The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan as well as Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, has recently been giving a series of interviews in which he argues that current investment industry compensation practices lead to subtle conflicts of interest, that end up inuring to the disadvantage of individual investors. Nowhere is this more apparent than when one looks at the mutual fund complexes that have become asset gatherers rather than investment managers.
By way of full disclosure I have to tell you that I am an admirer of Mr. Taleb’s. I was not always the most popular boy in the classroom as I was always worrying about the need to consider the potential for “Black Swan” or outlier events. Unfortunately all one has to have is one investment massacre like the 2008-2009 period. This gave investors a lost decade of investment returns and a potentially permanent loss of capital if they panicked and liquidated their investments. To have a more in-depth appreciation of the concept and its implications, I commend those of you with the time to a careful study of the data that the Mutual Fund Observer has compiled and begun releasing regularly. You should pay particular attention to a number called the “Maximum Drawdown.” There you will see that as a result of that dark period, looking back five years it is a rarity to find a domestic fund manager who did not lose 35-50% of his or her investors’ money. The same is to be said for global and international fund managers who likewise did not distinguish themselves, losing 50-65% of investors’ capital, assuming the investors panicked and liquidated their investments, and many did.
A number of investment managers that I know are not fans of Mr. Taleb’s work, primarily because he has a habit of bringing attention to inconvenient truths. In Fooled by Randomness, he made the case that given the large number of people who had come into the investment management business in recent years, there were a number who had to have generated good records randomly. They were what he calls “spurious winners.” I would argue that the maximum drawdown numbers referred to above confirm that thesis.
How then to avoid the spurious winner? Taleb argues that the hedge fund industry serves as a model, by truly having managers with “skin in the game.” In his experience a hedge fund manager typically has twenty to fifty times the exposure of his next biggest client. That of necessity makes them both more careful and as well as aware of the consequences if they have underinvested in the necessary talent to remain competitive. Taleb quite definitively states, “You don’t get that with fund managers.”
I suspect the counterargument I am going to hear is that fund managers are now required to disclose, by means of reporting within various ranges, the amount of money they have invested in the fund they are managing. Just go to the Statement of Additional Information, which is usually found on a fund website. And if the SAI shows that the manager has more than $1 million invested in his or her fund, then that is supposed to be a good sign concerning alignment of interests. Like the old Hertz commercial, the real rather than apparent answer is “not exactly.”
The gold standard in this regard has been set by Longleaf Partners with their funds. Their employees are required to limit their publicly offered equity investments to funds advised by Southeastern Asset Management, Longleaf’s advisor, unless granted a compliance exception. Their trustees also must obtain permission before making a publicly offered equity investment. That is rather unique in the fund industry, since what you usually see in the marketing brochures or periodic fund reports is something like “the employees and families of blah-blah have more than $X million invested in our funds.” If you are lucky this may work out to be one percent of assets under management in the firm, hardly hedge-fund like metrics. At the same time, you often find trustees of the fund with de minimis investments.
The comparison becomes worse when you look at a fund with $9 billion in assets and the “normal” one percent investment management fee, which generates $90 million in revenue. The fund manager may tell you that his largest equity investment is in the fund and is more than $1 million. But if his annual compensation runs somewhere between $1million and $10 million, and this is Taleb’s strongest point, the fund manager does not have a true disincentive for losing money. The situation becomes even more blurred where compliance policy allows investment in ETF’s or open-ended mutual funds, which in today’s world will often allow a fund manager to construct his own personal market neutral or hedged portfolio, to offset his investment in the fund he is managing.
Is there a solution? Yes, a fairly easy one – adopt as an industry standard through government regulation the requirement that all employees in the investment firm are required to limit their publicly offered equity investments to the funds in the complex. To give credit where credit is due, just as we have a Volcker rule, we can call it the “Southeastern Asset Management” rule. If that should prove too restrictive, I would suggest as an alternative that the SEC add another band of investment ranges above the current $1 million limit, at perhaps $5 million. That at least would give a truer picture for the investor, especially given the money flows now gushing into a number of firms, which often make a $1 million investment not material to the fund manager. Such disclosure will do a better job of attuning investment professionals to what should be their real concern – managing risk with a view towards the potential downside, rather than ignoring risk with other people’s money.
What does it say when such well known value managers as Tweedy, Browne and First Pacific Advisors are letting cash positions rise in their portfolios as they sell and don’t replace securities that have reached their target valuations? Probably the same thing as when one of the people I consider to be one of the outstanding money managers of our time, Seth Klarman at Baupost Partners, announces that he will be returning some capital to his partnership investors at year end. Stay tuned.