Hot Pants Investing

I watched Mike Krzyzewski’s first Duke win from the stands in Cameron Indoor Stadium as a student in 1980 and his fifth national championship victory earlier this month at home, on television, with my grandchildren. I’ve probably seen a majority of the games in-between one way or another. Coach K is an icon, and widely regarded as perhaps the best college basketball coach of all-time. He is the winningest college basketball coach of all-time. But when has hired 35 years ago, he wasn’t even generally considered to be in the running for the job. During the entire month-long coaching search, Krzyzewski’s name never appeared in any North Carolina newspaper as even a long-shot candidate for the job. No radio station nor any television station suggested him as a possibility.

Then Duke Athletic Director Tom Butters insisted that he was getting the “brightest young coaching talent in America” to lead his basketball program (video from the hiring news conference here – notice how “Krzyzewski” is repeatedly mispronounced in the report) when he hired Coach K. There was no live coverage of any kind. The local morning paper had reported that one of “three Ws” – Bob Weltlich of Ole Miss, Old Dominion’s Paul Webb or then top Duke assistant Bob Wenzel – was going to get the job. But Butters hired the West Point graduate, then just 33 years old and coming off a losing season at his alma mater. Butters had ultimately listened to Bob Knight, who told him that Krzyzewski had his own good attributes without the bad.  The headline in The Chronicle (Duke’s student newspaper) was “Krzyzewski: This is Not a Typo.” Ironically, the local afternoon newspaper got the scoop several hours before the press conference, but it was after deadline and there was nowhere to report it.

This story seems quaint today, with the idea that a major college basketball hiring could remain unreported and largely secret until the press conference and that the coach hired had not even been considered a candidate is appropriately presumed to be impossible in this digital age. Obviously, times have changed. To get at what that sort of change means to our culture and to the financial services business, we have to go back into ancient history, even before 1980. Continue reading

Follow the Money

Hedge funds per CarlHal Holbrook had a wonderful supporting role in the Watergate saga All the President’s Men, a 1976 Alan J. Pakula film based upon the book of that name by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. Holbrook played the conflicted, chain-smoking, trench-coated, shadowy source known only as “Deep Throat” (over 30 years later revealed to have been senior FBI-man Mark Felt). Woodward’s meeting with his source when the investigation had bogged down is a terrific scene.

Sadly, Holbrook’s iconic line – “Follow the money” – was never spoken in real life and doesn’t appear in the book or in any Watergate reporting. Still, Woodward insists that the quote captures the essence of what Felt was telling him. “It all condensed down to that,” Woodward says. More importantly, it provides a profound truth. Indeed, when asked 25 years later on ”Meet the Press” what the lasting legacy of Watergate was, legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee replied with the words of screenwriter William Goldman, if not Mark Felt: ”Follow the money.” It provides good guidance for reporters generally and really good guidance when one is looking at the financial advice business.

With this important touchstone at the forefront, it’s crucial to recall that the financial advice business generally builds products and portfolios for marketing purposes rather than investment purposes. For the industry as a whole, “results” relate to sales far more than to what investor-clients end up getting. Accordingly, the idea is to play to people’s hopes, fears and prejudices rather than speak the (less marketable) truth. Moreover, if something can be positioned as new, novel or complex — and thus offering a plausible justification for a high fee — so much the better.
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Should We Pay the Shakedown Artists or Not?

Before being closed down by the Federal Trade Commission, a revenge porn site called “Is Anyone Up” came up with a creative but disgusting twist on the sleazy genre by including a link to a phony “independent third party team” that would get the offensive pictures taken down for a fee.1 In other words, the site and its proprietor horribly violated peoples’ privacy and then extorted them for money to stop violating them. That sick scheme provides a perfect lead-in to a discussion of the San Diego Chargers and the recently announced joint stadium proposal made by the Chargers and the Oakland Raiders that would involve both teams leaving their current cities and moving to the Los Angeles area.

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A New Kind of Investment Outlook

Outlook212015 Outlook2014-2015

Forecasting Follies

Nobody’s perfect.

That universal truth is easy to prove, of course, and no sane person would deny it. Indeed, even the smartest of us are far from immune even in our areas of expertise when we’re actively trying to do our best. A famous study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded that up to 100,000 people die each year due to readily preventable medical errors. Since physicians are among the smartest and most highly trained professionals imaginable, being stupid is obviously not a prerequisite for making mistakes, even horrible mistakes.

It’s also easy to prove how error-prone we are in the investment world. Every year I take a look at various predictions for the year that’s ending and they are uniformly lousy in the aggregate. Moreover, when somebody does get one right or almost right, that performance quality is not repeated in subsequent years.

2014 provided more of the same in this regard. The median S&P 500 forecast among 50 top-end investment experts called for a year-end level of 1,950, up 6.44 percent on the year. As noted above, the actual closing level was 2,059, up 11.39 percent, essentially five full percentage points higher. That’s a miss of monumental proportions.

Last January, analysts called for far higher oil prices, firmer inflation, a worse jobless rate and higher interest rates. The exact opposite happened in each of those areas. The consensus crude oil price forecast was nearly $95 per barrel (up a bit) and 72 out of 72 economists were anticipating higher interest rates and lower bond prices. Advisor magazine reported that bond market sentiment was utterly bearish, leading pundits to recommend that investors limit their bond holdings to the shortest maturities in 2014. Meanwhile, 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds returned nearly 30 percent. Last April, Peter Schiff of EuroPacific Capital made the bold prediction that the “Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing program will push gold to $5,000 an ounce.” The shiny yellow metal closed 2014 at just under $1,200, 80 percent or so lower than Schiff’s target.

Alleged experts miss on their forecasts and miss by a lot. Let’s stipulate that these alleged experts are highly educated, vastly experienced, and examine the vagaries of the markets pretty much all day, every day. But it remains a virtual certainty that they will be wrong often and often spectacularly wrong. On account of hindsight bias, we tend to see past events as having been predictable and perhaps inevitable. Accordingly, we think we can extrapolate from them into the future. But the sad fact is that we can’t buy past results. Continue reading

Signing Day and the Investment Process

davidYesterday – the first Wednesday in February and thus the so-called National Signing Day – was the first day that high school seniors could sign letters of intent to accept an athletic scholarship to play Division I college football in the fall. It’s the culmination of a long recruiting process and crucial to the success of teams and coaches. It can get more than a bit ridiculous.

Some players announced their intentions using live animal props, or worse. One recruit picked Texas over Washington based on a coin flip. At least it wasn’t for the gear, officially anyway. And Snoop Dogg will be giving up his support for USC to cross-town rival UCLA because his son picked the Bruins, where he’ll join P. Diddy’s kid on the team. Cornerback Iman Marshall, a big-time USC signee, has a self-styled “commitment video” that’s particularly absurd.

But the coaches and the media outlets that cover college football recruiting (of which there are an astonishingly high number) take it all very seriously indeed. As the parent of a DI player (at Cal, see above), *I* took it very seriously.

These various publications generally rate high school players being recruited via a “star system” of from two to five stars, with five stars being reserved for top 50 players, four stars for the next 250 (numbers 51-300), three stars for the next 500, and two stars for players who are considered “mid-major” and thus not good enough for the top conferences and teams. Alabama’s current recruiting class is usually reputed to be the nation’s best, for the fifth straight year, averaging out to 4.08 stars. And while it’s not much ado about nothing, it’s much ado about a lot less than you’d think, and in a different way than you probably think. Continue reading

It’s the waiting part that’s hard

Hedge Funds 3CalPERS, the highly influential California public employee pension agency, announced in September that it would no longer invest its dollars via hedge funds. That decision is not altogether surprising in that the annualized rate of return of the hedge funds in the CalPERS portfolio over the past decade was only 4.8 percent. The behemoth pension plan sponsor was careful to note that not all hedge funds are bad, but that “at the end of the day, judged against their complexity, cost, and the lack of ability to scale at CalPERS’ size,” the hedge fund investment program “is no longer warranted.”

In essence, CalPERS recognized and acted upon what should be apparent to everyone: hedge fund returns have simply not lived up to their hype. As Victor Fleischer famously put it, “hedge funds are a compensation scheme masquerading as an asset class.”  Continue reading

Whole Foods Quackery

Source:  The Quackometer

Source: The Quackometer

Fortune has a puff piece out on Whole Foods Market (WFM, a stock in which I have no interest and no intended interest), the up-scale purveyor of excellent prepared food, overpriced groceries with multiple claimed but unsubstantiated benefits, phony health remedies, and the oxymoronic concept of “healthy indulgence.” It made its reputation by pushing healthier living and selling food that doesn’t contain the pesticides and additives that are often staples of “regular” food.

The Whole Foods approach has worked in that its share price is up about 12-fold since its November 2008 recession-era low versus 130 percent for the S&P 500 index. “Great brands impose a view on you,” WFM consultant Kevin Kelley says, and Whole Foods is no exception. “One of the faults that traditional groceries have is they believe the customer is always right.” Today, Whole Foods has a list of 78 banned ingredients, ranging from aspartame to foie gras to high-fructose corn syrup. You may want a Coke, but you can’t get one at Whole Foods.

However, when I took a look at the ingredients that provided Whole Foods its success, the whole thing became far less appetizing. The Whole Foods emphasis on “natural” foods is obviously silly. There is no such thing as non-natural food. Moreover, at least in the United States, it has no consistent meaning. Indeed, the federal Food and Drug Administration explicitly discourages the food industry from using the term. But that doesn’t stop Whole Foods. After all, it’s working.

Oh that a bit of silliness were the only problem. Despite broad scientific consensus that genetically modified food poses no greater health risks than other types of food, Whole Foods says it will require all its vendors to label products with GMOs by 2018 and suggests (at least by inference) that such food isn’t really good for you. Whole Foods would also have you believe that organic produce (which is, not so coincidentally, much more expensive than “regular” produce) will help you stay healthier, even though a major study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (nicely summarized here) examining hundreds of scientific studies over many years found no evidence of health benefits from organic foods. “There’s a definite lack of evidence,” emphasizes Crystal Smith-Spangler of the Stanford University School of Medicine and an author of the study.

But these issues aren’t all that much to be really upset about. If people want to overpay for something they think will make them healthier, the fact that it doesn’t isn’t too big of a deal. Nobody’s getting hurt and people are stupid all the time. However, the Whole Foods story gets still worse – much worse.

As reported by Michael Schulson in The Daily Beast, Whole Foods pitches homeopathic remedies (such as homeopathic remedies for allergies, homeopathic remedies for colds and fluBoiron homeopathic medicines and even cures for cancer) as well as other foods and “drugs” that make medical claims that are simply false. Homeopathy is, after all, pure quackery. Whole Foods also sells probiotics — live bacteria given to (allegedly) treat and prevent disease – but it’s a total scam: “If you are a normal human, with a normal diet, save your money. Probiotics have nothing to offer but an increased cost.”

Phony claims such as these are far more damaging than simply pushing “natural” and organic foods. That’s because such fake remedies often cause people to forego substantive medical care that might actually help. For example, such an approach may well have cost Steve Jobs his life, to his obvious regret.

Sadly, it isn’t just customers who have fallen for the Whole Foods hype. “They’re a leading national authority on health and nutrition,” says BB&T Capital Markets analyst Andrew Wolf, “and unequivocally the leading retailer on the link between food and health.” As if.

My friend Josh Brown even fell for the WFM nonsense: “There’s a lesson in the Whole Foods brand that I think carries a great example for my organization and possibly yours as well: The customers are not always right and, more importantly, they sometimes wants [sic] to be told what’s best for them and to have harmful options taken away from within their grasp.” Unfortunately, what customers are told is all too frequently in error and obviously bad for them, as Whole Foods so aptly demonstrates.

Happily, I have every confidence that Josh is doing right by his clients. And I completely agree with Josh’s conclusion: “Zealous advocacy is not fascism, and steering a customer away from something they don’t need or shouldn’t want is just as important as the actual suggestions you are making.” But Whole Foods is far from a good example of “doing [what] is superior and in the clients’ best interest.” In fact, Whole Foods should be a cautionary tale rather than an exemplar.

Maybe there really is a sucker born every minute and Whole Foods will continue to survive and even thrive despite its bogus marketing. But I’d like to think that truth will out, at least eventually.

The USA — Once an Emerging Market

Scott Krisiloff of Avondale Asset Management has a fine new piece up making the case that we might want to consider lowering our domestic equity return expectations in part on account of ongoing lower dividend yields. That concept is consistent with the long-term trend line for domestic equities. For example, the average return for the S&P 500 index was 11.50 percent for the period 1928-2013. For 1964-2013 (the last 50 years), the S&P’s average return dipped to 11.29 percent and from 2004-2013 (the last ten years), the average dropped to 9.10 percent.

It’s surely possible that these declines are more a function of the (arbitrary) dates chosen and/or the vagaries of business and economic cycles rather than a signal of some significant structural change. But it’s also possible that such declines are to be expected given the remarkable changes in the U.S. economy over those decades. It can be easy to forget that the USA hasn’t always been the world’s economic leader, and needn’t remain so (see below).

GDP-History

In the same way that we expect higher returns from investments in emerging and developing economies as compared to those in developed economies on account of higher risks, we might expect aggregate returns in domestic equities to have declined as the American economy has matured. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that the USA was among the “emerging-est” of emerging markets countries.

