I’m not going to argue for any particular strategy here. My main point is this: every valid strategy is going to have some periods of underperformance.  Don’t give up on your strategy because of that; you are likely to give up near the point of maximum pain, and miss the great returns in the bull phase of the strategy.

Here are three simple bits of advice that I hand out to average people regarding asset allocation:

  1. Figure out what the maximum loss is that you are willing to take in a year, and then size your allocation to risky assets such that the likelihood of exceeding that loss level is remote.
  2. If you have any doubts on bit of advice #1, reduce the amount of risky assets a bit more.  You’d be surprised how little you give up in performance from doing so.  The loss from not allocating to risky assets that return better on average is partly mitigated by a bigger payoff from rebalancing from risky assets to safe, and back again.
  3. Use additional money slated for investing to rebalance the portfolio.  Feed your losers.

The first rule is most important, because the most important thing here is avoiding panic, leading to selling risky assets when prices are depressed.  That is the number one cause of underperformance for average investors.  The second rule is important, because it is better to earn less and be able to avoid panic than to risk losing your nerve.  Rule three just makes it easier to maintain your portfolio; it may not be applicable if you follow a momentum strategy.

Now, about momentum strategies — if you’re going to pursue strategies where you are always buying the assets that are presently behaving strong, well, keep doing it.  Don’t give up during the periods where it doesn’t seem to work, or when it occasionally blows up.  The best time for any strategy typically come after a lot of marginal players give up because losses exceed their pain point.

That brings me back to rule #1 above — even for a momentum strategy, maybe it would be nice to have some safe assets on the side to turn down the total level of risk.  It would also give you some money to toss into the strategy after the bad times.

If you want to try a new strategy, consider doing it when your present strategy has been doing well for a while, and you see new players entering the strategy who think it is magic.  No strategy is magic; none work all the time.  But if you “harvest” your strategy when it is mature, that would be the time to do it.  It would be similar to a bond manager reducing exposure to risky bonds when the additional yield over safe bonds is thin, and waiting for a better opportunity to take risk.

But if you do things like that, be disciplined in how you do it.  I’ve seen people violate their strategies, and reinvest in the hot asset when the bull phase lasts too long, just in time for the cycle to turn.  Greed got the better of them.

Markets are perverse.  They deliver surprises to all, and you can be prepared to react to volatility by having some safe assets to tone things down, or, you can roll with the volatility fully invested and hopefully not panic.  When too many unprepared people are fully invested in risky assets, there’s a nasty tendency for the market to have a significant decline.  Similarly, when people swear off investing in risky assets, markets tend to perform really well.

It all looks like a conspiracy, and so you get a variety of wags in comment streams alleging that the markets are rigged.  The markets aren’t rigged.  If you are a soldier heading off for war, you have to mentally prepare for it.  The same applies to investors, because investing isn’t perfectly easy, but a lot of players say that it is easy.

We can make investing easier by restricting the choices that you have to make to a few key ones.  Index funds.  Allocation funds that use index funds that give people a single fund to buy that are continually rebalanced.  But you would still have to exercise discipline to avoid fear and greed — and thus my three example rules above.

If you need more confirmation on this, re-read my articles on dollar-weighted returns versus time-weighted returns.  Most trading that average people do loses money versus buying and holding.  As a result, the best thing to do with any strategy is to structure it so that you never take actions out of a sense of regret for past performance.

That’s easy to say, but hard to do.  I’m subject to the same difficulties that everyone else is, but I worked to create rules to limit my behavior during times of investment pain.

Your personality, your strategy may differ from mine, but the successful meta-strategy is that you should be disciplined in your investing, and not give into greed or panic.  Pursue that, whether you invest like me or not.

One of the constants in investing is that average investors show up late to the party or to the crisis.  Unlike many gatherings where it may be cool to be fashionably late, in investing it tends to mean you earn less and lose more, which is definitely not cool.

One reason why this happens is that information gets distributed in lumps.  We don’t notice things in real time, partly because we’re not paying attention to the small changes that are happening.  But after enough time passes, a few people notice a trend.  After a while longer, still more people notice the trend, and it might get mentioned in some special purpose publications, blogs, etc.  More time elapses and it becomes a topic of conversation, and articles make it into the broad financial press.  The final phase is when general interest magazines put it onto the cover, and get rich quick articles and books point at how great fortunes have been made, and you can do it too!

That slow dissemination and gathering of information is paralleled by a similar flow of money, and just as the audience gets wider, the flow of money gets bigger.  As the flow of money in or out gets bigger, prices tend to overshoot fair value, leaving those who arrived last with subpar returns.

