Today I saw an article about a high school investing contest, and like most contests of that type, it does not teach investing, but speculation.

I’ve wanted to try this for about ten years or so.  I’d like to try running a stock picking contest, but only if I can offer decent prizes, and get enough participants.  I’ve written about this before, these would be the rules:

  1. No leverage and no shorting
  2. No trading — buy & hold
  3. No Exchange Traded Products, and only common stocks
  4. Minimum market capitalization of $100 million
  5. Only stocks traded on US exchanges
  6. Forced diversification — a portfolio of ten stocks equally weighted
  7. One stock from each of ten volatility buckets, to reduce speculation
  8. Highest geometric mean return wins — this gives a bonus to consistency, which also reduces speculation.  (Alternative rule: the best return on the seventh best stock in each portfolio wins.)
  9. Six month time frame.
  10. One entry per person.

The most critical rules are seven and eight.  The idea is to get people to think like investors, not speculators.  By forcing investors to buy a broad range of companies from conservative to aggressive will force them to evaluate individual companies, with an eye to avoiding big losers.  Rule number one, as many say, is don’t lose money.  This would honor the idea of avoiding losses while trying to make gains.  It would be a lot like what intelligent investing in a portfolio of stocks is really like.

The idea is to promote stock-picking.  Now lest you think I have taken all of the speculation out of this, let me tell you what my rules don’t stop:

  • Factor tilts — you can assemble a portfolio with price momentum
  • Industry and sector tilts
  • Foreign tilts
  • Size tilts
  • Valuation tilts
  • Investing in special situations
  • Copying famous investors

Now, Who Would Be Sponsors?

I can’t fund this on my own.  Also, I don’t think registration fees could fund such a contest.  Parties that could benefit from the branding and free advertising would include financial information companies and brokerages — they are some of the logical beneficiaries of promoting stock-picking.  So, would the following consider sponsoring such a contest?

  • Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance, Bloomberg, Marketwatch, Reuters, Money, Value Line,, etc.
  • Nasdaq OMX, Intercontinental Exchange
  • Schwab, E-Trade, Scottrade, Interactive Brokers, Ameritrade, Fidelity, ETrade, etc.

I don’t know, but I would want to have at least 1,000 entrants and $50,000 in prize money if were going to run a contest like this.  I’m sure it would be a lot of fun, and would teach investors a lot about investing, as opposed to speculation.

Thoughts?  Send them to me.  (Especially if you are interested in sponsoring the event.)

I imagine the SEC (or the Fed, IRS, or the FSOC) saying: “If we only have enough data, we can answer the policy questions that we are interested in, create better policy, prosecute bad guys, and regulate markets well.”

If they deigned to listen to an obscure quantitative analyst like me, I would tell them that it is much harder than that.  Data is useless without context and interpretation.  First, you have to have the right models of behavior, and understand the linkages between disparate markets.  Neoclassical economics will not be helpful here, because we aren’t rational in the ways that the economists posit.

Second, in markets you often find that causation is a squirrelly concept, and difficult to prove statistically.  Third, the question of right and wrong is a genuinely difficult one — what is acceptable behavior in markets?  Do we run a market for “big boys” who understand that this is all “at your own risk,” or a market that protects the interests of smaller players at a cost to the larger players?  Do we run a market that encourages volume, speed and efficiency, or one that avoids large movements in prices?

This article is an attempt to comment on the Wall Street Journal article on the SEC’s effort to create the Consolidated Audit Trail [CAT], in an effort to prevent future “flash crashes,” like the one we had five years ago.  I don’t think the efforts of the SEC will work, and I don’t think the goal they are pursuing is a desirable one.

People take actions in the markets for a wide number of reasons.  Some are hedging; some are investing; others are speculating.  Some invest for long periods, and others for seconds, and every period in-between.  Some are intermediaries, while others are direct investors.  Some are in one market, while others are operating in many markets at once.  Some react rapidly, and others trade little, if at all.  Just seeing that one party bought or sold a given security tells you little about what is going on and why.

Following price momentum works as an investment strategy, until the volume of trading following momentum strategies gets too high.  Then things go nuts.  Actions that by themselves are innocent may add up to an event that is unexpected.  After all, that is what dynamic hedging led to in 1987.  There was no sinister cabal looking to drive the market down.  And, because the event did not reflect any fundamental change to where valuations should be, price came back over time.

My contention is even with the huge amount of data, there will still be alternative theories, information that might be material excluded, and fuzziness over whether a given investment action was wrong or not.

After that, we can ask whether the proposed actions of the government provide any significant value to the market.  Some are offended when markets move rapidly for seemingly no reason, because they lose money on orders placed in the market at that time.  There is a much simpler, money saving solution to that close to home for each investor: DON’T USE MARKET ORDERS!  Set the price levels for your orders carefully, knowing that you could get lifted/filled at the level.

