The following may be controversial. It also may be dull to the point that you might not care. Here’s why you should care: quarterly reporting is a useful and productive use of corporate resources, and it would be a shame to lose it because some people with a patina of intelligence think it is harmful. Who knows? Losing it might even make you poorer.

The cause for tonight’s article is a piece from the Wall Street Journal, Time to End Quarterly Reports, Law Firm Says.  Here’s the first two sentences:

Influential law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz has an idea that may be music to the ears of its big corporate clients and a nightmare for some investors and analysts: end quarterly earnings reports.

Wachtell on Tuesday called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to consider allowing U.S. companies to do away with the obligatory updates, one of the most important rituals on Wall Street and in corporate America, suggesting that they distract executives from long-term goals.

The basic case is that quarterly earnings lead companies to behave in a short-term manner, and underinvest for longer-term growth, thus hurting the US economy.  I disagree. There are at least four things that are false in the arguments made in the article, and in books like Saving Capitalism from Short-Termism:

  • Quarterly earnings don’t produce value in and of themselves
  • Quarterly earnings cause most corporations to ignore the long-term.
  • Ending quarterly earnings will end activism, buybacks, and dividends.
  • Buybacks and dividends are bad uses of capital, and more capital investment, especially for long-dated projects, is necessarily a good thing.

Why Quarterly Earnings are Valuable

I’ve written a number of articles about quarterly earnings and estimates of those earnings: Earnings Estimates as a Control Mechanism, Flawed as they are, and Earnings Estimates as a Control Mechanism, Flawed as they are, Redux.  The basic idea is this: quarterly earnings results give investors an idea as to whether the companies remain on their long-term growth path or not.  As I wrote:

Most of the value of a Corporation on a going concern basis stems from the future earnings of the company.  Investors want to have an estimate of forward earnings so that they can gauge whether the company is growing at an appropriate rate.

Now, it wouldn’t matter if the system were set up by third-party sell side analysts, by buyside analysts, by companies themselves, or by a combination thereof.  The thing is investors are forward-looking, and they want a forward-looking estimate to allow them to estimate whether the companies are doing well with their current earnings or not.

Don’t think of the quarterly earnings in isolation.  A good or bad quarterly earnings number conveys information not about the current period only, but about all future periods.  A bad earnings number lowers the estimates of all future earnings, telling market players that the long-term efforts of the company are not going to be so great.  Vice-versa for a good number.

Now, in some cases, that might not be true, and the management team will say, “But we still expect our future earnings to reach the levels that we expected before this quarter.”  That still leaves the problem of getting to the high future earnings, which if missed will lead the market to reprice the stock down.

They might also use a non-GAAP measure of earnings to explain that earnings are not as bad as they might seem.  In the short-run the market may accept that, but if you do that often enough, eventually the markets factor in the many “one-time” adjustments, and lower the earnings multiple on the stock to reflect the reduced quality of earnings.

In addition, having shorter-term targets causes corporations to not get lazy in managing expenses and capital.  When the measurement periods get too long, discipline can be lost.

Quarterly Earnings Don’t Cause Most Firms to Neglect the Long-Term

Firms aren’t interested in only the current period’s earnings, but about the entire future path of earnings.  Even if the current period’s earnings meet the estimates, the job is not done.  If there aren’t plans to grow earnings for the next 3-5 years, eventually earnings won’t meet the expectations of investors, and the price of the stock will fall.  The short-term is just the beginning of the long-term.  It is not either/or but both/and.  A company has to try to explain to investors how it is growing the value of the firm — if present targets aren’t being met, why should there be any confidence that the future will be good?

Think of corporate earnings like a long-term project which has a variety of things that have to be done en route to a significant goal.  The quarterly earnings measure whether the progress toward completing the goal is adequate or not.  Now, the measure is not perfect, but who can think of a better one?

Ending Quarterly Earnings Would Not End Activism, Buybacks, and Dividends

I can think of an area in business where earnings estimates don’t play a role — private equity.  Are the owners long-term oriented? Yes.  Are they short-term oriented?  Yes.  Is capital managed tightly?  Very tightly.  All excess capital is dividended back — it as if activists run the firms permanently.

If there were no quarterly earnings in the public equity markets, firms would still be under pressure to return excess capital to shareholders.  Activists would still analyze companies to see if they are badly managed, and in need of change.  If anything, when companies would release their earnings less frequently, the adjustments to the market price of the stock would be more severe.  Companies that disappoint would find the activists arriving regardless of the periodicity of the release of earnings.

On the Use of Excess Capital

Investing, particularly for the long-term, is not risk-free.  In an environment where there is rapid technological change, like there is today, it is difficult to tell what investments will not be made obsolete.  In such an environment, it can make a lot of sense to focus on shorter-term investments that are more certain as to the success of the project.  It is also a reason why dividends and buybacks are done, as capital returned to shareholders is associated with higher stock prices, because the capital is used more efficiently.  Companies that shrink their balance sheets tend to outperform those that grow them.

