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: Mark Stevens

Photo Credit: Mark Stevens

There’s one thing that is a misunderstanding about retirement investing. It’s not something that is out-and-out wrong. It’s just not totally right.

Many think the objective is to acquire a huge pile of assets.

Really, that’s half of the battle.

The true battle is this: taking a stream of savings, derived from a stream of income, and turning it into a robust stream of income in retirement.

That takes three elements to achieve: saving, compounding, and distribution.

What’s that, you say?  That’s no great insight?

Okay, let me go a little deeper then.

Saving is the first skirmish.  Few people develop a habit of saving when they are relatively young.  Try to make it as automatic as possible.  Aim for at least 10% of income, and more if you are doing well, particularly if your income is not stable.

Don’t forget to fund a “buffer fund” of 3-6 months of expenses to be used for only the following:

  • Emergencies
  • Gaining discounts for advance payment (if you know you have future income to replenish it)

The savings and the “buffer fund” provide the ability to enter into the second phase, compounding.  The buffer fund allows the savings to not be invaded for current use so they can be invested and compound their value into a greater amount.

Now, compounding is trickier than it may seem.  Assets must be selected that will grow their value including dividend payments over a reasonable time horizon, corresponding to a market cycle or so (4-8 years).  Growth in value should be in excess of that from expanding stock market multiples or falling interest rates, because you want to compound in the future, and low interest rates and high stock market multiples imply that future compounding opportunities are lower.

Thus, in one sense, you don’t benefit much from a general rise in values from the stock or bond markets.  The value of your portfolio may have risen, but at the cost of lower future opportunities.  This is more ironclad in the bond market, where the cash flow streams are fixed.  With stocks and other risky investments, there may be some ways to do better.

1) With asset allocation, overweight out-of-favor asset classes that offer above average cashflow yields.  Estimates on these can be found at GMO or Research Affiliates.  Rebalance into new asset classes when they become cheap.

2) Growth at a reasonable price investing: invest in stocks that offer capital growth opportunities at a inexpensive price and a margin of safety.  These companies or assets need to have large opportunities in front of them that they can reinvest their free cash flow into.  This is harder to do than it looks.  More companies look promising and do not perform well than those that do perform well.

3) Value investing: Find undervalued companies with a margin of safety that have potential to recover when conditions normalize, or find companies that can convert their resources to a better use that have the willingness to do that.  As your companies do well, reinvest in new possibilities that have better appreciation potential.

4) Distressed investing: in some ways, this can be market timing, but be willing to take risk when things are at their worst.  That can mean investing during a credit crisis, or investing in countries where conditions are somewhat ugly at present.  This applies to risky debt as well as stocks and hybrid instruments.  The best returns come out of investing near the bottom of a panic.  Do your homework carefully here.

5) Avoid losses.  Remember:

  • Margin of safety.  Valuable asset well in excess of debts, rule of law, and a bargain price.
  • In dealing with distress, don’t try to time the bottom — maybe use a 200-day moving average rule to limit risk and invest when the worst is truly past.
  • Avoid the areas where the hot money is buying and own assets being acquired by patient investors.

Adjust your portfolio infrequently to harvest things that have achieved their potential and reinvest in promising new opportunities.

That brings me to the final skirmish, distribution.

Remember when I said:

You don’t benefit much from a general rise in values from the stock or bond markets.  The value of your portfolio may have risen, but at the cost of lower future opportunities.

That goes double in the distribution phase. The objective is to convert assets into a stream of income.  If interest rates are low, as they are now, safe income will be low.  The same applies to stocks (and things like them) trading at high multiples regardless of what dividends they pay.

Don’t look at current income.  Look instead at the underlying economics of the business, and how it grows value.  It is far better to have a growing income stream than a high income stream with low growth potential.

Also consider the risks you may face, and how your assets may fare.  How are you exposed to risk from:

  • Inflation
  • Deflation and a credit crisis
  • Expropriation
  • Regulatory change
  • Trade wars
  • Etc.

And, as you need, liquidate some of the assets that offer the least future potential for your use.  In retirement, your buffer might need to be bigger because the lack of wage income takes away a hedge against unexpected expenses.


