Trouble in Paradise

troubleIt’s a problem that is now — finally — discussed and sometimes dealt with. Increasingly, investors of various type are questioning high-cost, high-risk strategies (often purveyed by hedge funds) because they have performed so poorly. Indeed, hedge funds as a class have performed much worse even than U.S. Treasury bills. As a consequence, few can expect to achieve success in that market, as I have argued repeatedly (see here, here, here and here, for example). Calpers, the public pension giant here in California, is a leader in this trend that is demanding accountability, putting new investment proposals on hold while weighing whether to exit or substantially reduce bets on commodities, actively managed company stocks and hedge funds.

The general problem is well illustrated right here in San Diego and outlined in a terrific column in the San Diego Union-Tribune yesterday by Dan McSwain. Many cities have a pension crisis. San Diego’s is particularly bad, as outlined definitively by the great Roger Lowenstein in While America Aged. McSwain’s piece does an excellent job of examining how the City is responding to the problem in terms of investment management and contrasting the City’s efforts with what the County of San Diego is doing with its pension dollars.  Continue reading

Above the Market’s Leading Investment Indicators

Leading IndicatorThis fifth edition of Above the Market’s Leading Investment Indicators is for mid-year 2014 and the first since last July. Earlier iterations are here, here, here and here. As I always note, in economics, leading indicators are measures that typically change before the economy as a whole changes, thus providing some predictive power with respect to what lies ahead. For example, the Conference Board publishes a Leading Economic Index intended to forecast future economic activity.

My intent has been and still is to derive some Leading Investment Indicators. Unlike leading economic indicators, these were not designed as short-term or even intermediate-term predictors. The strength of these metrics is as a tool to measure potential real long-term returns. Thus they are better used as longer term indicators of value, risk and expected returns. They in no way should be used as any sort of timing mechanism. The stock market can continue higher or lower regardless of what any metric of valuation is showing. These indicators are designed to be a tool to help shape an overall investment thesis and process as well as to separate short-term and long-term concerns, not to dictate trading decisions.

My previous conclusions suggested that the market was not long-term cheap. I think they are worth re-visiting in light of recent events (or lack thereof) and as we pass the mid-point of 2014. But I won’t bury the lead (or even the lede). Stocks remain rich and the secular bear market continues (despite the long cyclical bull market rally, fueled by the Fed). Fed activity, as intended, makes stocks look much more attractive than they otherwise would — sort of like being the skinniest kid at fat camp.

As I have noted repeatedly, trying to fight the Fed hasn’t been a very productive approach over the recent past. If you’re going to play (and the risks of sitting things out are big too), please be careful and consider putting on a hedging strategy of some sort. So here goes…. Continue reading

Yale Model in the News

Yale KeyThe “Yale Model” (or “endowment model”) of investing has been in the news again this week — see here and here, for example. Accordingly, my work in that area is worth noting again.

 

Active Management Required

FT-active-managerWe have all heard the arguments about the flaws of active management and we all should have looked closely at the underlying data. Over any random 12-month period, about 60 percent of mutual fund managers underperform. Lengthen the time period examined to 10 years and the proportion of managers who underperform rises to about 70 percent. Even worse, equity managers who underperform do so by roughly twice as much as the outperforming funds beat their chosen benchmarks and the success of the outperformers doesn’t tend to persist. The SPIVA Scorecard from S&P demonstrates this phenomenon regularly and routinely.

Institutional investors fare no better. On a risk-adjusted basis, 24 percent of funds fall significantly short of their chosen market benchmarks and have negative alpha, 75 percent of funds roughly match the market and have zero alpha, and well under 1 percent achieve superior results after costs—a number not significantly different from zero in a statistical sense. Pension fundshedge funds, endowments and private equity funds all provide similar outcomes in slightly different settings.

Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, assets are following performance. Just a decade or so ago, passive investing was a relatively small slice of the investment universe. On November 1, 2003, just 12 percent of all U.S. open-end mutual fund and ETF assets (not including fund-of-fund or money-market assets) were invested in passively managed products, according to Morningstar. Today that percentage stands at 27 percent and is growing fast. In the equity markets, fully 35 percent of all investments are now held in passive vehicles.

The obvious conclusion from all this data is that active management has lost. Sure, most money is still placed with active managers (at least for now), the story goes, but active management is like Nazi Germany after D-Day. The war wasn’t won (yet) and a lot of work remained to be done, but the outcome was inevitable. That narrative is prevalent throughout the investment world.

However, and to the contrary, I think active management is an absolute necessity. Continue reading

Home Country Bias and the Spurs

SpursThe San Antonio Spurs won the NBA Championship last evening in overwhelming fashion, crushing the Miami Heat yet again, 104-87, to win the championship series four games to one. The four wins by the Spurs against the two-time defending champion Heat came by margins of 15, 19, 21 and 17 points, the two largest of which took place in Miami. But, if anything, the margins of victory underestimate the extent of the dominance. The Spurs were simply the better team by a large margin.