As an example, large acquisitions tend not to benefit shareholders, while small acquisitions that lead to greater organic growth do tend to benefit investors.  The same is true of large versus small investments for organic growth away from M&A.  Most management teams can adequately estimate and plan for the growth that stems from incremental action. Large revolutionary investments are another thing.  There is usually no way to estimate how those will work out, and whether the prospects are reasonable or not.

In one sense, it’s best to leave those kinds of investment projects to highly focused firms that do only that.  That’s how biotech firms work, and it is why so many of them fail.  The few winners are astounding.

Or, think about how progressive Japanese firms were viewed to be in the 1980s, as they pursued long-term projects that had very low returns on equity.  All of that failed, to a first approximation, while the derided American model of shareholder capitalism prospered, as capital was used efficiently on projects with high risk-adjusted returns, and not wasted on speculative projects with uncertain returns.  The same will prove true of China over the next 20 years as they choke on all of their bad investments that yield low returns, if indeed the returns are positive.

Remember, bad investments are just expenses in fancy garb — it just takes the accounting longer to recognize the losses.  Think of Enron if you need an example, which brings up one more point: good investing focuses on accounting quality.  Accrual items on the asset side of the balance sheets of corporations get higher valuations the shorter the accrual is, and the more likely it is to produce cash.  Most long term projects tend to be speculative, and as such, drag down the valuation of the stock, because in most cases, it lowers the long-term earnings of the company.

Conclusion

If quarterly earnings are abolished, intelligent corporations won’t change much.  Investment won’t go up much, and the time horizon of most management teams will not rise much.  If you need any proof of that, look at how private equity and large mutual insurers manage their firms — they still analyze quarterly results, and are conservative in how they deploy capital.

The only great change of eliminating quarterly earnings will be a loss of quality information for equity investors.  Bond investors and banks will still require more frequent financial updates, and equity investors may try to find ways to get that data, perhaps through the rating agencies.

Other Aleph Blog Articles for Consideration

My last post has many implications. I want to make them clear in this post.

  1. When you analyze a manager, look at the repeatability of his processes.  It’s possible that you could get “the Big Short” right once, and never have another good investment idea in your life.  Same for investors who are the clever ones who picked the most recent top or bottom… they are probably one-trick ponies.
  2. When a manager does well and begins to pick up a lot of new client assets, watch for the period where the growth slows to almost zero.  It is quite possible that some of the great performance during the high growth period stemmed from asset prices rising due to the purchases of the manager himself.  It might be a good time to exit, or, for shorts to consider the assets with the highest percentage of market cap owned as targets for shorting.
  3. Often when countries open up to foreign investment, valuations are relatively low.  The initial flood of money in often pushes up valuations, leads to momentum buyers, and a still greater flow of money.  Eventually an adjustment comes, and shakes out the undisciplined investors.  But, when you look at the return series analyze potential future investment, ignore the early years — they aren’t representative of the future.
  4. Before an academic paper showing a way to invest that would been clever to use in the past gets published, the excess returns are typically described as coming from valuation, momentum, manager skill, etc.  After the paper is published, money starts getting applied to the idea, and the strategy will do well initially.  Again, too much money can get applied to a limited factor (or other) anomaly, because no one knows how far it can get pushed before the market rebels.  Be careful when you apply the research — if you are late, you could get to hold the bag of overvalued companies.  Aside for that, don’t assume that performance from the academic paper’s era or the 2-3 years after that will persist.  Those are almost always the best years for a factor (or other) anomaly strategy.
  5. During a credit boom, almost every new type of fixed income security, dodgy or not, will look like genius by the early purchasers.  During a credit bust, it is rare for a new security type to fare well.
  6. Anytime you take a large position in an obscure security, it must jump through extra hoops to assure a margin of safety.  Don’t assume that merely because you are off the beaten path that you are a clever contrarian, smarter than most.
  7. Always think about the carrying capacity of a strategy when you look at an academic paper.  It might be clever, but it might not be able to handle a lot of money.  Examples would include trying to do exactly what Ben Graham did in the early days today, and things like Piotroski’s methods, because typically only a few small and obscure stocks survive the screen.
  8. Also look at how an academic paper models trading and liquidity, if they give it any real thought at all.  Many papers embed the idea that liquidity is free, and large trades can happen where prices closed previously.
  9. Hedge funds and other manager databases should reflect that some managers have closed their funds, and put them in a separate category, because new money can’t be applied to those funds.  I.e., there should be “new money allowed” indexes.
  10. Max Heine, who started the Mutual Series funds (now part of Franklin), was a genius when he thought of the strategy 20% distressed investing, 20% arbitrage/event-driven investing and 60% value investing.  It produced great returns 9 years out of 10.  but once distressed investing and event-driven because heavily done, the idea lost its punch.  Michael Price was clever enough to sell the firm to Franklin before that was realized, and thus capitalizing the past track record that would not do as well in the future.
  11. The same applies to a lot of clever managers.  They have a very good sense of when their edge is getting dulled by too much competition, and where the future will not be as good as the past.  If they have the opportunity to sell, they will disproportionately do so then.
  12. Corporate management teams are like rock bands.  Most of them never have a hit song.  (For managements, a period where a strategy improves profitability far more than most would have expected.)  The next-most are one-hit wonders.  Few have multiple hits, and rare are those that create a culture of hits.  Applying this to management teams — the problem is if they get multiple bright ideas, or a culture of success, it is often too late to invest, because the valuation multiple adjusts to reflect it.  Thus, advantages accrue to those who can spot clever managements before the rest of the market.  More often this happens in dull industries, because no one would think to look there.
  13. It probably doesn’t make sense to run from hot investment idea to hot investment idea as a result of all of this.  You will end up getting there once the period of genius is over, and valuations have adjusted.  It might be better to buy the burned out stuff and see if a positive surprise might come.  (Watch margin of safety…)
  14. Macroeconomics and the effect that it has on investment returns is overanalyzed, though many get the effects wrong anyway.  Also, when central bankers and politicians take cues from the prices of risky assets, the feedback loop confuses matters considerably.  if you must pay attention to macro in investing, always ask, “Is it priced in or not?  How much of it is priced in?”
  15. Most asset allocation work that relies on past returns is easy to do and bogus.  Good asset allocation is forward-looking and ignores past returns.
  16. Finally, remember that some ideas seem right by accident — they aren’t actually right.  Many academic papers don’t get published.  Many different methods of investing get tried.  Many managements try new business ideas.  Those that succeed get air time, whether it was due to intelligence or luck.  Use your business sense to analyze which it might be, or, if it is a combination.