This is basic stuff that many investors counsel regarding investing.  If you use a market order you could get a price very different than what you anticipate, as I accidentally experienced in this tale.  I could complain, but is the government supposed to protect us from our own neglect and stupidity?  If we wanted that, there is no guarantee that we would end up with a better system.  After all, when the government sets rules, it does not always do them intelligently.

One of the beauties of capitalism is that it enables intelligent responses as a society to gluts and shortages without having a lot of rules to insure that.  Volatility is not a problem in the long run for a capitalist society.

If you lose money in the short run due to market volatility, no one told you that you had to trade that day.  Illogical market behavior, as in 1987 or the “flash crash” could be waited out with few ill effects.  Most of the difficulties inherent in a flash crash could be solved by people taking a longer view of the markets, and thinking like businessmen.

“It’s Baseball, Mom.”

I often spend time watching two of my younger children play basketball, baseball and softball.  They are often in situations where they might get hurt.  In those situations, after an accident, my wife gets antsy, while I watch to see if a rare severe injury has happened.  My wife asked one of my sons, “Don’t you worry about getting hurt?”  His response was, “It’s Baseball, Mom.  If you don’t get hurt every now and then, you aren’t playing hard enough.”  That didn’t put her at ease, but she understood, and accepted it.

In that same sense, I can tell you now that regardless of what the SEC does, there will be accidents, market events, and violent movements.  There will be people that complain that they lost money due to unfair behavior.  This is all a part of the broader “game” of the markets, which no one is required to play.  You can take the markets on your own terms and trade rarely, and guess what — you will likely do better than most, and avoid short-term volatility.

The SEC can decide what it wants to do with its scarce resources.  Is this the best use for the good of small investors?  I can think of many other lower cost ways to improve things… even just hiring more attorneys to prosecute cases, because most of the true problems the SEC faces are not problems of knowledge, but problems of the will to act and bear the political fallout for doing so.  And that — is a different game of baseball.

This will be the last of my institutional error pieces. It is not that I have not made any other errors, but these were the big ones.

National Atlantic Holdings [NAHC]

I was wrong yesterday.  I actually do have a lot available that I have written on this failure, since I wrote about it here at Aleph Blog.  More than you can shake a stick at.

Let me start at the beginning.  NAHC was an insurer with a niche presence in New Jersey.  They competed only in personal lines, which usually is easy to analyze.  New Jersey was a tough but not impossible state to operate in, and NAHC was a medium-sized fish for the size of the pond that they were in.

Chubb was not in NewJersey at that point in time, and so they wanted to insure autos, homes, and personal property, particularly that of wealthy people.

I thought it was an interesting company, trading slightly below tangible book, with a single-digit multiple on earnings, good protective boundaries, and a motivated management team.  The CEO owned over 10% of the firm, which seemed to be enough to motivate, but not enough to ignore shareholders.

In 2005, we bought a 5%+ stake in the company, which in 2006 became 10%+, and eventually topped out at 17%.  We might have bought more with the approval of the NewJersey Department of Insurance, which was easy at lower levels, and harder at higher levels, which was an interesting anti-takeover defense.

The company showed promise in many ways, but always seemed to have performance issues — little to medium surprises every few quarters.  The stock price didn’t do that much bad or good.  When I left Hovde at the end of July 2007, the position was at a modest gain.  Hovde had a hard time finding long names in that era, so the performance up to that point wasn’t that bad.

If you want to see my original logic for buying the stock after I left Hovde, you can read it here.

Here was the stock price graph from May 2007 to May 2008:


My old employer Hovde owned 17%.  I eventually owned 0.15%, at the prices you see there, at an average cost of $6.67 for me.  I eventually sold out at an average price of around $6.10.  (In the above graph, “Exit” was not a sale, but where I cut off the calculation.)  This wasn’t my worst loss by any means, but it cost my former employer badly, and it was my fault, not theirs.

What Went Wrong?

  • Their competitive position deteriorated as companies that previously avoided New Jersey entered the state.
  • They announced that they had reserving errors, and reported moderate losses as a result.
  • They announced a sale to Palisades Insurance, a private New Jersey insurer for $6.25/sh, valuing the company at less than 60% of tangible book value.  The fairness opinion was a bad joke.  The company would have been worth more in run-off.
  • Really, the management team was weak.

The first problem would be a tough one to solve.  On the second problem, I never got a good answer to how the loss reserves got so cockeyed, and somehow no one was to blame for it.  This is personal lines insurance — the reserves validate themselves every year.

But the third problem made me think the management was somewhat dishonest.  A larger company could have paid a higher price for NAHC, but that probably would have meant that management would lose their jobs.  They gave shareholders the short end of the stick for the good of management, and perhaps employees.

My biggest error was giving too much credit, and too much patience to the management team.  I met far better management teams in my time as a buy-side analyst, and they were on the low end of the competence scale.  I let cheapness and a strong balance sheet blind me to the eroding competitiveness, and weak ability to deal with the problem.

Ultimately, Hovde found itself in a weak position because it could not file for appraisal rights, a fraud case would have been weak, and the NJ Department of Insurance would not let them acquire enough to block the deal.  Besides, once arbs got a hold of over 40% of the shares, the deal was almost impossible to block.