There are other issues, like taxes, illiquidity, and so forth to consider, but this is the basic idea on how to convert present excess income into a robust income stream in retirement.  Managing a pile of assets for income to live off of is a challenge, and one that most people are not geared up for, because poor planning and emotional decisions lead to subpar results.

Be wise and aim for the best future opportunities with a margin of safety, and let the retirement income take care of itself.  After all, you can’t rely on the markets or the policymakers to make income opportunities easy.  Choose wisely.

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:


  • 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!

Photo Credit: Chris Piascik

Photo Credit: Chris Piascik

Most formal statements on financial risk are useless to their users. Why?

  • They are written in a language that average people and many regulators don’t speak.
  • They often don’t define what they are trying to avoid in any significant way.
  • They don’t give the time horizon(s) associated with their assessments.
  • They don’t consider the second-order behavior of parties that are managing assets in areas related to their areas.
  • They don’t consider whether history might be a poor guide for their estimates.
  • They don’t consider the conflicting interests and incentives of the parties that direct the asset managers, and how their own institutional risks affect their willingness to manage the risks that other parties deem important.
  • They are sometimes based off of a regulatory view of what can/must be stated, rather than an economic view of what should be stated.
  • Occasionally, approximations are used where better calculations could be used.  It’s amazing how long some calculations designed for the pencil and paper age hang on when we have computers.
  • Also, material contract provisions that are hard to model/explain often get ignored, or get some brief mention in a footnote (or its equivalent).
  • Where complex math is used, there is no simple language to explain the economic sense of it.
  • They are unwilling to consider how volatile financial processes are, believing that the Great Depression, the German Hyperinflation, or something as severe, could never happen again.

(An aside to readers; this was supposed to be a “little piece” when I started, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it would have to be more comprehensive.)

Let me start with a brief story.  I used to work as an officer of the Pension Division of Provident Mutual, which was the only place I ever worked where analysis of risks came first, and was core to everything else that we did.  The mathematical modeling that I did in there was some of the best in the industry for that era, and my models helped keep us out of trouble that many other firms fell into.  It shaped my view of how to manage a financial business to minimize risks first, and then make money.

But what made us proudest of our efforts was a 40-page document written in plain English that ran through the risks that we faced as a division of our company, and how we dealt with them.  The initial target audience was regulators analyzing the solvency of Provident Mutual, but we used it to demonstrate the quality of what we were doing to clients, wholesalers, internal auditors, rating agencies, credit analysts, and related parties inside Provident Mutual.  You can’t believe how many people came to us saying, “I get it.”  Regulators came to us, saying: “We’ve read hundreds of these; this is the first one that was easy to understand.”

The 40-pager was the brainchild of my boss, who was the most intuitive actuary that I have ever known.  Me? I was maybe the third lead investment risk modeler he had employed, and I learned more than I probably improved matters.

What we did was required by law, but the way we did it, and how we used it was not.  It combined the best of both rules and principles, going well beyond the minimum of what was required.  Rather than considering risk control to be something we did at the end to finagle credit analysts, regulators, etc., we took the economic core of the idea and made it the way we did business.

What I am saying in this piece is that the same ideas should be more actively and fully applied to:

  • Investment prospectuses and reports, and all investment and insurance marketing literature
  • Solvency documents provided to regulators, credit raters, and the general public by banks, insurers, derivative counterparties, etc.
  • Risk disclosures by financial companies, and perhaps non-financials as well, to the degree that financial markets affect their real results.
  • The reports that sell-side analysts write
  • The analyses that those that provide asset allocation advice put out
  • Consumer lending documents, in order to warn people what can happen to them if they aren’t careful
  • Private pension and employee benefit plans, and their evil twins that governments create.

Looks like this will be a mini-series at Aleph Blog, so stay tuned for part two, where I will begin going through what needs to be corrected, and then how it needs to be applied.

yield curve shifts_22703_image001I’m a very intellectually curious person — I could spend most of my time researching investing questions if I had the resources to do that and that alone.  This post at the blog will be a little more wonky than most.  If you don’t like reading about bonds, Fed Policy, etc., you can skip down to the conclusion and read that.