There’s more that could be said here.  Just be cautious with new investment strategies, whatever form they may take.  Make sure that you maintain a margin of safety; you will likely need it.

Investing ideas come in many forms:

  • Factors like Valuation, Sentiment, Momentum, Size, Neglect…
  • New technologies
  • New financing methods and security types
  • Changes in government policies will have effects, cultural change, or other top-down macro ideas
  • New countries to invest in
  • Events where value might be discovered, like recapitalizations, mergers, acquisitions, spinoffs, etc.
  • New asset classes or subclasses
  • Durable competitive advantage of marketing, technology, cultural, or other corporate practices

Now, before an idea is discovered, the economics behind the idea still exist, but the returns happen in a way that no one yet perceives.  When an idea is discovered, the discovery might be made public early, or the discoverer might keep it to himself until it slowly leaks out.

For an example, think of Ben Graham in the early days.  He taught openly at Columbia, but few followed his ideas within the investing public because everyone was still shell-shocked from the trauma of the Great Depression.  As a result, there was a large amount of companies trading for less than the value of their current assets minus their total liabilities.

As Graham gained disciples, both known and unknown, they chipped away at the companies that were so priced, until by the late ’60s there were few opportunities of that sort left.  Graham had long since retired; Buffett winds up his partnerships, and manages the textile firm he took over as a means of creating a nascent conglomerate.

The returns generated during its era were phenomenal, but for the most part, they were never to be repeated.  Toward the end of the era, many of the practitioners made their own mistakes as they violated “margin of safety” principles.  It was a hard way of learning that the vein of financial ore they were mining was finite, and trying to expand to mine a type of “fool’s gold” was not a winning idea.

Value investing principles, rather than dying there, broadened out to consider other ways that securities could be undervalued, and the analysis process began again.

My main point this evening is this: when a valid new investing idea is discovered, a lot of returns are generated in the initial phase. For the most part they will never be repeated because there will likely never be another time when that investment idea is totally forgotten.

Now think of the technologies that led to the dot-com bubble.  The idealism, and the “follow the leader” price momentum that it created lasted until enough cash was sucked into unproductive enterprises, where the value was destroyed.  The current economic value of investment ideas can overshoot or undershoot the fundamental value of the idea, seen in hindsight.

My second point is that often the price performance of an investment idea overshoots.  Then the cash flows of the assets can’t justify the prices, and the prices fall dramatically, sometimes undershooting.  It might happen because of expected demand that does not occur, or too much short-term leverage applied to long-term assets.

Later, when the returns for the investment idea are calculated, how do you characterize the value of the investment idea?  A new investment factor is discovered:

  1. it earns great returns on a small amount of assets applied to it.
  2. More assets get applied, and more people use the factor.
  3. The factor develops its own price momentum, but few think about it that way
  4. The factor exceeds the “carrying capacity” that it should have in the market, overshoots, and burns out or crashes.
  5. It may be downplayed, but it lives on to some degree as an aspect of investing.

On a time-weighted rate of return basis, the factor will show that it had great performance, but a lot of the excess returns will be in the early era where very little money was applied to the factor.  By the time a lot of money was applied to the factor, the future excess returns were either small or even negative.  On a dollar-weighted basis, the verdict on the factor might not be so hot.

So, how useful is the time-weighted rate of return series for the factor/idea in question for making judgments about the future?  Not very useful.  Dollar weighted?  Better, but still of limited use, because the discovery era will likely never be repeated.

What should we do then to make decisions about any factor/idea for purposes of future decisions?  We have to look at the degree to which the factor or idea is presently neglected, and estimate future potential returns if the neglect is eliminated.  That’s not easy to do, but it will give us a better sense of future potential than looking at historical statistics that bear the marks of an unusual period that is little like the present.

