in 2008.  The next reshaping is coming up soon, and I am gathering my tickers and industries.

But winning big and failing small should be good for anyone. With that, I wish you a Happy New Year.  Let’s make some serious money in 2008, DV.

Start with my disclaimer: I don’t know for sure. Buffett says that he didn’t know about the details, and certainly didn’t approve of the deal. From the Dow Jones Newswires:

Buffett said in a 2005 statement that he “was not briefed on how the transactions were to be structured or on any improper use or purpose of the transactions.”

Buffett’s attorney, Ronald Olson, said in a recent statement that Buffett “denies that he passed judgment in any way on the challenged AIG/Gen Re transaction in November 2000 or at any other time.”

Personally, I find this amazing for a few reasons. 1) In any dealings with AIG, a smart insurance executive would want to know what was going on. AIG has had a history of getting the better end of the deal in working with reinsurers. Buffett is not dumb, and there had been a decent amount of rivalry between the two companies over the years. 2) Buffett was not “hands off” on the insurance side of the house when it came to large insurance contracts. From his 2001 Shareholder Letter (page 8 ):

I have known the details of almost every policy that Ajit has written since he came with us in 1986, and
never on even a single occasion have I seen him break any of our three underwriting rules. His extraordinary
discipline, of course, does not eliminate losses; it does, however, prevent foolish losses. And that’s the key: Just as
is the case in investing, insurers produce outstanding long-term results primarily by avoiding dumb decisions, rather
than by making brilliant ones.

Now, maybe Buffett was overstating the case of how much he knew about what Ajit did. It is clear that he spent more time with Ajit than the managers at Gen Re, but I find it difficult to believe he didn’t review a major contract of a client who was also a major competitor known to be tough reinsurance negotiator.

3) He understands finite insurance very well. From this article of mine at RealMoney about the 2004 Shareholder letter, my last point:

12) Finally, what was not there: a discussion of Berkshire’s activities in the retroactive (or retrocessional or finite or financial) reinsurance business. This is notable for two reasons: first, in 2003, he split out the retroactive reinsurance in order to give a clearer presentation of the insurance groups operating results. This year the data is only presented in summary form. Second, Buffett made a big positive out of the retroactive reinsurance results, going so far as to explain the business in both the 2000 (page 8 ) and 2002 (page 9) shareholder letters.

Now, to varying degrees, Buffett made effort over the prior four years to explain the profitability of Berky’s retroactive reinsurance business, because it skewed the loss ratios of Berky upward. In the 2004 Shareholder letter, it was too much of a hot potato to give similar coverage to, even eliminating the entries that would have allowed one to see the accounting effect. In 2000 and 2002, he gave mini-tutorials on the business. In 2000 (page 8 ):

There are two factors affecting our cost of float that are very rare at other insurers but that now loom large at Berkshire. First, a few insurers that are currently experiencing large losses have offloaded a significant portion of these on us in a manner that penalizes our current earnings but gives us float we can use for many years to come. After the loss that we incur in the first year of the policy, there are no further costs attached to this business.

When these policies are properly priced, we welcome the pain-today, gain-tomorrow effects they have. In 1999, $400 million of our underwriting loss (about 27.8% of the total) came from business of this kind and in 2000 the figure was $482 million (34.4% of our loss). We have no way of predicting how much similar business we will write in the future, but what we do get will typically be in large chunks. Because these transactions can materially distort our figures, we will tell you about them as they occur.

Other reinsurers have little taste for this insurance. They simply can’t stomach what huge underwriting losses do to their reported results, even though these losses are produced by policies whose overall economics are certain to be favorable. You should be careful, therefore, in comparing our underwriting results with those of other insurers.

An even more significant item in our numbers — which, again, you won’t find much of elsewhere — arises from transactions in which we assume past losses of a company that wants to put its troubles behind it. To illustrate, the XYZ insurance company might have last year bought a policy obligating us to pay the first $1 billion of losses and loss adjustment expenses from events that happened in, say, 1995 and earlier years. These contracts can be very large, though we always require a cap on our exposure. We entered into a number of such transactions in 2000 and expect to close several more in 2001.

Under GAAP accounting, this “retroactive” insurance neither benefits nor penalizes our current earnings. Instead, we set up an asset called “deferred charges applicable to assumed reinsurance,” in an amount reflecting the difference between the premium we receive and the (higher) losses we expect to pay (for which reserves are immediately established). We then amortize this asset by making annual charges to earnings that create equivalent underwriting losses. You will find the amount of the loss that we incur from these transactions in both our quarterly and annual management discussion. By their nature, these losses will continue for many years, often stretching into decades. As an offset, though, we have the use of float — lots of it.

Clearly, float carrying an annual cost of this kind is not as desirable as float we generate from policies that are expected to produce an underwriting profit (of which we have plenty). Nevertheless, this retroactive insurance should be decent business for us.

The net of all this is that a) I expect our cost of float to be very attractive in the future but b) rarely to return to a “no-cost” mode because of the annual charge that retroactive reinsurance will lay on us. Also — obviously — the ultimate benefits that we derive from float will depend not only on its cost but, fully as important, how effectively we deploy it.

Our retroactive business is almost single-handedly the work of Ajit Jain, whose praises I sing annually. It is impossible to overstate how valuable Ajit is to Berkshire. Don’t worry about my health; worry about his. Last year, Ajit brought home a $2.4 billion reinsurance premium, perhaps the largest in history, from a policy that retroactively covers a major U.K. company. Subsequently, he wrote a large policy protecting the Texas Rangers from the possibility that Alex Rodriguez will become permanently disabled. As sports fans know, “A-Rod” was signed for $252 million, a record, and we think that our policy probably also set a record for disability insurance. We cover many other sports figures as well.