This post stems from an investigation of mine, and two recent articles that made me say, “Okay, time to publish the investigation.”  The investigation in question was over whether yield curves move in parallel shifts or not, thus justifying traditional duration [bond price interest-rate sensitivity] statistics or not.  That answer is complicated, and will be explained below.  Before I go there, here are the two articles that made me decide to publish:

The first article goes over the very basic idea that using ordinary tools like the Fed funds rate, you can’t affect the long end of the yield curve much.  Here’s a quote from Alan Greenspan:

“We wanted to control the federal funds rate, but ran into trouble because long-term rates did not, as they always had previously, respond to the rise in short-term rates,” Greenspan said in an interview last week. He called this a “conundrum” during congressional testimony in 2005.

This is partially true, and belies the type intelligence that a sorcerer’s apprentice has.  The full truth is that long rates have a forecast of short rates baked into them, and reductions in short term interest rates usually cause long-term interest rates to fall, but far less than short rates.  There are practical limits on the shape of the yield curve:

1) Interest rates can’t be negative, at least not very negative, and if they are negative, only with the shortest highest quality debts.

2) It is very difficult to get Treasury yield curves to have a positive slope of more than 4% (30Yr – 1Yr) or 2.5% (10Yr – 2Yr).

3) It is very difficult to get Treasury yield curves to have a negative slope of more than -1.5% (30Yr – 1Yr) or -1% (10Yr – 2Yr) in absolute terms (i.e., it’s hard to get more negative than that).

On points 2 and 3, when the yield curve is at extremes, the real economy and fixed income speculators react, putting pressure on the curve to normalize.

Aside from that, on average how much do longer Treasury yields move when the One-year Treasury yield moves?

3-year T94.64%
5-year T89.31%
7-year T85.17%
10-year T81.14%
20-year T75.41%
30-year T72.89%

The answer is that the effect gets weaker the longer the bond is, bottoming out at 73% on 30-year Treasuries. But give Greenspan a little credit — in 2005 the 30-year Treasury yield was barely budging as short rates rose 4%.  Then take some of the credit away — markets hate being manipulated, so as the Fed uses the Fed funds rate over a long period of time, it gets less powerful.  In that sense, the Fed and the bond market integrated, as the market began looking past the tightening to the long-term future of US borrowing rates, what happened to short interest rates became less powerful on long yields.  This is particularly true in an era where China was aggressively buying in US debt, and interest rate derivatives allowed some financial institutions to escape the interest rate boundaries to which they were previously subject.

Also note my graph above.  I took the Treasury yield curves since 1953, and used an optimization model to estimate 10 representative curves for monthly changes in the yield curve, and the probability of each one occurring.  If yield curves moving in a parallel direction means the monthly changes at different points in the curve never vary by more than 0.15%, it means that monthly changes in yield curves are parallel roughly 70% of the time.

When do the non-parallel shifts occur?  When monetary policy moves aggressively, long rates lag, leading the yield curve to flatten or invert on tightening, and get very steep with loosening.

Later, the article hems and haws over whether rising long rates would be a good or a bad thing, ending with the idea that the Fed could sell its long Treasury bonds to raise long yields if needed.  That brings me to the second article, which says that long interest rates are at record lows, as measured by average Treasury yields on bonds with 10 years or more to mature.

The graph in the second article shows that it takes a long time for inflation to come back after the economy has been in a strongly deflationary mode, where bad debts have to be eliminated one way or another.  Given the way that monetary policy encouraged the buildup of the bad debts from 1984-2007, it should be little surprise that long rates are still low.


So what should the Fed do?  If they weren’t willing to try a more radical solution, I would tell them to experiment with selling long Treasuries outright, and not telling the market that it was doing so.  The reason for this is that it would allow the Fed to separate out the actual effect of more Treasury supply on yields, versus how much the market might panic when it learns that the long Treasuries might be available for sale.  The second effect would be like Ben Bernanke mentioning the word “taper” without thinking what the effect would be on the forward curve of interest rates.  It would be an expensive experiment, but I think it would show that selling the bonds in small amounts would have little impact, while the fear of a flood would have a big but temporary impact.

If the Fed doesn’t want to raise long rates, it could try moving Fed funds up more quickly.  Historically, long rates would lag more than with a slow rise. (Note: 2004-2007 experience does not validate that idea.)