It leaves us with a mess, and few firm statistics to work from, but it is better to be approximately right and somewhat uncertain, than to be precisely wrong with tidy statistical anomalies bearing the overglorified title “facts.”

That’s all for now.  As always, be careful with your statistics, and use sound business judgment to analyze their validity in the present situation.

Recently I ran across an academic journal article where they posited one dozen or so risk premiums that were durable, could be taken advantage of in the markets.  In the past, if you had done so, you could have earned incredible returns.

What were some of the risk premiums?  I don’t have the article in front of me but I’ll toss out a few.

  • Many were Credit-oriented.  Lend and make money.
  • Some were volatility-oriented.  Sell options on high volatility assets and make money.
  • Some were currency-oriented.  Buy government bonds where they yield more, and short those that yield less.
  • Some had you act like a bank.  Borrow short, lend long.
  • Some were like value investors.  Buy cheap assets and hold.
  • Some were akin to arbitrage.  Take illiquidity risk or deal/credit risk.
  • Others were akin to momentum investing.  Ride the fastest pony you can find.

After I glanced through the paper, I said a few things to myself:

  • Someone will start a hedge fund off this.
  • Many of these are correlated; with enough leverage behind it, the hedge fund could leave a very large hole when it blows up.
  • Yes, who wouldn’t want to be a bank without regulations?
  • What an exercise in data-mining and overfitting.  The data only existed for a short time, and most of these are well-recognized now, but few do all of them, and no one does them all well.
  • Hubris, and not sufficiently skeptical of the limits of quantitative finance.

Risk premiums aren’t free money — eggs from a chicken, a cow to be milked, etc.  (Even those are not truly free; animals have to be fed and cared for.)  They exist because there comes a point in each risk cycle when bad investments are revealed to not be “money good,” and even good investments are revealed to be overpriced.

Risk premiums exist to compensate good investors for bearing risk on “money good” investments through the risk cycle, and occasionally taking a loss on an investment that proves to not be “money good.”

(Note: “money good” is a bond market term for a bond that pays all of its interest and principal.  Usage: “Is it ‘money good?'”  “Yes, it is ‘money good.'”)

In general, it is best to take advantage of wide risk premiums during times of panic, if you have the free cash or a strong balance sheet behind you.  There are a few problems though:

  • Typically, few have free cash at that time, because people make bad investment commitments near the end of booms.
  • Many come late to the party, when risk premiums dwindle, because the past performance looks so good, and they would like some “free money.”

These are the same problems experienced by almost all institutional investors in one form or another.  What bank wouldn’t want to sell off their highest risk loan book prior to the end of the credit cycle?  What insurance company wouldn’t want to sell off its junk bonds at that time as well?  And what lemmings will buy then, and run over the cliff?

This is just a more sophisticated form of market timing.  Also, like many quantitative studies, I’m not sure it takes into account the market impact of trying to move into and out of the risk premiums, which could be significant, and change the nature of the markets.

One more note: I have seen a number of investment books take these approaches — the track records look phenomenal, but implementation will be more difficult than the books make it out to be.  Just be wary, as an intelligent businessman should, ask what could go wrong, and how risk could be mitigated, if at all.

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp || Some bad ideas should be locked away…

Dan Primack of Fortune wrote in his daily email:

Saving unicorns from themselves? There was an interesting piece last week from Martin Peers in The Information (sub req), arguing that the private markets need some sort of shorting mechanism so that there is a check on unreasonable valuation inflation. It would make the market more efficient, Peers argues, even though implementation would require several structural changes (particularly to stock transfer rules). He writes:

“Private companies will probably resist the development of a short-selling market, given it would hurt valuations, which in turn can undermine the value of employee option programs, and give them less control over their shareholder group. But those risks are likely to be outweighed by the long term benefits of bringing more buyers into the market and ensuring the company’s valuation can be sustained outside of the constraints of the private market.”

Leaving out the technical difficulties — including the lack of ongoing price discovery — one big counter could be that shorts didn’t so much to stop the earlier dotcom bubble (which largely took place in the public markets).

Adam D’Augelli of True Ventures pointed me to a 2002 academic paper (Princeton/London Biz School) that found “hedge funds during the time of the technology bubble on the Nasdaq… were heavily tilted towards overpriced technology stocks.” They add that “arbitrageurs are concerned about attacking the bubble too early without support from their peers,” and that they’re more likely to ride the bubble until just a few months before the end.

That would seem to be too late to impose price discipline in private markets, but I’m curious in your thoughts. Does some sort of private shorting system make sense? And, if so, how would it be structured?

I’m going to take a stab at answering the final questions.  There is often a reason why the financial world is set up the way it is, and why truly helpful financial innovations are rare.  The answer is “no, we should not have any way of shorting private companies, and it is not a flaw in the system that we don’t have any easy way to do it.”

Two notes before I start: 1) I haven’t read the paper at The Information, because it is behind a paywall, but I don’t think I need to do so.  I think the answer is obvious.  2) I ran into this question answered at Quora.  The answers are pretty good in aggregate, but what exists here are my own thoughts to present the answer in what I hope is a simple manner.