And 2002:

Ajit Jain’s reinsurance division was the major reason our float cost us so little last year. If we ever put a photo in a Berkshire annual report, it will be of Ajit. In color!

Ajit’s operation has amassed $13.4 billion of float, more than all but a handful of insurers have ever built up. He accomplished this from a standing start in 1986, and even now has a workforce numbering only 20. And, most important, he has produced underwriting profits.

His profits are particularly remarkable if you factor in some accounting arcana that I am about to lay on you. So prepare to eat your spinach (or, alternatively, if debits and credits aren’t your thing, skip the next two paragraphs).

Ajit’s 2002 underwriting profit of $534 million came after his operation recognized a charge of $428 million attributable to “retroactive” insurance he has written over the years. In this line of business, we assume from another insurer the obligation to pay up to a specified amount for losses they have already incurred – often for events that took place decades earlier – but that are yet to be paid (for example, because a worker hurt in 1980 will receive monthly payments for life). In these arrangements, an insurer pays us a large upfront premium, but one that is less than the losses we expect to pay. We willingly accept this differential because a) our payments are capped, and b) we get to use the money until loss payments are actually made, with these often stretching out over a decade or more. About 80% of the $6.6 billion in asbestos and environmental loss reserves that we carry arises from capped contracts, whose costs consequently can’t skyrocket.

When we write a retroactive policy, we immediately record both the premium and a reserve for the expected losses. The difference between the two is entered as an asset entitled “deferred charges – reinsurance assumed.” This is no small item: at yearend, for all retroactive policies, it was $3.4 billion. We then amortize this asset downward by charges to income over the expected life of each policy. These charges – $440 million in 2002, including charges at Gen Re – create an underwriting loss, but one that is intentional and desirable. And even after this drag on reported results, Ajit achieved a large underwriting gain last year.

What I am trying to point out here is that Buffett had significant knowledge of the retroactive (finite) deals at Berkshire Hathaway. He was even somewhat proud of them, though perhaps that is a matter of interpretation. He liked the almost riskless profits that they provided.

Before I move onto my last point, I’d like to digress, and simply say that not all finite reinsurance is a matter of accounting chicanery. The key is risk transfer. Without risk transfer, regardless of what the technical accounting regulations might say, there should be no reserve relief granted, regardless of the amount of money given to the cedant by the reinsurer; that money should be treated as a loan, because it will have to be paid back with interest. With full risk transfer, the company ceding the risk should not have to hold any reserves for the business. In between, the amount of reserve credit is proportional to the amount of risk shed; excess money given to the cedant by the reinsurer should be treated as a loan. Economically, that’s what it should be, even though that is not what always happens in the accounting. (Side note: yes, I know that it is difficult to determine the amount of risk shed, and different actuaries might come to different conclusions, but can’t we at least agree on the underlying theory?)

What has happened is that in many cases, little risk is shed, and a full credit for risk reduction is taken. Sometimes FAS 113 would be followed, with its 10% chance of a 10% loss as a miserably low tripwire for risk transfer. Sometimes FAS 113 would get bent, and other times, badly bent. That brings me to point 4.

4) Berky had a lot of experience with many different types of finite insurance. I remember a notable asbestos contract they took on for White Mountains where they would bear a large amount of risk. (On that one, I think White Mountains got the better end of the deal.) There were others, like the finite contract with Australian insurer FAI, which made them look solvent while experience was deteriorating. HIH bought FAI, and later went bankrupt, partly due to the acquisition. There were other finite reinsurance deals, like Reciprocal of America, where it made a company that was insolvent look solvent.

I can argue that in many cases, Berky’s underwriters did not know the accounting treatment that the cedant would use, and could not be responsible for the troubles that followed. In many cases, Berky bore significant, if limited, risk. That’s fine too. The greater question is if they were a large writer of finite coverages, which they were, they would have to have some knowledge of the cedant’s goals if they were to underwrite properly. Also remember that Buffett watches the “float” that his insurance businesses generate like a hawk. If there was a large amount of float that would come from a new contract, he likely would have known about it.

The AIG contract was big. AIG is a tough reinsurance negotiator. AIG and Berky have been rivals (Greenberg insulted Buffett on at least one occasion). Buffett watches underwriting carefully, even that of his trusted lieutenant Ajit Jain (a nice guy, really). That makes it really hard for me to believe that Buffett did not have any significant knowledge of the AIG finite reinsurance contract. In the end, I really don’t know; I’m only guessing. My guess is this: Buffett had general, but not detailed knowledge of the deal with AIG. In my estimation, he probably checked to see that there were adequate risk controls to make sure that AIG was not getting too good of a deal.

I admire Buffett. I have learned a lot from him. In general, compared to most businessmen, he is an honest and open guy who speaks his mind. If he said that he never had any significant knowledge of the contract with AIG, we should give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe. But from my angle, it is inconsistent with the way he has done business generally.

Tickers mentioned: AIG, BRK/A, BRK/B, WTM

PS — If you ask me how I feel about writing this, I will tell you that I am not crazy about what I have written. I’m not after publicity for criticizing a man that I admire greatly. I think that Buffett should be more forthcoming on the topic, and be willing to be a witness in the trial. Five people are facing ruined lives, and if Buffett really knew about it, and is saying nothing now because he is powerful enough to get away with it, well, shame on him. If he didn’t know anything about it, well, his testimony would clear the air, because it is a distraction at the trial.