What do I think the Fed will do?  I think that eventually they will let all long Treasuries and MBS mature on their own, and replace them with short Treasuries, should they decide not to shrink the balance sheet of the financial sector as a whole.  That’s similar to what they did after the 1951 Accord, which restored the Fed’s independence after monetizing some of the debt incurred in WWII.  Maybe this is the way they eliminate the debt monetization now, if they ever do it.

I think the present Fed will delay taking any significant actions until they feel forced to do so.  They have no incentive to take any risk of derailing any recovery, and will live with more inflation should it arrive.

PS — that long rates move more slowly than short rates may mean that duration calculations for longer bonds are overstated relative to shorter bonds.  It might mean that 30-year notes would be 2-3 years shorter relative to one year notes than a parallel shift would indicate.

Photo Credit: Hans and Carolyn || Do you have the right building blocks for your model?

Photo Credit: Hans and Carolyn || Do you have the right building blocks for your model?

Simulating hypothetical future investment returns can be important for investors trying to make decisions regarding the riskiness of various investing strategies.  The trouble is that it is difficult to do right, and I rarely see it done right.  Here are some of the trouble spots:

1) You need to get the correlations right across assets.  Equity returns need to move largely but not totally together, and the same for credit spreads and equity volatility.

2) You need to model bonds from a yield standpoint and turn the yield changes into price changes.  That keeps the markets realistic, avoiding series of price changes which would imply that yields would go too high or below zero. Yield curves also need ways of getting too steep or too inverted.

3) You need to add in some momentum and weak mean reversion for asset prices.  Streaks happen more frequently than pure randomness.  Also, over the long haul returns are somewhat predictable, which brings up:

4) Valuations.  The mean reversion component of the models needs to reflect valuations, such that risky assets rarely get “stupid cheap” or stratospheric.

5) Crises need to be modeled, with differing correlations during crisis and non-crisis times.

6) Risky asset markets need to rise much more frequently than they fall, and the rises should be slower than the falls.

7) Foreign currencies, if modeled, have to be consistent with each other, and consistent with the interest rate modeling.

Anyway, those are some of the ideas that realistic simulation models need to follow, and sadly, few if any follow them all.

Photo Credit: sea turtle

Photo Credit: sea turtle

This is another episode in my continuing saga on dollar-weighted returns. We eat dollar-weighted returns.  Dollar-weighted returns are the returns investors actually receive in a open-end mutual fund or an ETF, which includes their timing decisions, as opposed to the way that performance statistics are ordinarily stated, which assumes that investors buy-and-hold.

In order for active managers to have a reasonable chance of beating the market, they have to have portfolios that are significantly different than the market.  As a result, their portfolios will not behave like the market, and if they are good stockpickers, they will beat the market.

Now, many of the active managers that have beaten the market run concentrated portfolios, with relatively few stocks comprising a large proportion of the portfolio.  Alternatively, they may concentrate their portfolio in relatively few industries at a time, as I do.  Before I begin my criticism, let me simply say that I believe in concentrated portfolios — I do that myself, but with a greater eye for risk control than some managers do.

My first article on this topic was Bill Miller, who is a really bright guy with a talented staff.  This is the “money shot” from that piece:

Legg Mason Value Trust enthused investors as they racked up significant returns in the late 90s, and the adulation persisted through 2006.  As Legg Mason Value Trust grew larger it concentrated its positions.  It also did not care much about margin of safety in financial companies.  It bought cheap, and suffered as earnings quality proved to be poor.

Eventually, holding a large portfolio of concentrated, lower-quality companies as the crisis hit, the performance fell apart, and many shareholders of the fund liquidated, exacerbating the losses of the fund, and their selling pushed the prices of their stocks down, leading to more shareholder selling.  I’m not sure the situation has stabilized, but it is probably close to doing being there.

Investors in the Legg Mason Value Trust trailed the returns of a buy-and-hold investor by 6%/year over the time my article covered.  Investors bought late, and sold late.  They bought after success, and sold after failure.  That is not a recipe for success.

FAIRX_15651_image002Tonight’s well-known fund with a great track record is the Fairholme Fund. Now, I am not here to criticize the recent performance of the fund, which due to its largest positions not doing well, has suffered of late. Rather, I want to point out how badly investors have done in their purchases and sales of this fund.