What is required to have an effective means of shorting assets

  1. An asset must be capable of being easily transferred from one entity to another.
  2. Entities willing to lend the asset in exchange for some compensation over a given lending term.
  3. Entities willing to borrow the asset, put up collateral adequate to secure the asset, and then sell the asset to another entity.
  4. An entity or entities to oversee the transaction, provide custody of the collateral, transmit payments, assure return of the asset at the end of the lending term, and gauge the adequacy of collateral relative to the value of the asset.

Here’s the best diagram I saw on the internet to help describe it (credit to this Latvian website):

short selling

I’m leaving aside the concept of naked shorting, because there are a lot of bad implications to allowing a third party to create ownership interests in a firm, a power which is reserved for the firm itself.

The Troubles Associated with Shorting Private Assets

I can think of four troubles.  Here they are:

  1. The ability to sell, lend, or buy shares in a private company are limited by the private company.
  2. Lending over long terms with no continuous price mechanism to aid in the gradual adjustment of collateral could lead to losses for the lender if the borrower can’t put up additional capital.
  3. The asset lender can decide only to lend over lending terms that will likely be disadvantageous to the borrower.  Getting the asset returned at the end of the lending term could be problematic.
  4. It is difficult enough shorting relatively illiquid publicly traded assets.  Liquidity is required for any regular shorting to happen.

The first one is the killer.  There are no advantages to a private company to allow for the mechanisms needed to allow for shorting. That is one of the advantages of being private.  Information is not shared openly, and you can use the secrecy to aid your competitive edge.  Skeptical short-sellers would not be welcome.

The second problem is tough, because sometimes successive capital rounds are at considerably higher prices.  The borrower will likely not have enough slack assets to increase his collateral, and he will be forced to buy shares in the round to cover his short because of that.  The lender could find that the borrower cannot make good on the loan, and so the lender loses a portion of the value his ownership stake.

But imagining the first two problems away, problem three would still be significant.  If the term for lending were not all the way to the IPO, next capital round or dissolution/sale, at the end of the term, the borrower would have to look for someone to sell shares to him.  It is quite possible that no one would sell them at any reasonable price.  They know they have a forced buyer on their hands, and there could be informal collusion on the price of a sale.

Perhaps another way to put it is don’t play in a game where the other team has significant control over the rules of the game.  One of the reasons I say this is from my days of a bond manager.  There were a lot of games played in securities lending, and bonds are not the most liquid place to short assets.  I remember it being very difficult to get a bond back from an entity that borrowed it, and the custodian and trustee did not help much.  I also remember how we used to gauge the liquidity of bonds we lent out, and if one was particularly illiquid, we would always recall the bond before selling it, which would often make the price of the bond rise.  Games, games, games…

What Might Be Better

Perhaps using collateralized options or another type of derivative could allow bets to be taken, if the term extended all the way to the IPO, the next capital round, or dissolution/sale of the company.  The options would have to be limited to the posted collateral being the most the seller of the option could lose.  Some of the above four issues would still be in play at various points, but aside from issue one, this would minimize the troubles.

What Might Be Better Still

The value of the shorts is that they share information with the rest of the market that there is a bearish opinion on an asset.  Short-sellers are nice to have around, but not necessary for the asset pricing function.  It is not unreasonable to live with the problem that some assets will be overvalued in the intermediate-term, rather than set up a complex method to try to enable shorting.  As Ben Graham said:

“In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run, it is a weighing machine.”

The weighing machine will do its job soon enough, showing that the overvalued asset will never produce free cash adequate to justify its current high price.  Is it a trouble to wait for that to happen?  If you don’t own it, you shouldn’t care much.

If you want to short it, I’m not sure that will hasten the price adjustment process that much, unless you can convince the existing owners of the asset that it isn’t worth even the current price.  Given that buyers have convinced themselves to own the asset, because they think it will be worth more in the future, intellectually, convincing them that it is worth less is a tough sell.

In the end, only asset and liability cash flows count, regardless of what secondary buyers and sellers do.  Secondary trading does not affect the value of assets, though it may affect the perception of value in the short run.  Thus, you don’t need short sellers to aid in setting secondary market prices, but they are an aid there.  In the primary markets, where whole companies are bought and sold, the perceived cash return is all that matters.

Conclusion

Ergo, live with short run overvaluation in private markets.  It is a high quality problem.  Sell overvalued assets if you own them.  Watch if you don’t own them.  Shorting, even if possible, is not worth the bother.

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

Photo Credit: Alcino || What is the sound of negative one hand clapping?

As with many of my articles, this one starts with a personal story from my insurance business career (skip down four paragraphs to the end of the story if you want):

25 years ago, when it was still uncommon, I wanted to go to an executive course at the Wharton School for actuaries that wanted to better understand investment math and markets.  I went to my boss at AIG (a notably tight-fisted firm on expenses) and asked if the company would pay for me to go… it was an exclusive course, and very expensive compared to any other conference that I would ever go to again in my life.  I tried not to get my hopes up.