As I often say, risk control is best done on the front end.  On the back end, solutions are expensive, if they are available at all.

The front end for you can be learning from my errors.  Wise men learn from the mistakes of others.  Average men learn from their own mistakes.  Dumb men never learn.

In closing, be conservative in investing, and be wise.  I thought I was being both, so seek the counsel of others to check your logic.

Photo Credit: Ian || Watching Capital Implode is a Marvel to Behold!

Photo Credit: Ian || Watching Capital Implode is a Marvel to Behold!

This is one of the many times that I wish had not changed its file structure, losing virtually all content prior to 2008.  (It is also a reason that I am glad I started blogging.  It’s more difficult to lose this content.)  When I was a stock analyst at Hovde Capital Advisors, I made 2 humongous blunders.  I wrote about them fairly extensively at RealMoney as the situation unfolded, so if I had those posts, it would make the following article better.  As it is, I am going to have to go from memory, because both companies are no longer in business.  Here we go:

Scottish Re

Sustainable competitive advantage is difficult to find in insurance.  Proprietary methods are as good as the employees creating and using them, and they can leave when they would like to.  This applies to underwriting, investing, and expense management.  What else is there in an insurance company?  There are back end processes of valuation and cash flow management, but those financial reporting processes serve to inform the front end of how an insurer operates.

One area that had and continues to have sustainable competitive advantage is life reinsurance.  An global oligopoly of companies grew organically and through acquisitions to become dominant in life reinsurance.  Their knowledge and mortality databases make them far more knowledgeable the life insurers that seek to pass some of the risk of the death of their policyholders to them.  They can be very profitable and stable.  I already owned shares of RGA for Hovde, and in 2005 wanted to expand the position by buying some of the cheaper and more junior company Scottish Re.

Scottish Re had only been in business since 1998, versus RGA since 1973.  These were the only pure play life reinsurers in the world.  Scottish Re had grown organically and through acquisition to become the #5 member of the oligopoly.  The top 5 life reinsurers controlled 80% of the global market.  I made the case to the team at Hovde, and we took a medium-sized position.

The first thing I should have noticed was the high level of complexity of the holding company structure.  Unlike RGA, they operated to a high degree in a wide number of offshore tax and insurance haven domiciles — notably Bermuda, Ireland, Cayman Islands, and others.  Second, their ownership diagrams rivaled AIG for complexity, and their market capitalization was less than 2% of AIG’s at the time.  [Note: balance sheet complexity did not bode well for AIG either — down 98% since then, but it beats Scottish Re going out at zero.]

The second thing I should have noticed was the high degree of underwriting leverage.  Relative to RGA, it reinsured much more life risk relative to the size of its balance sheet.

The third thing I should have noticed was the cleverness of some of the financing methods of Scottish Re — securitization was uncommon in life reinsurance, and they were doing it successfully.

The final thing that I should have noticed was that earnings quality was poor.  They usually made their earnings, but often because their tax rate was so low… and the deferred tax assets were a large part of book value.  (Note: deferred tax assets only have value if you are going to have pretax income in the future.  That was soon not to be.)

In 2005, Scottish Re won the auction for buying up another member of the oligopoly, ING Life Re.  I asked the CFO of RGA why they didn’t buy it, and his comment was that he didn’t think anyone would pay more than they bid.  That should have led me to sell, but I didn’t.  The price of Scottish Re drifted down, until August 3, 2006, when they announced second quarter earnings, reporting a huge loss, writing off a large portion of their deferred tax assets, and the stock price dropped 75% in one day.  I eventually wrote about that at RealMoney, noting it was the single worst day in the hedge funds history, and it was due to my errors.  You can also read my questions/comments from the conference call here (pages 50-53).

If you look at the RealMoney article, you might note that we tripled our position at around $6.90 after the disaster.  That took a lot of guts, and we didn’t know it then, but it was the wrong thing to do.  The stock rallied all the way up to $10 or so.  If it hit $11, we were going to sell out.   That was not to be.

I spent hours and hours going through obscure insurance filings.  I analyzed every document that I could get my hands on including the rating agency analyses, because they had access to inside data in aggregate that no one else had outside of the company.  The one consistent thing that I learned was that insolvency was unlikely — which would later prove wrong.

The stock price fell and fell all the way down to $3, with rumors of insolvency swirling, when Mass Mutual and Cerberus rode to the rescue on November 27, 2006, buying 69% of the company for a paltry $600 million in convertible preferred stock.  At that point, I finally got it right.  All of my prior research had some value, because when I read through the documents that day and saw the liquidity raised relative to the amount of ownership handed over.  Given the data that they now handed out, I concluded that Scottish Re was worth $1/share, and possibly zero.

But there was a relief rally that day, and we sold into it.  We ended up selling about 4% of the total market cap of Scottish Re that day at a price of $6.25.

The bright side of the whole matter was that we could have lost a lot more.  Scottish Re was eventually worth zero, and Mass Mutual and Cerberus took significant losses, as did the remaining shareholders.