As the fame of Bruce Berkowitz (a genuinely bright guy) and his fund grew, money poured in.  During and after relatively poor performance in 2011, people pulled money from the fund.  Even with relatively good performance in 2012 and 2013, the withdrawals have continued.  The adding of money late, and the disproportionate selling after the problems of 2011 led the dollar weighted returns, which is what the average investors get, to lag those of the buy-and-hold investors by 5.57%/year over the period that I studied.

(Note: in my graph, the initial value on 11/30/2003 and the final value on 5/31/2014 are the amounts in the fund at those times, as if it had been bought and sold then — that was the time period I studied, and it was all of the data that I had.  Also, shareholder money flows were assumed to occur mid-period.)

Lessons to Learn

  1. Good managers who have ideas that will work out eventually need to be bought-and-held, if you buy them at all.
  2. Be wary of managers who are so concentrated, that when they receive a lot of new cash after good performance, that the new cash forces the prices of the underlying stocks up.  Why be wary?  Doesn’t that sound like a good thing if new money forces up the price of the mutual fund?  No, because the fund has “become the market” to its stocks.  When the time comes to sell, it will be ugly.  If you are in a fund like this, where the fund’s trading has a major effect on all of the stocks that it holds, the time to sell is now.
  3. There is a cost to raw volatility in large concentrated funds.  The manager may have the guts to see it through, but that doesn’t mean that the fundholders share his courage.  In general, the more volatile the fund, the less well average investors do in buying and selling the fund.  (As an aside, this is a reason for those that oversee 401(k) plans to limit the volatility of the choices offered.
  4. Even for the buy-and-hold investor, there is a risk investing alongside those who get greedy and panic, if the cash flow movements are large enough to influence the behavior of the fund manager at the wrong times.  (I.e., forced buying high, and forced selling low.)
  5. The forced buying high should be avoidable — the manager should come up with new ideas.  But if he doesn’t, and flows are high relative to the size of the fund, and the market caps of investments held, it is probably time to move on.
  6. When you approach adding a new mutual fund to your portfolio, ask the following questions: Am I late to this party?  Does the manager have ample room to expand his positions?  Is this guy so famous now that the underlying investors may affect his performance materially?
  7. Finally, ask yourself if you understand the investment well enough that you will know when to buy and/or sell it, given you investing time horizon.  This applies to all investments, and if you don’t know that, you probably should steer clear of investing in it, and learn more, until you are comfortable with the investments in question.

One final note: I am *not* a fan of AIG at the current price (I think reserves are understated, among other things), so I am not a fan of the Fairholme Fund here, which has 40%+ of its assets in AIG.  But that is a different issue than why average investors have underperformed buy-and-hold investors in the Fairholme Fund.

Photo Credit: Dan Century

Photo Credit: Dan Century

I use factors in my investing. What *are* factors, you ask?  Factors are quantitative variables that have been associated with potential outperformance.  What are some of these factors?

  1. Valuation (including yield)
  2. Price Momentum (and its opposite in some cases)
  3. Insider Trading
  4. Industry factors
  5. Neglect
  6. Low Volatility
  7. Quality (gross margins as a fraction of assets)
  8. Asset shrinkage
  9. Share count shrinkage
  10. Measures of accounting quality
  11. and more…

This is a large portion of what I use for screening in my eighth portfolio rule.  I’m not throwing this idea out of the window, but I am beginning to call it into question.  Why?

I feel that the use of the most important factors are getting institutionalized, such that many major investors are giving their portfolios a value tilt, sometimes momentum tilts, and other sorts of tilts.  I also see this in ETFs, where many funds embrace value, yield, momentum, accounting, or other tilts.

Now, we have been through this before.  In 2007, momentum with value hedge funds became overinvested in the same names, with many of the funds using leverage to goose returns.  There was quite a washout in August of that year as many investors exited that crowded trade.

I’m not saying we will see something like that immediately, but I am wary to the point that when I do my November reshaping, I’m going to leave out the valuation, yield and momentum factors, and spend more time analyzing the industry and idiosyncratic company risks.  If after that, I find cheap stocks, great, but if not, I will own companies that are hopefully not owned by a lot of people just because of a few quantitative statistics.