Lo, and behold!  AIG went for it!

A month later, I was with a bunch of bright actuaries at the Wharton School.  The first thing I noticed was aside from the compound interest math, and maybe some bond knowledge, the actuaries were rather light on investment knowledge, and I would bet that all of them had passed the Society of Actuaries investment course.  The second thing I noticed were some of the odd investments described in the syllabus: it was probably my first taste of derivative instruments.  At the ripe old age of 29, I was learning a lot, and possibly more than the rest of my classmates, because I had spent a lot of time studying investments already, both on an academic and practical basis.

I had already studied the pricing of stock options in school, so I was familiar with Black-Scholes.  (Trivia note: an actuary developed the same formula for valuing optionally terminable reinsurance treaties six years ahead of Black, Scholes and Merton.  That doesn’t even take into account Bachelier, who derived it 73 years earlier, but no one knew about it, because it was written in French.)  At this point, the professor left, and a grad student came in to teach us about the pricing of bond options.  At the end of his lesson, it was time for the class to have a break.  I went down to make a comment, and it went like this:

Me: You said that we have to adjust for the fact that interest rates can’t go negative.

Grad student: Of course.

Me: But interest rates could go negative.

GS: That’s ridiculous!  Why would you ever lend money and accept back less than you gave them, and lose the time value of money?!

Me: Almost of the time, you wouldn’t.  But imagine a scenario where the demand for loanable funds leaves interest rates near zero, but the times are insecure and violent, leaving you uncertain that if you stored your cash privately, you would run too large of a risk of having it stolen.  You need your cash in the future for a given project.  In this case, you would pay the bank to store your money.

GS: That’s an absurd scenario!  That could never happen!

Me: It’s unlikely, I admit, but I wouldn’t say that you can never have negative interest rates.

GS: I will say it again: You can NEVER have negative interest rates.

Me: Thanks, I guess.

Well, so much for the distant past.  Here is why I am writing this: yesterday, a friend of mine wrote me the following note:

Good evening.  I trust you had a blessed Lord’s Day in the new building. 

Talking bonds today with my Econ class.  Here’s our question. Other than playing a currency angle why would anyone buy European debt with a negative yield?  The Swiss and at least one other county sold 10 year notes with a negative yield.  Can you explain that?  No interest and less principle [sic] at the end.

Now, I didn’t quite get it perfectly right with the grad student at Wharton, but most of it comes down to:

  • Low demand for loanable funds, with low measured inflation, and
  • Security and illiquidity of the funds invested

The first one everyone gets — inflation is low, and few want to borrow, so interest rates are very low.  But that doesn’t explain how it can go negative.

Things are different for middle class individuals and large financial institutions.  Someone in the middle class facing negative interest rates from a checking or savings account could say: “Forget it.  I’m taking most of my money out of the bank, and storing it at home.”  Leaving aside the inconvenience of currency transaction reports if the amount is over $10,000, and worries over theft, he could take his money home and store it.  Note that he does have to run a risk of theft, though, so bringing the money home is not costless.

The bank has the same problem, but far larger.  If you don’t invest the money, where would you store it?  Could you even get enough currency delivered to do it?  if you had a vault large enough to store it, could you trust the guards?  Why make yourself a target?  If you don’t have a vault large enough to store it, you’re in the same set of problems that exist for those that warehouse precious metals, but with a far more liquid commodity.

Thus in a weak economic environment like this, with low inflation, banks and other financial institutions that want certainty of payment in the future are willing to pay interest to get their money back later.

Part of the problem here is that the fiat currencies of the world exist only to be units of account, and not stores of value.  Thus in this unusual environment, they behave like any other commodity, where the prices for futures are often higher than the current spot price, which is known as backwardation.  (Corrected from initial posting — i.e. it costs more to receive a given cash flow in the future than today, thus backwardation, not contango.)  The rates can’t get too negative, though, or some institutions will bite the bullet and store as much cash as they can, just as other commodities get stored.

To use another analogy, a while ago, some market observers couldn’t get why anyone would accept a negative yield on Treasury Inflation Protected Securities [TIPS].  They did so because they had few other choices for transferring money to the future while still having inflation protection.  Some people argued that they were locking in a loss.  My comment at the time was, “They’re trying to avoid a larger loss.”

Thus the difficulty of managing cash outside of the bond/loan markets in a depressed economy leads to negative interest rates.  The financial institutions may lose money in the process, but they are losing less money than if they tried to store and protect the money, if that could even be done.

Photo Credit: Roscoe Ellis

Photo Credit: Roscoe Ellis

I was reading an occasional blast email from my friend Tom Brakke, when he mentioned a free publication from Redington, a UK asset management firm that employs actuaries, among others. I was very impressed with what I read in the 32-page publication, and highly recommend it to those who select investment managers or create asset allocations, subject to some caveats that I will list later in this article.