As it was, the fault was all mine — my colleagues at Hovde deserved none of the blame.

The Lesson Learned

One year later, I wrote a note to the late Greg Newton who wrote the notable blog, Naked Shorts, when he was critical of Cerberus (they had a lot of failures in that era).  This was the summary that I gave him on Scottish Re:

Cerberus got into SCT @ $3; it’s now around $2.  For me, on the bright side, when their deal with SCT was announced, I quickly went through the data, and recommended selling.  We got out @ $6.25.  That limited our losses, but it was still my biggest failure when I was at Hovde.  The mixture of leverage, alien domiciled subsidiaries, reinsurance underwriting leverage, plus complex and novel securitization structures was pure poison.  I was mesmerized by the seemingly cheap valuation and actuarial studies that indicated that mortality experience was a little better than expected.  I violated my leverage and simplicity rules on that one.

He gave me a very kind response, better than I deserved.  As it was Scottish Re went dark, delisting in May 2008, and trading for about a nickel per share at the last 10K in July of 2008.  It eventually went to zero.

The biggest lesson is to do the research better on illiquid and opaque financial companies, or, avoid them entirely.  Complexity and leverage there are typically not rewarded.  I’d like to say that I fully learned my lesson there, but I got whacked again by the same lesson on a personal investment later in 2008.  That’s a subject for a later article.

I have one more bad equity investment from my hedge fund days, and I will write about that sometime soon, to end this part of the series.

Full disclosure: still long RGA for my clients and me

This will be the post where I cover the biggest mistakes that I made as an institutional bond and stock investor. In general, in my career, my results were very good for those who employed me as a manager or analyst of investments, but I had three significant blunders over a fifteen-year period that cost my employers and their clients a lot of money.  Put on your peril-sensitive sunglasses, and let’s take a learning expedition through my failures.

Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates

In 2001, I lost my boss.  In the midst of a merger, he figured his opportunities in the merged firm were poor, and so he jumped to another firm.  In the process, I temporarily became the Chief Investment Officer, and felt that we could take some chances that the boss would not take that in my opinion were safe propositions.  All of them worked out well, except for one: The — Mezzanine and Subordinated Certificates of Manufactured Housing Asset Back Securities [MHABS].  What were those beasts?

Many people in the lower middle class live in prefabricated housing in predominantly in trailer parks around the US.  You get a type of inexpensive independent living that is lower density than an apartment building, and the rent you have to pay is lower than renting an apartment.  What costs some money is paying for the loan to buy the prefabricated housing.

Those loans would get gathered into bunches, put into a securitization trust, and certificates would get sold allocating cash flows with different probabilities of default.  Essentially there were four levels (in order of increasing riskiness) — Senior, Mezzanine, Subordinated, and Residual.  I focused on the middle two classes because they seemed to offer a very favorable risk/reward trade-off if you selected carefully.

In 2001, it was obvious that there was too much competition for lending to borrowers in Manufactured Housing [MH] — too many manufacturers were trying to sell their product to a saturated market, and underwriting suffered.  But, if you looked at older deals, lending standards were a lot higher, but the yields on those bonds were similar to those on the badly underwritten newer deals.  That was the key insight.

One day, I was able to confirm that insight by talking with my rep at Lehman Brothers.  I talked to him about the idea, and he said, “Did you know we have a database on the loss stats of all of the Green Tree (the earliest lender on MH) deals since inception?”  After the conversation was over, I had that database, and after one day of analysis — the analysis was clear: underwriting standards had slipped dramatically in 1998, and much further in 1999 and following.

That said, the losses by deal and duration since issuance followed a very predictable pattern: a slow ramp-up of losses over 30 months, and then losses tailing off gradually after about 60 months.  The loss statistics of all other MH lenders aside from Vanderbilt (now owned by Berkshire Hathaway) was worse than Green Tree losses.  The investment idea was as follows:

Buy AA-rated mezzanine and BBB-rated subordinated MHABS originated by Green Tree in 1997 and before that.  The yield spreads over Treasuries are compelling for the rating, and the loss rates would have to jump and stick by a factor of three to impair the subordinated bonds, and by a factor of six to impair the mezzanine bonds.  These bonds have at least four years of seasoning, so the loss rates are very predictable, and are very unlikely to spike by that much.

That was the thesis, and I began quietly acquiring $200 million of these bonds in the last half of 2001.  I did it for several reasons:

  • The yields were compelling.
  • The company that I was investing for was growing way too rapidly, and we needed places to put money.
  • The cash flow profile of these securities matched very well the annuities that the company was selling.
  • The amount of capital needed to carry the position was small.

By the end of 2001, two things happened.  The opportunity dried up, because I had acquired enough of the bonds on the secondary market to make a difference, and prices rose.  Second, I was made the corporate bond manager, and another member of our team took over the trade.  He didn’t much like the trade, and I told my boss that it was his portfolio now, he can do what he wanted.