I may be a mathematician, but I try to think in broader paradigms — when too many people are looking at raw numbers and making decisions off of them solely, it is time to become more qualitative, and focus on strong business concepts at reasonable prices.

Photo Credit: Jimmie

Photo Credit: Jimmie

Every now and then, a piece of good news gets announced, and then something puzzling happens.  Example: the GDP report comes out stronger than expected, and the stock market falls.  People scratch their heads and say, “Huh?”

A friend of mine who I haven’t heard from in a while, Howard Simons, astutely would comment something to the effect of: “The stock market is not a futures contract on GDP.”  This much is true, but why is it true?  How can the market go down on good economic news?

Some of us as investors use a concept called a discounted cash flow model.  The price of a given asset is equal to the expected cash flows it will generate in the future, with each future cash flow discounted to reflect to reflect the time value of money and the riskiness of that cash flow.

Think of it this way: if the GDP report comes out strong, we can likely expect corporate profits to be better, so the expected cash flows from equities in the future should be better.  But if the stock market prices fall, it means the discount rates have risen more than the expected cash flows have risen.

Here’s a conceptual problem, then: We have estimates of the expected cash flows, at least going a few years out but no one anywhere publishes the discount rates for the cash flows — how can this be a useful concept?

Refer back to a piece I wrote earlier this week.  Discount rates reflecting the cost of capital reflect the alternative sources and uses for free cash.  When the GDP report came out, not only did come get optimistic about corporate profits, but perhaps realized:

  • More firms are going to want to raise capital to invest for growth, or
  • The Fed is going to have to tighten policy sooner than we thought.  Look at bond prices falling and yields rising.

Even if things are looking better for profits for existing firms, opportunities away from existing firms may improve even more, and attract capital away from existing firms.  Remember how stock prices slumped for bricks-and-mortar companies during the tech bubble?  Don’t worry, most people don’t.  But as those prices slumped, value was building in those companies.  No one saw it then, because they were dazzled by the short-term performance of the tech and dot-com stocks.

The cost of capital was exceptionally low for the dot-com stocks 1998-early 2000, and relatively high for the fuddy-duddy companies.  The economy was doing well.  Why no lift for all stocks?  Because incremental dollars available for finance were flowing to the dot-com companies until it became obvious that little to no cash would ever flow back from them to investors.

Afterward, even as the market fell hard, many fuddy-duddy stocks didn’t do so badly.  2000-2002 was a good period for value investing as people recognized how well the companies generated profits and cash flow.  The cost of capital normalized, and many dot-coms could no longer get financing at any price.

Another Example

Sometimes people get puzzled or annoyed when in the midst of a recession, the stock market rises.  They might think: “Why should the stock market rise?  Doesn’t everyone know that business conditions are lousy?”

Well, yes, conditions may be lousy, but what’s the alternative for investors for stocks?  Bond yields may be falling, and inflation nonexistent, making money market fund yields microscopic… the relative advantage from a financing standpoint has swung to stocks, and the prices rise.

I can give more examples, and maybe this should be a series:

  • The Fed tightens policy and bonds rally. (Rare, but sometimes…)
  • The Fed loosens policy, and bonds fall. (also…)
  • The rating agencies downgrade the bonds, and they rally.
  • The earnings report comes out lower than last year, and the stock rallies.
  • Etc.

But perhaps the first important practical takeaway is this: there will always be seemingly anomalous behavior in the markets.  Why?  Markets are composed of people, that’s why.  We’re not always predictable, and we don’t predict better when you examine us as groups.

That doesn’t mean there is no reason for anomalies, but sometimes we have to take a step back and say something as simple as “good economic news means lower stock prices at present.”  Behind that is the implied increase in the cost of capital, but since there is nothing to signal that, you’re not going to hear it on the news that evening:

“In today’s financial news, stock prices fell when the GDP report came out stronger than expected, leading investors to pursue investments in newly-issued bonds, stocks, and private equity.”

So be aware of the tone of the market.  Today, bad news still seems to be good, because it means the Fed leaves interest rates low for high-quality short-term debt for a longer period than previously expected.  Good news may imply that there are other places to attract money away from stocks.

Ideas for this topic are welcome.  Please leave them in the comments.