By Edward Studzinski
“A sign of celebrity is that his name is often worth more than his services.”
Daniel J. Boorstin
So the annual Morningstar Conference has come and gone again, with fifteen thousand attendees in town hoping to receive the benefit of some bit of investment or business wisdom. The theme of this year’s conference appears to have been that the world of investors now increasingly is populated by and belongs to “Gen X’ers” and “Millennials.” Baby Boomers such as yours truly, are a thing of the past in terms of influence as well as a group from whom assets are to be gathered. Indeed, according to my colleagues, advisors should be focused not on the current decision maker in a client family but rather the spouse (who statistically should outlive) or the children. And their process of decision making will most likely be very different than that of the patriarch. We can see that now, in terms of how they desire to communicate, which is increasingly less by the written word or in face to face meetings.
In year’s past, the conference had the flavor of being an investment conference. Now it has taken on the appearance of a marketing and asset allocation advice event. Many a person told me that they do not come to attend the conference and hear the speakers. Rather, they come because they have conveniently assembled in one place a large number of individuals that they have been interested either in meeting or catching up with. My friend Charles’ observation was that it was a conference of “suits” and “skirts” in the Exhibitors’ Hall. Unfortunately I have the benefit of these observations only second and third hand, as for the first part of the week I was in Massachusetts and did not get back to Chicago until late Wednesday evening. And while I could have made my way to events on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, I have found it increasingly difficult to take the whole thing seriously as an investment information event (although it is obviously a tremendous cash cow for Morningstar). Given the tremendous success of the conference year in and year out, one increasingly wonders what the correct valuation metric is to be applied to Morningstar equity. Is it the Google of the investment and financial services world? Nonetheless, given the focus of many of the attendees on the highest margin opportunities in the investment business and the way to sustain an investment management franchise, I wonder if, notwithstanding how she said it, whether Senator Elizabeth Warren is correct when she says that “the game is rigged.”
Friday apparently saw two value-oriented investors in a small panel presenting and taking Q&A. One of those manages a fund with $20 Billion in assets, which is a larger amount of money than he historically has managed. Charging a 1% fee on that $20B, his firm is picking up $200 Million in revenue from that one fund alone, notwithstanding that they have other funds. Historically he has been more of a small-midcap manager, with a lot of special situations but not to worry, he’s finding lots of things to invest in, albeit with 40% or so in cash or cash equivalents. The other domestic manager runs two domestic funds as the lead manager, with slightly more than $24 Billion in assets, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it a blended rate of 90 basis points in fees. His firm is seeing than somewhat in excess of $216 Million in revenue from the two funds. Now let me point out that unless the assets collapse, these fees are recurring, so in five years, there has been a billion dollars in revenue generated at each firm, more than enough to purchase several yachts. The problem I have with this is it is not a serious discussion of the world we are in at present. Valuation metrics for stocks and bonds are at levels approaching if not beyond the two standard deviation warning bells. I suppose some of this is to be expected, as if is a rare manager who is going to tell you to keep your money. However, I would be hard pressed at this time if running a fund, to have it open. I am actually reminded of the situation where a friend sent me to her family’s restaurant in suburban Chicago, and her mother rattled off the specials of the evening, one of which was Bohemian style duck. I asked her to go ask the chef how the duck looked that night, and after a minute she came back and said, “Chef says the duck looks real good tonight.” At that point, one of the regulars at the bar started laughing and said, “What do you think? The chef’s going to say, oh, the duck looks like crap tonight?”
Now, if I could make a suggestion in Senator Warren’s ear, it would be that hearings should be held about what kind of compensation in the investment management field is excessive. When the dispersion between the lowest paid employee and the highest results in the highest compensated being paid two hundred times more than the lowest, it seems extreme. I suppose we will hear that not all of the compensation is compensation, but rather some reflects ownership and management responsibilities. The rub is that many times the so-called ownership interests are artificial or phantom.
It just strikes that this is an area ripe for reform, for something in the nature of an excess profits tax to be proposed. After all, nothing is really being created here that redounds to the benefit of the U.S. economy, or is creating jobs (and yes Virginia, carried interest for hedge funds as a tax advantage should also be eliminated).
We now face a world where the can increasingly looks like it cannot be kicked down the road financially for either Greece or Puerto Rico. And that doesn’t even consider the states like Illinois and Rhode Island that have serious underfunded pension issues, as well as crumbling infrastructures. So, I say again, there is a great deal of risk in the global financial system at present. One should focus, as an investor, in not putting any more at risk than one could afford to write off without compromising one’s standard of living. Low interest rates have done more harm than good, for both the U.S. economy and the global economy. And liquidity is increasingly a problem, especially in the fixed income markets but also in stocks. Be warned! Don’t be one of the investors who has caught the disease known as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out.”