He kept the positions on, but did not add to them.  I was told he looked at the bonds, noticed that they were all trading at gains, and stuck with the positions.

Can You Make It Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

I left the firm about 14 months later, and around that time, the prices for MHABS fell apart.  Increasing defaults on MH loans, and failures of companies that made MH, made many people exceptionally bearish and led rating agencies to downgrade almost all MHABS bonds.

The effects of the losses were similar to that of the Housing Bubble in 2007-9.  As people defaulted, the value of existing prefabricated houses fell, because of the glut of unsold houses, both new and used.  This had an effect, even on older deals, and temporarily, loss rates spiked above the levels that would impair the bonds that I bought if the levels stayed that high.

With the ratings lowered, more capital had to be put up against the positions, which the insurance company did not want to do, because they always levered themselves up more highly than most companies — they never had capital to spare, so any loss on bonds was a disaster to them.

They feared the worst, and sold the bonds at a considerable loss, and blamed me.


Easy to demonize the one that is gone, and forget the good that he did, and that others had charge of it during the critical period.  So what happened to the MHABS bonds that I bought?

Every single one of those bonds paid off in full.  Held to maturity, not one of them lost a dime.

What was my error?

Part of being a good investor is knowing your client.  In my case, the client was an impossible one, demanding high yields, low capital employed, and no losses.  I should have realized that at some later date, under a horrific scenario, that the client would not be capable of holding onto the securities.  For that reason, I should have never bought them in the first place.  Then again, I should have never bought anything with any risk for them under those conditions, because in a large enough portfolio, you will have some areas where the risk will surprise you.  This was less than 2% of the consolidated assets of the firm, and they can’t hold onto securities that would likely be money good amid a panic?!

Sadly, no.  As their corporate bond manager, before I left, I sold down positions like that that my replacement might not understand, but I did not control the MHABS portfolio then, and so I could not do that.

Maybe $50 million went down the drain here.  On the bright side, it helped teach me what would happen in the housing bubble, and my next employer benefited from those insights.

Thus the lesson is: only choose investments that your client will be capable of holding even during horrible times, because the worst losses come from panic selling.

Next time, my two worst stock losses from my hedge fund days.

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.


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.

Welcome back to this irregular series where I go through the large blunders that I have committed in my investments.  Let’s start with an unusual one: a telecommunications partnership.

In the late ’80s the US government allocated some telecom spectrum via a lottery process.  I had some friends that participated in the first lottery, and received a decent amount of valuable spectrum.  The only thing they had to do was have the engineering documents drawn up, which a third party consultant did.  I said to myself that if it ever came around again, I would try to participate.

In the early ’90s, lo and behold, a second lottery with the same rules.  I invested enough to gain a 30% interest in a partnership that would be going after the center of the US, ignoring the east and west coasts.  I had seven partners with 10% interests, and they elected me to be the lead partner.  So far, so good, right?

Well, seemingly.  The thing is, why should the government allocate spectrum by lottery?  Shouldn’t they sell it off to the highest bidder?  After all, that’s what most people did with the spectrum they received in the first lottery.  (I was planning on trying to create an operating company.)  Shouldn’t the US government cut out the middlemen, and receive more for a valuable and somewhat limited asset?

Prompted by the telecommunication firms, who preferred having fewer and larger auctions rather than buying from a bunch of disparate individuals, the US government acted in its own interests, and cancelled, even after all of the lottery participants plans had been approved.

In the end, we got back our fees from the government, but lost the money that we spent on engineering documents.  After writing off the losses, it was a loss of 50%.  That said, I also lost any profits from investing the money in stocks over the eight years that the money was tied up.  (The promoter that did the engineering documents went into hiding, having lost their shirts in the process, with a lot of annoyed people that bought their services.)

Small Cap Value Forever!

So what was I doing in equity investing in that era?  Small cap value — little companies trading at bargain prices.  Of all the managers that I interviewed when creating the multiple manager funds for my employer, I found the small cap value guys to be the most business-minded and interesting.  A few of us at my firm would research out lesser known companies and share the ideas.  We had some fun with it.  We would occasionally say to each other, “Small Cap Value Forever!”

Now, when the dot-com bubble came around, I was not tempted to play in that area of the market, but I fell into a lesser version of the same trap here.  I started doing this just as small cap value’s period of outperformance was ending, and growth was taking over.

So how did I do?  Not that bad… Small cap value lagged the S&P 500 by about 5%/year over the time I was focused on it, and I was able to beat the S&P 500 by a little bit.  Not the greatest, but not the worst, either.  In the process, I ran into a number of bizarre situations that taught me a lot, particularly with the smallest companies that I invested in.

In one case, I made the mistake of entering a market order to initiate a position.  (Accident: I typically only use limit orders.) The stock was so thinly traded that I got filled at levels an average of 50% above where the bid was.  The price promptly fell back to where it was prior to my purchase.  Adding insult to injury, management ruined the place, and the price fell by over 80%.  I looked at the situation, thought the assets were worth far more, and submitted a bid to an institutional investor to buy out his entire stake (and I would become a 5%+ holder of the company — I had to ask my compliance area if I could do that, and they were bemused at the odd request, and assented.)  The investor did not take my bid, but held on, and the management announced a buyout for the company at a level that would have given me a significant gain had I been able to buy the block of stock, but instead left me with a 80%+ loss on a small position, which wasn’t large enough to consider filing for appraisal rights.

Then there was one that went very well, but taught me the wrong lesson.  A few weeks after I bought a stake in a small electronic parts company, Corcom, another company bought it for cash.  At first I was happy with the quick and sizable win, but then I realized that I might have done better over time if the company hadn’t sold out.

That said, I noticed how wide the arbitrage spread was on the deal, and the annualized rate was 40%/year.  I bought more and more of it, and eventually even used leverage to goose returns (this doesn’t sound like the older me, right?  Right.)  I made a lot of money in the process when the deal completed.

Here’s the wrong conclusion I drew: small deal arbitrage was lucrative and easy.  I started doing that exclusively for two years during 1998-2000.  During that time I learned:

  • It’s not easy.  Small deal arbitrage investing is like investing in high yield bonds where the management teams have disproportionate opportunity to act against the interests of owners.
  • It’s not as lucrative as it looks, either.  One deal gone wrong will eat the profits of ten that go right.
  • It takes a lot of time to find, analyze and compare new deals.  I spent much more time on that than when I was doing value investing.  I felt my time with my family was suffering.

More deals went bad than should have.  My credit analysis on the deals was subpar.  I particularly remember one where the buyer used an obscure clause to get out of the deal, and the company, Advanced Technical Products, took the acquirer to court and lost.

After the loss in court, I sold for a 70%+ loss, and then insult added to injury happened again… after 9/11, the products that they made for structural purposes came into high demand, and the stock shot up more than fifteen times.  Had I held on, I would have quadrupled my original investment.  (I smile and laugh a little as I write this.)

What did I learn?

This was the worst two years of all my investing, so I learned quite a bit:

  • Often your worst errors come trying to repeat a single abnormally large success.
  • Stick to what you know best, which for me was value investing.
  • Don’t chase fads.
  • Analyze management teams of small companies very carefully.  They can potentially get away with a lot more if there are no significant controlling investors.
  • Analyze your own investing to figure out what you are best at.  I did such an analysis afterward, and saw value investing and industry analysis as key strengths.
  • Focus on risk control.  Focus on risk control.  Focus on risk control……
  • Do more analysis of unusual ways of investing before committing money.

On the bright side, this period set me for my best period of investing, which would be 2000-2010.  The lessons and discipline learned would prove invaluable to me, and the companies that I served.

Despite the large and seemingly meaty title, this will be a short piece.  I class these types of investors together because most of them have long investment horizons.  From an asset-liability management standpoint, that would mean they should invest similarly.  That may be have been true for Defined Benefit [DB] pension plans and Endowments, but that has shifted over time, and is increasingly not true.  In some ways, the DB plans are becoming more like life insurers in the way they invest, though not totally so.  So, why do they invest differently?  Two reasons: internal risk management goals, and the desires of insurance regulators to preserve industry solvency.

Let’s start with life insurers.  Regulators don’t want insolvent companies, so they constrain companies into safe assets using risk-based capital charges.  The riskier the investment, the more capital the insurer has to put up against it.  After that, there is cash-flow testing which tends to push life insurers to match assets and liabilities, or at least, not have a large mismatch.  Also, accounting rules may lead insurers to buy assets where the income will show up on their financial statements regularly.

The result of this is that life insurers don’t invest much in risk assets — maybe they invest in stocks, junk bonds, etc. up to the amount of their surplus, but not much more than that.

DB plans don’t have regulators that care about investment risks.  They do have plan sponsors that do care about investment risk, and that level of care has increased over the past 15 years.  Back in the late ’90s it was in vogue for DB plans to allocate more and more to risk assets, just in time for the market to correct.  (Note to retail investors: professionals may deride your abilities, but the abilities of many professionals are questionable also.)

Over that time, the rate used to discount DB plan liabilities became standardized and attached to long high quality bonds.  Together with a desire to minimize plan funding risks, and thus corporate risks for the plan sponsor, that led to more investments in bonds, and less in equities and other risk assets.  Some plans try to cash flow match expected future plan payments out to a horizon.

Finally, endowments have no regulator, and don’t have a plan sponsor that has to make future payments.  They are free to invest as they like, and probably have the highest degree of variation in their assets as a group.  There is some level of constraint from the spending rules employed by the endowments, particularly since 2008-9, when a number of famous endowments came to realize that there was a liability structure behind them when they ran low on liquidity amid the crisis. [Note: long article.]  You might think it would be smart to have the present value of 3-5 years of expenditures on hand in bonds, but that is not always the case.  In some ways, the quick recovery taught some endowment investors the wrong lesson — that they could wait out any crisis.

That’s my quick summary.  If you have thoughts on the matter, you can share them in the comments.