In the UK, actuaries are trained to a higher degree to deal with investments than they are in the US. The Society of Actuaries could learn a lot from the Institute of Actuaries in that regard. As a former Fellow in the Society of Actuaries, I was in the vanguard of those trying to apply actuarial principles to risk management, both when I managed risks for insurance companies, worked for non-insurance organizations, and manage money for upper middle class individuals and small institutions. Redington’s thoughts are very much like mine in most ways. As I see it, the best things about their investment reasoning are:

  • Risk management must be both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Risk is measured relative to client needs and thus the risk of an investment is different for clients with different needs.  Universal measures of risk like Sharpe ratios, beta and standard deviation of asset returns are generally inferior measures of risk.  (DM: But they allow the academics to publish!  That’s why they exist!  Please fire consultants that use them.)
  • Risk control methods must be implemented by clients, and not countermanded if they want the risk control to work.
  • Shorting requires greater certainty than going long (DM: or going levered long).
  • Margin of safety is paramount in investing.
  • Risk control is more important when things are going well.
  • It is better to think of alternatives in terms of the specific risks that they pose, and likely future compensation, rather than look at track records.
  • Illiquidity should be taken on with caution, and with more than enough compensation for the loss of flexibility in future asset allocation decisions and cash flow needs.
  • Don’t merely avoid risk, but take risks where there is more than fair compensation for the risks undertaken.
  • And more… read the 32-page publication from Redington if you are interested.  You will have to register for emails if you do so, but they seem to be a classy firm that would honor a future unsubscribe request.  Me?  I’m looking forward to the next missive.

Now, here are a few places where I differ with them:

Caveats

  • Aside from pacifying clients with lower volatility, selling puts and setting stop-losses will probably lower returns for investors with long liabilities to fund, who can bear the added volatility.  Better to try to educate the client that they are likely leaving money on the table.  (An aside: selling short-duration at-the-money puts makes money on average, and the opposite for buying them.  Investors with long funding needs could dedicate 1% of their assets to that when the payment to do so is high — it’s another way of profiting from offering insurance in of for a crisis.)
  • Risk parity strategies are overrated (my arguments against it here: one, two).
  • I think that reducing allocations to risky assets when volatility gets high is the wrong way to do it.  Once volatility is high, most of the time the disaster has already happened.  If risky asset valuations show that the market is offering you significant deals, take the deals, even if volatility is high.  If volatility is high and valuations indicate that your opportunities are average to poor at best, yeah, get out if you can.  But focus on valuations relative to the risk of significant loss.
  • In general, many of their asset class articles give you a good taste of the issues at hand, but I would have preferred more depth at the cost of a longer publication.

But aside from those caveats, the publication is highly recommended.  Enjoy!

1. Recently I appeared on RT Boom/Bust again.  The interview lasts 6+ minutes.  Erin Ade and I discussed:

  • Who benefits from lower energy prices.
  • The No-Lose Line for owning bonds,
  • Whether you are compensated for inflation risks in long bonds
  • How much an average person should invest in stocks with any assets that they have after buying their own house.
  • The value of economics, or lack thereof, to investors today.

2. Also, I did an “expert interview” for Mint.com.  I answered the following questions:

  • What is your most basic advice on investing?
  • What can you tell young people to help them stay financially secure in their futures?
  • How can a potential investor go about finding the best investment professional to work with for his or her individual needs?
  • Please explain how being a good investor and a good businessman go hand in hand.
  • What is your favorite part of your job?
  • You clearly do a lot of reading, as seen from your book reviews. What other genres of books do you enjoy?

3. Finally, Aleph Blog was featured in a list of the Top 100 Insurance Blogs at number 29.  I find it interesting because my blog has maybe 18% of posts on insurance topics.  That said, I have a distinctive voice on insurance, because I will talk about consumer issues, and what are companies that might be worth owning.

Enjoy the overly long infographic.

Top 100 Insurance BlogsAn infographic by the team at Rebates zone

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I’m going to show you two portfolios — I’m not initially going to tell you much about either one, but then you can consider which one you might like better.  Here’s portfolio A:

LOSERS_9447_image002

And here is portfolio B:

WINNERS_3286_image002

There is one obvious difference in the two portfolios: portfolio B has gone up more than portfolio A in the past year.  But the hidden story is that portfolio A’s stocks have had price returns of -85% or worse over the past four years, whereas portfolio B’s stocks have has price returns of 1000% or better.  They are the only stocks with current market caps of over $100 million that meet those criteria.

Now, which one would you choose, if you had to hold one portfolio for the next year? The next four years?

Oddly, the right answer might be portfolio A.  Currently, I am reading through a book called Deep Value, which I will review in a week or two, and they cite in Chapter 5 some research by Thaler and De Bondt which indicates that portfolios that have gone through extreme failure tend to outperform portfolios that have gone through extreme success.

Though the momentum anomaly (weak as it has been recently) usually favors portfolios with stronger price momentum, the relationship breaks down over longer periods of time, and more severe moves, where mean-reversion tends to take over.  One thing that I can tell looking at the two portfolios — the expectations are a lot, lot higher for portfolio B than portfolio A.  Things only have to stop getting worse for there to some positive price action there.