The Spurs’ win demonstrates the value of team play, finding players who are willing to work to get better and buy-in to the program, great management, and the importance of finding underappreciated assets (relatively) cheaply. Many of those underappreciated assets come from countries other than the USA. Continue reading

The Consensus Portfolio

Every year Barron’s reports on the Penta asset-allocation survey of 40 leading wealth management firms (such as Barclays, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, LPL, Morgan Stanley, Northern Trust and the like), which outlines in broad terms what those firms’ base recommended portfolios look like. The new survey is noteworthy in that overall allocations to stocks rose to an average of 51.1 percent, up from 48 percent at this time last year and 45 percent in early 2012; fixed-income holdings continued a two-year decline, now at an average 25.8 percent, down from 29 percent last year and 34 percent in 2012; and recommended hedge fund and private-equity allocations, recently “the expensive disappointments of the portfolio” and subject to widespread criticism, are up to an average of 14.1 percent from 12.5 percent last year, with all alternatives (including real estate and commodities) now weighing in at an average allocation of 20.4 percent. A more detailed breakdown is charted below.

2014 Penta Survey 2

Bringing the Stupid

Get RealEarlier this week I wrote about the growth of the sports analytics movement, particularly in baseball, as an inevitable outgrowth of trying to make one’s beliefs data-driven and thus reality-based. “Arguments and beliefs that are not reality-based are bound to fail, and to fail sooner rather than later.” I also noted that the investment world needs similar growth and development.

But despite the exponential growth in the use of analytics (earlier this year the Phillies became the last Major League Baseball team to hire a full-blown stats guy), not everyone in baseball (as with investing) has gotten the message. For example, The Book goes into great detail about the percentages and when it makes sense to execute a sacrifice bunt and finds — conclusively — that sacrifice bunts are grossly overused and rarely make sense. Simply going back over previous games so as (a) to calculate how many runs each team scored when it had a runner on first and nobody out, and (b) to compare those results to when teams had a runner on second and one out, makes the general point pretty well. In fact, Baseball Prospectus has a report that shows that sacrifice bunting reduced a team’s run expectancy for innings that played out that way from .83 runs to .64 runs in 2013. The same is generally true in previous years.

Note too that we’re not talking here about difficult concepts or high-level math. It’s just a simple calculation — more teams scored and scored more with runners on first and nobody out by not-bunting than by bunting. Easy.

Ron WashingtonBut not to Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington. Washington likes to sacrifice bunt. In response to a question about the dubious nature of that strategy based upon the math, Washington took offense.

“I think if they try to do that, they’re going to be telling me how to [bleep] manage,” Washington said. “That’s the way I answer that [bleep] question. They can take the analytics on that and shove it up their [bleep][bleep].”

Wow. He even went third person.

“I do it when I feel it’s necessary, not when the analytics feel it’s necessary, not when you guys feel it’s necessary, and not when somebody else feels it’s necessary. It’s when Ron Washington feels it’s necessary. Bottom line.”

Double wow. No matter one’s chosen ideology, if the data doesn’t support it, the risks of continuing on that path are enormous. It’s not the percentage play (by definition). And it’s not the smart play.

Insisting upon a course of action that is shown to be wrong is, quite simply, a recipe for disaster. A good investment strategy, like good baseball strategy, will be – must be – supported by the data. Reality must rule. When it doesn’t, we’re simply bringing the stupid.

Exhibit A

Investing and politicsI have often warned against making investment decisions based upon political commitments, and I am hardly alone. A wonderful/dreadful example is provided by Stephen Moore, who announced this week that he is leaving The Wall Street Journal to become Chief Economist for the Heritage Foundation. Quite obviously, Moore opposes the policies of President Obama vociferously (“Everything he’s done has been such a massive failure…”).

That is his right, of course, and I take pains to keep Above the Market away from politics as much as possible. My point is that Moore’s political commitments foolishly override more objective analysis and thus impact his economic and investment outlooks negatively. Continue reading

“Invert, always invert”

Boeing B-17GA good investment process is really difficult to achieve and even harder to sustain. The variables are many and the problems challenging. Charlie Munger borrowed a highly useful idea from the great 19th Century German mathematician Carl Jacobi that provides a helpful way to deal with the myriad problems investors face in trying to establish a good investment process.

Invert, always invert (“man muss immer umkehren”).

Jacobi believed that the solution for many difficult problems could be found if the problems were expressed in the inverse – by working backward. As in most investment matters, we would do well to emulate Charlie here. Continue reading