A Short Introduction to Investing (in 400 words)

  1. introduction“Investing successfully is really hard.” (Tadas Viskanta).
  2. “October: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February.” (Mark Twain).
  3. Manage risk first.
  4. In the shorter-term, markets are voting machines; in the longer-term, they are weighing machines.
  5. “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” (John Maynard Keynes).
  6. We like to think we see things as they really are, but we actually see things as we really are.
  7. Information is cheap; meaning is expensive.
  8. There is always someone on the other side of a trade and that someone is often smarter and more well-informed than you are.
  9. Investing is both probabilistic and mean-reverting.
  10. Cut your losses; let your winners run.
  11. “Investment success accrues not so much to the brilliant as to the disciplined.” (William J. Bernstein).
  12. When you’ve won, stop playing.
  13. Diversification is the only free lunch in the markets.
  14. Data is more reliable than your gut.
  15. “The big money is not in the buying or the selling, but in the sitting.” (Jesse Livermore).
  16. Various market approaches work…until they don’t.
  17. Value process over outcome.
  18. “We must base our asset allocation not on the probabilities of choosing the right allocation but on the consequences of choosing the wrong allocation.” (Jack Bogle).
  19. It probably isn’t different this time.
  20. Fight the current war, not the last one.
  21. Make sure your facts are right and your data is good.
  22. “The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.” (Franklin Templeton).
  23. Being exceptional requires doing things differently.
  24. You can be and often are wrong.
  25. Plan (and have contingency plans).
  26. “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.).
  27. Correlation is not causation; consensus is not truth; and what is conventional is rarely wisdom.
  28. We always know less than we think.
  29. “Never confuse genius with a bull market.” (Humphrey B. Neill).
  30. History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.

Five Stinkin’ Feet

Investment Belief #5: Process Should Be Prioritized Over Outcomes InvestmentBeliefssm2 (2)

My first baseball memory is from October 16, 1962, the day after my sixth birthday, by which time I was already hooked on what was then the National Pastime. In those days, all World Series games were played during the day. So I hurried home from school on that Tuesday afternoon to turn on the (black-and-white) television and catch what I could of the seventh and deciding game of a great Series at the then-new Candlestick Park in San Francisco between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

Game seven matched New York’s 23-game winner, Ralph Terry (who in 1960 had given up perhaps the most famous home run in World Series history to lose the climatic seventh game), against San Francisco’s 24-game-winner, Jack Sanford. Sanford had pitched a three-hit shutout against Terry in game two, winning 2-0, while Terry had returned the favor in game five, defeating Sanford in a 5-3, complete game win. Game seven was brilliantly pitched on both sides. While Terry carried a perfect game into the sixth inning (broken up by Sanford) and a two-hit shutout into the ninth, Sanford was almost as good. The Yankees pushed their only run across in the fifth on singles by Bill “Moose” Skowron and Clete Boyer, a walk to Terry and a double-play grounder by Tony Kubek.

1962 WS ProgramsWhen Terry took the mound for the bottom of the ninth, clutching to that 1-0 lead (the idea of a “closer” had not been concocted yet), he faced pinch-hitter Matty Alou, who drag-bunted his way aboard. His brother Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out, bringing the great future Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays to the plate, who had led the National League in batting, runs and homers that year, as the Giants’ sought desperately to stay alive. Mays doubled to right, but Roger Maris (who had famously hit 61 homers the year before and who was a better fielder than is commonly assumed) cut the ball off at the line. His quick throw to Bobby Richardson and Richardson’s relay home forced Alou to hold at third base.

With first base open, Giants cleanup hitter and future Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey stepped into the batter’s box while another future Hall-of-Famer, Orlando Cepeda, waited on deck. Yankees Manager Ralph Houk decided to let the right-handed Terry pitch to the left-handed-hitting McCovey, who had tripled in his previous at-bat and homered off Terry in game two, even though Cepeda was a right-handed hitter. With the count at one-and-one, McCovey got an inside fastball and rifled a blistering shot toward right field but low and just a step to Richardson’s left. The second baseman, who Terry had thought was out of position, snagged it and the Series was over. McCovey would later say that it was among the hardest balls he ever hit.

“It was an instant thing, a bam-bam type of play,” recalled Tom Haller, who caught the game for the Giants. “A bunch of us jumped up like, ‘There it is,’ then sat down because it was over.

“It was one of those split-second things. ‘Yeah! No!’ ”

Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra, who has pretty much seen it all, said, “When McCovey hit the ball, it lifted me right out of my shoes. I never saw a last game of a World Series more exciting.”

Had McCovey’s frozen rope been hit just a bit higher or just a bit to either side, the Giants would have been crowned champions. As recounted by Henry Schulman in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was a matter of “[f]ive stinkin’ feet.”

Tremendous skill was exhibited by the players on that October afternoon over half a century ago. But the game – and ultimately the World Series championship – was decided by a bit of luck: that “five stinkin’ feet.” Continue reading