Feeding the Beast

By Edward A. Studzinski

“Finance is the art of passing currency from hand to hand until it finally disappears.”

                                                  Robert Sarnoff

A friend of mine, a financial services reporter for many years, spoke to me one time about the problem of “feeding the beast.”  With a weekly deadline requirement to come up with a story that would make the editors up the chain happy and provide something informative to the readers, it was on more than one occasion a struggle to keep from repeating one’s self and avoid going through the motions.  Writing about mutual funds and the investment management business regularly presents the same problems for me.  Truth often becomes stranger than fiction, and many readers, otherwise discerning rational people, refuse to accept that the reality is much different than their perception.  The analogy I think of is the baseball homerun hitter, who through a combination of performance enhancing chemicals and performance enhancing bats, breaks records (but really doesn’t). 

So let’s go back for a moment to the headline issue.  One of my favorite “Shoe” cartoons had the big bird sitting in the easy chair, groggily waking up to hear the break-in news announcement “Russian tanks roll down Park Avenue – more at 11.”  The equivalent in the fund world would be “Famous Fund Manager says nothing fits his investment parameters so he is sending the money back.”  There is not a lot of likelihood that you will see that happening, even though I know it is a concern of both portfolio managers and analysts this year, for similar reasons but with different motivations.  In the end however it all comes back to job security, about which both John Bogle and Charlie Ellis have written, rather than a fiduciary obligation to your investors. 

David Snowball and I interviewed a number of money managers a few months ago.  All of them were doing start-ups.  They had generally left established organizations, consistently it seemed because they wanted to do things their own way.  This often meant putting the clients first rather than the financial interests of a parent company or the senior partners.  The thing that resonated the most with me was a comment from David Marcus at Evermore Global, who said that if you were going to set up a mutual fund, set up one that was different than what was available in the market place.  Don’t just set up another large cap value fund or another global value fund.  Great advice but advice that is rarely followed it seems. 

If you want to have some fun, take a look at:

  •  an S&P 500 Index Fund’s top ten holdings vs.
  •  the top ten holdings at a quantitative run large cap value fund (probably one hundred stocks rather than five hundred, and thirty to sixty basis points in fees as opposed to five at the index fund) vs.
  •  the top ten holdings at a diversified actively managed large cap value fund (probably sixty stocks and eighty basis points in fees) vs.
  •  a non-diversified concentrated value fund (less than twenty holdings, probably one hundred basis points in fees).

Look at the holdings, look at the long-term performance (five years and up), and look at the fees, and draw your own conclusions.  My suspicion is that you will find a lot of portfolio overlap, with the exception of the non-diversified concentrated fund.  My other suspicion is that the non-diversified concentrated fund will show outlier returns (either much better or much worse).  The fees should be much higher, but in this instance, the question you should be paying attention to is whether they are worth it.  I realize this will shock many, but this is one of the few instances where I think they are justified if there is sustained outperformance.

Now I realize that some of you think that the question of fees has become an obsession with me, my version of Cato the Elder saying at every meeting of the Roman Senate, “Carthage must be destroyed.”  But the question of fees is one that is consistently under appreciated by mutual fund investors, if for no other reason that they do not see the fees.  In fact, if you were to take a poll of many otherwise sophisticated investors, they would tell you that they are not being charged fees on their mutual fund investment.  And yet, high fees without a differentiated portfolio does more to degrade performance over time than almost anything else.

John Templeton once said that if your portfolio looks like everyone else’s, your returns also will look the same.  The great (and I truly mean great) value investor Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital puts it somewhat differently but equally succinctly.  Here I am paraphrasing but, if you want to make outsized returns than you have to construct a portfolio that is different than that held by most other investors.  Sounds easy right?