There is another aspect to this, and that stems from the way that people commonly evaluate managers.  We use past returns as a prologue to what is assumed to be still greater returns in the future.  This not only applies to retail investors but also many institutional investors.  Somme institutional investors will balk at this conclusion, but my experience in talking with institutional investors has been that though they look at many of the right forward looking indicators of manager quality, almost none of them will hire a manager that has the right people, process, etc., and has below average returns relative to peers or indexes.  (This also happens with hedge funds… there is nothing special in fund analysis there.)

For the retail crowd it is worse, because most investors look at past returns when evaluating managers.  Much as Morningstar is trying to do the right thing, and have forward looking analyst ratings (gold, silver, bronze, neutral and negative), yet much of the investing public will not touch a fund unless it has four or five stars from Morningstar, which is a backward looking rating.  This not only applies to individuals, but also committees that choose funds for defined contribution plans.  If they don’t choose the funds with four or five stars, they get complaints, or participants don’t use the funds.

Another Exercise in Dollar-Weighted Returns

One of the ways this investing shortfall gets expressed is looking at the difference between time-weighted (buy-and-hold) and dollar-weighted (weighted geometric average/IRR) returns.  The first reveals what an investor who bought and held from the beginning earned, versus what the average dollar invested earned.  Since money tends to come after good returns have been achieved, and money tends to leave after bad returns have been realized, the time-weighted returns are typically higher then the dollar-weighted returns.  Generally, the more volatile the performance of the investment vehicle the larger the difference between time- and dollar-weighted returns gets.  The greed and fear cycle is bigger when there is more volatility, and people buy and sell at the wrong times to a greater degree.

(An aside: much as some pooh-pooh buy-and-hold investing, it generally beats those who trade.  There may be intelligent ways to trade, but they are always a minority among market actors.)

HSGFX Dollar Weighted Returns

HSGFX Dollar and Time Weighted Returns

That brings me to tonight’s fund for analysis: Hussman Strategic Growth [HSGFX]. John Hussman, a very bright guy, has been trying to do something very difficult — time the markets.  The results started out promising, attracting assets in the process, and then didn’t do so well, and assets have slowly left.  For my calculation this evening, I run the calculation on his fund with the longest track record from inception to 30 June 2014.  The fund’s fiscal years end on June 30th, and so I assume cash flows occur at mid-year as a simplifying assumption.  At the end of the scenario, 30 June 2014, I assume that all of the funds remaining get paid out.

To run this calculation, I do what I have always done, gone to the SEC EDGAR website and look at the annual reports, particularly the section called “Statements of Changes in Net Assets.”  The cash flow for each fiscal year is equal to the net increase in net assets from capital share transactions plus the net decrease in net assets from distributions to shareholders.  Once I have the amount of money moving in or out of the fund in each fiscal year, I can then run an internal rate of return calculation to get the dollar-weighted rate of return.

In my table, the cash flows into/(out of) the fund are in millions of dollars, and the column titled Accumulated PV is the accumulated present value calculated at an annualized rate of -2.56% per year, which is the dollar-weighted rate of return.  The zero figure at the top shows that a discount rate -2.56% makes the cash inflows and outflows net to zero.

From the beginning of the Annual Report for the fiscal year ended in June 2014, they helpfully provide the buy-and-hold return since inception, which was +3.68%.  That gives a difference of 6.24% of how much average investors earned less than the buy-and-hold investors.  This is not meant to be a criticism of Hussman’s performance or methods, but simply a demonstration that a lot of people invested money after the fund’s good years, and then removed money after years of underperformance.  They timed their investment in a market-timing fund poorly.

Now, Hussman’s fund may do better when the boom/bust cycle turns if his system makes the right move somewhere near the bottom of the cycle.  That didn’t happen in 2009, and thus the present state of affairs.  I am reluctant to criticize, though, because I tried running a strategy like this for some of my own clients and did not do well at it.  But when I realized that I did not have the personal ability/willingness to buy when valuations were high even though the model said to do so because of momentum, rather than compound an error, I shut down the product, and refunded some fees.

One thing I can say with reasonable confidence, though: the low returns of the past by themselves are not a reason to not invest in Mr. Hussman’s funds.  Past returns by themselves tell you almost nothing about future returns.  The hard questions with a fund like this are: when will the cycle turn from bullish to bearish?  (So that you can decide how long you are willing to sit on the sidelines), and when the cycle turns from bearish to bullish, will Mr. Hussman make the right decision then?

Those questions are impossible to answer with any precision, but at least those are the right questions to ask.  What, you’d rather have the answer to a simple question like how did it return in the past, that has no bearing on how the fund will do in the future?  Sadly, that is the answer that propels more investment decisions than any other, and it is what leads to bad overall investment returns on average.

PS — In future articles in this irregular series, I will apply this to the Financial Sector Spider [XLF], and perhaps some fund of Kenneth Heebner’s.  Till then.

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

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

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

Investing ideas come in many forms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was writing to potential clients when I realized that I don’t have so much to write about my bond track record as I do my track record with stocks.  I jotted down a note to formalize what I say about my bond portfolios.