15 years is a long time to wait for a 1%/yr return

15 years is a long time to wait for a 1%/yr return

The big news of the day is that the NASDAQ Composite hit a new high for the first time in 15 years.  Nice, except as you note from the above graph, that if you adjusted for inflation, you still haven’t made a new high.  By the time the NASDAQ Composite hits a new high, it will have to rack up at least another 2000 points, which is 40% or so away.  Now if you add dividends back in since March 10th, 2000, you get to roughly a 1% return.

That’s a lot of pain for not much gain.  That said, few if any rode out this storm in a fund like the NASDAQ composite. The pain would have been so great that most would have given up in 2002, and those that survived would have given up in 2008-9.  We aren’t designed to take that much pain and hold on.  I have a stronger financial pain tolerance than most, and I can’t think of a stock I hung on to past a 75% decline that ever came back in full.  50%?  Yes.  75%?  No.

I haven’t run the dollar-weighted return calculation for the QQQ, but I’ll try to run that calculation in a future blog post, and who knows, maybe I will run the calculation for John Hussman’s main fund at some future point also.

Look Elsewhere

Looking at the NASDAQ Composite is more a glimpse at the past rather than the future.  But let me take two more glimpses at the past before I give you a guess at the future.

I remember March 10th, 2000, and the months around it.  As the dot-com bubble expanded, what industry did the worst, and bounced back the hardest?  Property/Casualty Insurance.  I tell my story in detail in this post that I find amusing.  To shorten this article, I can tell you that if you invested in undervalued industries in 2000-2001, you didn’t get hurt badly at all; you may even have made money like me.  2002 was another matter — everything got smashed.

But many famous value investors never got to participate in that rally, because they got fired, or retired amid the furor of the dot-com bubble.  This is yet another reason why it is so hard as an asset manager to hold onto promising assets that are out of favor… if your clients leave you because they can’t take any more pain, you will be forced to liquidate because of them.  If you are a big enough holder of those assets, the process may drive the price down further, adding insult to injury.

In my own case, I got derided by peers in early 2000 by owning a lot of property/casualty insurers, particularly my own company, The St. Paul (now part of the Travelers).

Here’s another glimpse: Sometime in 2005, I got introduced to a company called Industrias Bachoco [IBA].  It was a medium-sized chicken producer based in Celaya, Mexico.  Today, I believe it is second to Tyson Foods in North America as far as chicken production goes.

It looked interesting and underfollowed, in an industry that I thought had good prospects, because in a world with a growing middle class, meat would be a premium food product in demand.  So I bought some, and mostly held on.

Yummy Chicken, no?

Yummy Chicken, no?

If you had bought IBA on March 10th, 2000, and held until today, you would have gotten a little more than a 17%/year return.  4% of that came from dividends.  Not quite a Peter Lynch 10-bagger from that point, but getting closer by the day.

Because I got there later, my returns haven’t been as good as that, but still well worth owning over the last ten years.  I highlight IBA because I know it well, and it serves as a good example of a winning stock that few would have been likely to choose.  Agriculture is not a sexy industry, whereas technology gets lots of admirers.  But with an intelligent management team and conservative finances, IBA has done very well.  Now, what will do well in the future?

This is why I tell you to look elsewhere for ideas, away from the crowds.  Not that everything will do as well as IBA did, but where are the good assets that few are looking at?

Tough question.  I’ll give you a few ideas, but then you have to work on it yourself.

1) Look at higher quality names in out-of-favor industries.  The advantage of this approach is that your downside is likely to be limited, while the upside could be significant.  I’ve seen it work many times.  Note: avoid “buggy whip” industries where the decline is final; the internet is eating a lot of industries.

2) Look at companies outside the US that act in the best interests of outside, passive, minority investors like you and me.  There is less competition there from analysts and clever US-focused investors.  Note: spend extra time analyzing how they have used free cash flow in the past.  Is management rational at allocating capital, or even clever?

3) Look at firms that can’t be taken over, where a control investor seems savvy, and acts in the best interests of outside, passive, minority investors.  Many won’t invest in those firms because they are less liquid, and a takeover is very unlikely.

4) Look at smaller firms pursuing a growing niche in an otherwise dull industry.  Or smaller firms that have good finances, but have some taint that keeps investors from re-examining it.

5) Look through 13F filings for new names that look promising, before too many people learn about the company.  Or, IPOs and spin-offs in industries that are dull.

6) Analyze stocks that are in the lowest quartile of performance over the last 3-5 years.

7) Or, go to Value Line, and look at the stocks with the highest appreciation potential, with an adequate safety rank.

Regardless, look forward from here, and look at assets that are cheap relative to future prospects that few others are looking at.  There is little value in searching where everyone else does, such as the main stocks in the NASDAQ Composite.

Full Disclosure: long IBA and TRV for clients and me

Photo Credit: -Mandie-

Photo Credit: -Mandie-

You can catch part 1 here, where the first six reasons were:

  • Arrive at the wrong time
  • Leave at the wrong time
  • Chase the hot sector/industry
  • Ignore Valuations
  • Not think like a businessman, or treat it like a business
  • Not diversify enough

On to the last six reasons:

7) Play around with pseudo-stocks

ETFs are simple.  Perhaps they are too simple, allowing people to implement their investment views very rapidly, when have not done sufficient due diligence on the target of their investing.

As a quick example, consider the CurrencyShares series of ETFs.  You know that if you use these, you are making an unsecured loan to JP Morgan, right?  Well, you might be bright, but most people think these funds are collateralized.

ETFs are complex, particularly if you use any that are short or levered.  They attempt to mirror the price move of a day, and typically underperform if held over longer periods.  Again, you might know this, but most people don’t.  Personally, I would ban them on public policy grounds.

Commodity ETFs and Bond ETFs have their own issues, as do ETNs with their credit risk, etc., etc.  How many people actually look through the prospectus, or at least the information sheet provided by the fund?  Precious few, I think.

If you use ETFs, stick to the good ones. (Article one, Article two)

8) Gamble

This one should be obvious.  Most good investing focuses on avoiding losses, and compounding gains in a predictable manner.  Taking chances, like speculating on the short-term direction of markets through puts and calls is a way to lose money predictably.  (I leave out covered calls and married puts.)  It is hard enough to get a good idea of where a stock is going in the long run.  Getting it in the short run is much harder.

9) Ignore Balance Sheets and Cash Flow

Those who follow the fundamentals of most companies pay attention to the most manipulated of the three main financial statements — the income statement.  Companies often try to make their earnings numbers, and compromise their accounting in the process.

Accrual entries depend on assumptions and can be tweaked to favor management’s view of profitability.  Cash for the most part is a lot harder to fake, and most companies wouldn’t consider faking it, because few look there.

Looking at the change in net worth per share with dividends added back is often a better measure of financial progress than earnings per share.  Beyond that, investing is not just about earnings, but about the margin of safety in the company.  Many things look very cheap that have a significant risk of failure.  Analyzing the balance sheet can keep you from many situations that will result in losses.

10) Try a little of this and a little of that – No strategy / No edge

It takes a while to become good at a method of investing.  Read about different methods and settle on one that fits the whole of your life.  I gave up on certain methods because they took up too much time, and I had a family to tend to.

I rarely short assets, because to do it right would require large changes to the way I do risk control.  (The same applies to options.)  Good risk control is easy when the choice is between long assets and cash only.  It gets a lot harder when you can short or go leveraged long, because you no longer have full control over what you are doing — the margin clerks will have some say over your assets.

Also, understand your circle of competence.  What is your edge, and where does it apply?  I avoid investing in biotechnology because I can’t tell a good idea from a bad one there, aside from estimating how long the company has before it needs to raise more capital.  I do more with insurance than most do, because I intuitively understand how the companies work, and what a good insurance management team is like.

That doesn’t mean you can’t broaden your strategy or increase your circle of competence.  But it does mean that you will have to study if you want to do it well.  This is a business if you are going to make active bets in a big way.  You will need to spend time equivalent or greater than that of a significant hobby.

11) Trade Aggressively

In general, you don’t make money when you trade.  You make it while you wait.  Most ideas in investing take time to work out, unless you are gambling on a short-term event, or speculating on a move in the stock price.

Most of the studies that I have done on investment in mutual funds of all sorts, including ETFs, show that buy-and-hold investors typically do better than the average investors in the mutual funds.  On average, the losers are the ones who do the trading.  That’s not to say there aren’t some clever traders out there.  There are, but you are not likely to be one of them.  Frequent trading, unless carefully controlled, is more likely to result in a lot of losses, and few gains, because fear causes many to panic in the short-run.

Even if successful, most aggressive traders get taxed more heavily than those with long-term gains.  Most of my investment income qualifies for the lowest tax rates, and since I use big gains for charitable giving, my effective rates are lower still.

12) Short incautiously

This may affect the fewest number of my readers, but I have seen even professionals struggle with making money from shorting, particularly when they think an asset is worth nothing ultimately.

Shorting is a difficult way to make money, because your downside is unlimited, and your upside is limited to 100% if the asset goes to zero.  Another way to say it is that your risk gets larger with shorting as the position moves against you.  The risk gets smaller when long positions move against you.

if you must short, then treat it like a business and do it tactically.

  • Diversify shorts much more than longs.
  • Be tactical, and go for lots of little wins rather than a few big wins.
  • Set a time limit on your short positions at inception, and close out the positions no later than that.
  • Be aware that you are likely embedding factor bets on steroids, which can blow up in the wrong market environment. (E.g., short size, long value, short quality, short liquidity, short momentum, etc., would be common for a value oriented hedge fund)


Be aware of the foibles that exist in investing.  There are many of them, as described in this article and the last one.  If you want to profit over the long haul, act to avoid the traps that derail most retail investors.  If you get knocked out of the game, and no longer invest as a result of a trap, you forgo all of the gains that you might have otherwise gotten with more diligence and patience.