But think about it.  In large investment organizations, unconventional behavior is generally not rewarded.  If anything, the distinction between the investors and the consultant intermediaries increasingly becomes blurred in terms of who really is the client to whom the fiduciary obligation is owed.  Unconventional thinking loses out to job security.  It may be sugar coated in terms of the wording you hear, with all the wonderful catch phrases about increased diversification, focus on generating a higher alpha with less beta, avoiding dispersion of investment results across accounts, etc., etc.  But the reality is that if 90% of the client assets were invested in an idea that went to zero or the equivalent of zero and 10% of them did not because the idea was avoided by some portfolio managers, the ongoing discussion in that organization will not be about lessons learned relative to the investment mistake.  Rather it will be about the management and organizational problems caused by the 10% managers not being “team players.” 

The motto of the Special Air Service in Great Britain is, “Who dares, wins.”  And once you spend some time around those people, you understand that the organization did not mold that behavior into them, but rather they were born with it and found the right place where they could use those talents (and the organization gave them a home).  Superior long-term investment performance requires similar willingness to assess and take risks, and to be different than the consensus.  It requires a willingness to be different, and a willingness to be uncomfortable with your investments.  That requires both a certain type of portfolio manager, as well as a certain type of investor.

I have written before about some of the post-2008 changes we have seen in portfolio management behavior, such as limiting position sizes to a certain number of days trading volume, and increasing the number of securities held in a portfolio (sixty really is not concentrated, no matter what the propaganda from marketing says).  But by the same token, many investors will not be comfortable with a very different portfolio.  They will also not be comfortable investing when the market is declining.  And they will definitely not be comfortable with short-term underperformance by a manager, even when the long-term record trashes the indices. 

From that perspective, I again say that if you as an investor can’t sleep at night with funds off the beaten path or if you don’t want to do the work to monitor funds off the beaten path, then focus your attention on asset-allocation, risk and time horizon, and construct a portfolio of low-cost index funds. 

At least you will sleep at night knowing that over time you will earn market returns.  But if you know yourself, and can tolerate being different – than look for the managers where the portfolio is truly different, with the potential returns that are different. 

But don’t think that any of this is easy.  To quote Charlie Munger, “It’s not supposed to be easy.  Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.”  You have to be prepared to make mistakes, in both making investments and assessing managers.  You also have to be willing to look different than the consensus.  One other thing you have to be willing to do, especially in mutual fund investing, is look away from the larger fund organizations for your investment choices (with the exception of index funds, where size will drive down costs) for by their very nature, they will not attract and retain the kind of talent that will give you outlier returns (and as we are seeing with one large European-owned organization, the parent may not be astute enough to know when decay has set in).  Finally, you have to be in a position to be patient when you are wrong, and not be forced to sell, either by reason of not having a long-term view or long-term resources, or in the case of a manager, not having the ability to weather redemptions while maintaining organizational and institutional support for the philosophy. 

Next month: Flash geeks and other diversions from the mean.

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About Edward A. Studzinski

Ed Studzinski has more than 30 years of institutional investment experience. Until January of 2012, he was a partner at Harris Associates in Chicago, Illinois. Harris is known for its value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach that frames the investment process as owning a piece of the business relative to the business value of the whole, ideally forever. At Harris, Ed was co-manager of the Oakmark Equity & Income Fund (OAKBX). During the eleven plus years that he was in that role, the fund increased more than 35 times in size. Concurrently Ed was also an equity research analyst, providing many of the ideas that contributed to the fund’s success. He has specialist knowledge in the aerospace & defense, financial services, and spirits & tobacco industries, having followed and owned companies as diverse as Alliant Techsystems, Catellus Development, GATX, General Dynamics, InBev, Kirby, Legacy Hotels, L-3, Nestle, Partner Re, Philip Morris International, Progressive Insurance, Rockwell Collins, Safeco Insurance, Teledyne, Textron, and UST. Before joining Harris Associates, over a period of more than 10 years, Ed was the Chief Investment Officer at the Mercantile National Bank of Indiana, and also served on their Executive and Asset-Liability Committees. Prior to Mercantile, Ed practiced law. A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, he received his A.B. in history (magna cum laude) from Boston College, where he was a Scholar of the College. He has a J.D. from Duke University and an M.B.A. in marketing from Northwestern University. A Chartered Financial Analyst, Ed belongs to the Investment Analyst Societies of both Boston and Chicago. He is admitted to the Bar in Illinois, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina.