“What is youth except a man or a woman before it is ready or fit to be seen.”
We are now in that time of the year, December, which I will categorize as the silly season for investors, both institutional and individual. Generally things should be settling down into the holiday whirl of Christmas parties and distribution of bonus checks, at least in the world of money management. Unfortunately, things have not gone according to plan. Once again that pesky passive index, the S&P 500, is outperforming many active managers. And in some instances, it is not just outperforming, but in positive total-return territory while many active managers are in negative territory. So for the month of December, there is an unusual degree of pressure to catch-up the underperformance by year-end.
We have seen this play out in the commodities, especially the energy sector. As the price of oil has drifted downwards, bouncing but now hovering around $40 a barrel, it has been dangerous to assume that all energy stocks were alike, that leverage did not matter, and that lifting costs and the ability to get product to market did not matter. It did, which is why we see some companies on the verge of being acquired at a very low price relative to barrels of energy in the ground and others faced with potential bankruptcy. It did matter whether your reserves were shale, tar sands, deep water, or something else.
Some of you wonder why, with a career of approaching thirty years as an active value investor, I am so apparently negative on active management. I’m not – I still firmly believe that over time, value outperforms, and active management should add positive alpha. But as I have also said in past commentaries, we are in the midst of a generational shift of analysts and money managers. And it is often a shift where there is not a mentoring overlap or transition (hard to have an overlap when someone is spending much of his or her time a thousand miles away). Most of them have never seen, let alone been through, a protracted bear market. So I don’t really know how they will react. Will they panic or will they freeze? It is very hard to predict, especially from the outside looking in. But in a world of email, social media, and other forms of instantaneous communication, it is also very hard to shut out the outside noise and intrusions. I have talked to and seen managers and analysts who retreated into their offices, shut the door, and melted under the pressure.
For many of you, I think the safer and better course of action is to allocate certain assets, particularly retirement, to passively-managed products which will track the long-term returns of the asset classes in which they are invested. They too will have maximum draw-down and other bear market issues, but you will eliminate a human element that may negatively impact you at the wrong time.
The other issue of course is benchmarking and time horizons, which is difficult for non-value investors to appreciate. Value can be out of favor for a long, long period of time. Indeed it can be out of favor so long that you throw in the towel. And then, you wish you had not. The tendency towards short-termism in money management is the enemy of value investing. And many in money management who call themselves value managers view the financial consultant or intermediary as the client rather than Mr. and Mrs. Six-Pack whose money it is in the fund. They play the game of relative value, by using strategies such as regression to the mean. “See, we really are value investors. We lost less money than the other guys.”
The Real Thing
One of the high points for me over the last month was the opportunity to attend a dinner hosted by David Marcus, of Evermore Global Value, in Boston, at the time of the Schwab Conference. I would like to say that David Snowball and I attended the Schwab Conference, but Schwab does not consider MFO to be a real financial publication. They did not consider David Snowball to be a financial journalist.
I have known of David Marcus for some years, as one of the original apostles under Max Heine and Michael Price at Mutual Shares. I am unfortunately old enough to remember that the old Mutual Shares organization was something special, perhaps akin to the Brooklyn Dodgers team of 1955 that beat the Yankees in the World Series (yes, children, the Dodgers were once in Brooklyn). Mutual Shares nurtured a lot of value investing talent, many of whom you know and others, like Seth Klarman of Baupost and my friend Bruce Crystal, whom you may not.
David Snowball and I subsequently interviewed David Marcus for a profile of his fund. I remember being struck by his advice to managers thinking of starting another 1940 Act mutual fund – “Don’t start another large cap value fund just like every other large cap value fund.” And Evermore Global is not like any other fund out there that I can see. How do I know? Well, I have now listened to David Marcus at length in person, explaining what he and his analysts do in his special situation fund. And I have done what I always do to see whether what I am hearing is a marketing spiel or not. I have looked at the portfolio. And it is unlike any other fund out there that I can see in terms of holdings. Its composition tells me that they are doing what they say they are doing. And, David can articulate clearly, at length, about why he owns each holding.
What makes me comfortable? Because I don’t think David is going to morph into something different than what he is and has been. Apparently Michael Price, not known for suffering fools gladly, said that if the rationale for making an investment changed or was not what you thought it was, get rid of the investment. Don’t try and come up with a new rationale. I will not ruin your day by telling you that in many firms today the analysts and portfolio managers regularly reinvent a new rational, especially when compensation is tied to invested assets under management. I also believe Marcus when he says the number of stocks will stay at a certain level, to make sure they are the best ideas. You will not have to look back at prior semi-annual reports to wonder why the relatively concentrated fund of forty stocks became the concentrated fund of eighty stocks (well it’s active share because there are not as many as Fidelity has in their similar fund). So, I think this is a fund worth looking at, for those who have long time horizons. By way of disclosure, I am an investor in the fund.
For those of you who like history, and who want to understand what I am talking about in terms of the need for appreciating generational shifts in management when they happen, I commend to you Rick Atkinson’s first book in his WWII trilogy, An Army at Dawn.
My friend Robin Angus, at the very long-term driven UK Investment Trust Personal Assets, in his November 2015 Quarterly Report quoted Brian Spector of Baupost Partners in Boston, whose words I think are worth quoting again. “One of the most common misconceptions regarding Baupost is that most outsiders think we have generated good risk-adjusted returns despite holding cash. Most insiders, on the other hand, believe we have generated those returns BECAUSE of that cash. Without that cash, it would be impossible to deploy capital when … great opportunities became widespread.”
Finally, to put you in the holiday mood, another friend, Larry Jeddeloh of The Institutional Strategist, recently came back from a European trip visiting clients there. A client in Geneva said to Larry, “If you forget for a moment analysis, logic, reasoning and just sniff the air, one smells gunpowder.”
Not my hope for the New Year, but ….
Edward A. Studzinski