One person I was writing to asked some detailed questions, and I told him that the stock market was likely to return about 4.5%/yr (not adjusted for inflation) over the next ten years.  The model I use is the same one as this one used by pseudonymous Philosophical Economist.  I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a bright guy, what can I say?  That’s not a very high return — the historical average is around 9.5%.  The market is in the 85th-90th percentiles of valuation, which is pretty high.  That said, I am not taking any defensive action yet.

Yet.

But then it hit me.  The yield on my bond portfolio is around 4.5% also.  Now, it’s not a riskless bond portfolio, as you can tell by the yield.  I’m no longer running the portfolio described in Fire and Ice.  I sold the long Treasuries about 30 basis points ago.  Right now, I am only running the Credit sensitive portion of the portfolio, with a bit of foreign bonds mixed in.

Why am I doing this?  I think it has a good balance of risks.  Remember that there is no such thing as generic risk.  There are many risks.  At this point this portfolio has a decent amount of credit risk, some foreign exchange risk, and is low in interest rate risk.  The duration of the portfolio is less than 2, so I am not concerned about rising rates, should the FOMC ever do such a thing as raise rates.  (Who knows?  The economy might actually grow faster if they did that.  Savers will eventually spend more.)

But 10 years is a long time for a bond portfolio with a duration of less than 2 years.  I’m clipping coupons in the short run, running credit risk while I don’t see any major credit risks on the horizon aside from weak sovereigns (think the PIIGS), student loans, and weak junk (ratings starting with a “C”).  The risks on bank loans are possibly overdone here, even with weakened covenants.  Aside from that, if we really do see a lot of credit risk crop up, stocks will get hit a lot harder than this portfolio.  Dollar weakness and US inflation (should we see any) would also not be a risk.

I’ve set a kind of a mental stop loss at losing 5% of portfolio value.  Bad credit is the only significant factor that could harm the portfolio.  If credit problems got that bad, it would be time to exit because credit problems come in bundles, not dribs and drabs.

I’m not doing it yet, but it is tempting to reposition some of my IRA assets presently in stocks into the bond strategy.  I’m not sure I would lose that much in terms of profit potential, and it would increase the overall safety of the portfolio.

I’ll keep you posted.  That is, after I would tell my clients what I am doing, and give them a chance to act, should they want to.

Finally, do you have a different opinion?  You can email me, or, you can share it with all of the readers in the comments.  Please do.

This is a difficult book to review.  Let me tell you what it is not, and then let me tell you what it is more easily as a result.

1) The book does not give you detailed biographies of the people that it features.  Indeed, the writing on each person is less than the amount that Ken Fisher wrote in his book, 100 Minds That Made the Market.  If you are looking for detailed biographical sketches, you will be disappointed.

2) The book does not give detailed and comparable reviews of the portfolio performance of those that it features.  There’s no way from what is written to tell really how good many of the investors are.  I mean, I would want to see dollar-weighted rates of return, and perhaps, measures of dollar alpha.  The truly best managers have expansive strategies that can perform well managing a large amount of money.

3) The book admits that the managers selected may not be the greatest, but are some of the “greats.”  Okay, fair enough, but I would argue that a few of the managers don’t deserve to be featured even as that if you review their dollar-weighted performance.  A few of them showed that they did not pay adequate attention to margin of safety in the recent financial crisis, and lost a lot of money for people at the time that they should have been the most careful.

4) If you wanted to understand the strategies of the managers, this is not the book for you.  They are not described, except in the broadest terms.

5) There is no integration of any common themes of what makes an investment manager great.  You don’t get a necklace; you just get a jar of pretty, non-comparable beads that don’t have any holes in them.

What do you get in this book?  You get beautiful black and white photos of 33 managers, and vignettes of each of them written by six authors.  The author writes two-thirds of the vignettes.

Do I recommend this book?  Yes, if you understand what it is good for.  It is a well-done coffee table book on thick glossy paper, with truly beautiful photographs. It is well-suited for people waiting in a reception area, who want to read something light and short about several notable investment managers.

But if you are looking for anything involved in my five points above, you will not be satisfied by this book.

One final note on the side — I would have somehow reworked the layout of Bill Miller’s photograph.  Splitting his face down the middle of the gutter does not represent him to be the handsome guy that he is.

If you would like to buy it, you can buy it here: The Great Minds of Investing.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from the author.  He was most helpful.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

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, theStreet.com, 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.)

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:

NAHC_current_loss

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 RealMoney.com 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

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp

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

Dan Primack of Fortune wrote in his daily email:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is required to have an effective means of shorting assets

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

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

short selling

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

The Troubles Associated with Shorting Private Assets

I can think of four troubles.  Here they are:

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

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

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

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

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

What Might Be Better

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

What Might Be Better Still

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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