Sometimes I like to run a screen for stocks have done badly over the last four years, but have begun to outperform over the last year.  This can point out areas that are still ignored by most of the market, but where trend may have shifted.  I’ll post that screen after my software has its weekly update on Saturday.  Until then.

PS — as an aside, it will be fun to review the relative performance of these portfolios.

Sometime in the next few weeks, I am going to dig into my pre-2003 [pre-RealMoney] files and see if there is anything there to share with readers.  Most of my best stories I have already told in my various series.  The one I will tell tonight I don’t think I have told.

In 1994, we had a problem at Provident Mutual’s Pension Division.  Our main external equity manager was having a very lousy year as value managers that focused on absolute yield were getting taken to the cleaners.  This was after a few years of poor performance — the joke was, given the great performance of the past, “Hey, can you develop the 19-year track record?”  (The last 5 years as a group were horrid, but the previous 14 were great.)

Aside: there aren’t many absolute yield managers in equities today.  Back when dividend yields were higher, and corporate bond yields were higher, both absolute and relative yield managers flourished as interest rates and dividend yields crested in the early 1980s, and the stocks paying high dividends got bid up as interest rates fell, much as the same thing happened to zero coupon and other noncallable long duration bonds.

The process started with a call from a manager of managers who proposed that we start up “multiple manger funds,” where we would be the manager of managers.

This offered several advantages:

  • It offered us an easy out with our long-held failing manager, because we are not firing them, just making them a portion of the assets in the value fund.
  • It would make eliminating them easier in a second step, with less PR damage.
  • It would make us look like we were taking action and control in a new way for our clients. (They loved it.)
  • As it was, we did a good job selecting managers, and the funds performed well.
  • We could negotiate lower fees with the managers,
  • It gave us a great marketing story.
  • Our margins and growth improved.

I was critical to the process, being the only member of the team with investment expertise.  Everyone else was a marketer or the divisional head.  (I take that back, one member of the marketing area was genuinely sharp with investments.)  After we chose the managers, I set the allocations.

Now onto tonight’s topic (what a long intro): At the beginning of our relationship with the manager of managers, they did a traditional holdings-based analysis of how a manager managed assets.  About one year into the process, they introduced returns-based style analysis.

Though the Wikipedia article just cited has a bevy of errors, it will still give you a flavor for what it is.  Let me give my own explanation:

It takes a lot of effort and wisdom to look at quarterly portfolio snapshots and analyze what a manager is doing.  You almost have to be as wise as the manager himself to analyze it, but many fund analysts developed the skill.

But returns-based style analysis offered the holy grail: we can understand what the manager is doing simply by comparing the returns of the manager versus returns on  variety of asset indexes, using constrained multiple regression.

The idea was this: the returns of a manager are equal to his alpha versus a composite index that best fits his performance.  Since we were dealing with long-only managers, the weights on the index components could not be negative.

The practical upshot to the manager of mangers was: “Whoopee!  We can analyze every manager under the sun just by looking at their return patterns.  No more time-consuming work.”

After the first meeting with the manager of managers, I expressed my doubts, and asked for a special meeting with their quants.  A week later, I had a meeting with a few members of their staff, of which one was the quant, a nice lady 10 years my junior, who I felt sorry for.  She started her presentation at a very basic level, and asked “Do you have any questions?”  I asked, “Isn’t this just an quadratic optimization problem where you are choosing weights on the convex hull?”  She paused, and said, “Oh, so you *do* understand this.”  The meeting ended son after that — we agreed on the math, and in math, there is no magic.

But that placed me on the warpath; I genuinely felt the advice we were getting had declined in value.  I wrote a 16-page report to our manager explaining why returns-based style analysis was inferior.

  • There is no way to correctly estimate error bounds, because of nonlinear constraints.  (Note: two years later, I guy came up with an approximate way to do it in an article in the Financial Analysts Journal.  I called him, and we had a great talk.  That said, approximate is approximate, and I haven’t seen any adopt it.)
  • Because many of the indexes are highly correlated with each other, small differences in manager returns make a huge difference in the weight calculated for each index.
  • If a manager is changing investments because he senses a factor like market cap size or valuation is cheap, it will get interpreted as a change in his index, and will not come out as alpha, but as beta.
  • If I don’t believe that the CAPM and MPT are valid, why should I believe this monstrosity?
  • And more… I hope I find my 16-page paper in my files.

After six more months we terminated the manager of managers, and hired a better one.

  • Lower fees
  • Lower fees from managers (they had greater bargaining power)
  • We reduced our fees to clients
  • Better marketing name
  • Holdings based manager analysis

After that, things were much better, and we continued to grow.

My years at Provident Mutual were exceedingly fruitful — this was just one of many areas where my efforts paid off well.

All that said, there is no way to fix returns-based style analysis.  It is a bogus concept and needs to be abandoned.  Those who use it do not grasp the limits of econometrics, and are Sorcerer’s apprentices.

PS — Need I mention that the originator of the idea, Bill Sharpe, is not all that sharp with econometrics?  He’s a bright guy, but it is not his strong suit.

PPS — there are not many actuaries with a background in econometrics.  That is why I have written this.