The Cook and Bynum Fund

By Editor

The fund:

The Cook and Bynum Fund


Richard P. Cook and J. Dowe Bynum, managers and founding partners.

The call:

Recently published research laments the fact that actively-managed funds have become steadily less active and more index-like over time.

The changing imperatives of the fund industry have led many managers to become mediocre by design. Their response is driven by the anxious desire for so-called “sticky” assets. The strategy is simple: design a product to minimize the risk that it will ever spectacularly trail its peer group. If you make your fund very much like its benchmark, you will never be a singular disaster and so investors (retirement plan investors, particularly) will never to motivated to find something better The fact that you never excel is irrelevant. The result is a legion of large, expensive, undistinguished funds who seek safety in the herd.

The Cook and Bynum Fund (COBYX) strikes me as the antithesis of those. Carefully constructed, tightly focused, and intentionally distinct. On Tuesday, March 5, we spoke with Richard Cook and Dowe Bynum in the first of three conversations with distinguished managers who defy that trend through their commitment to a singular discipline: buy only the best. For Richard and Dowe, that translates to a portfolio with only seven holdings and a 34% cash stake. Since inception (through early March, 2013), they managed to capture 83% of the market’s gains with only 50% of its volatility; in the past twelve months, Morningstar estimates that they captured just 7% of the market’s downside.

Among the highlights of the call for me:

  1. The guys are willing to look stupid. There are times, as now, when they can’t find stocks that meet their quality and valuation standards. The rule for such situations is simply: “When compelling opportunities do not exist, it is our obligation not to put capital at risk.” They happily admit that other funds might well reap short-term gains by running with the pack, but you “have to be willing to look stupid.” Their current cash stake is about 34%, “the highest cash level ever in the fund.” That’s not driven by a market call; it’s a simple residue of their inability to find great opportunities.
  2. The guys are not willing to be stupid. Richard and Dowe grew up together and are comfortable challenging each other. Richard knows the limits of Dowe’s knowledge (and vice versa), “so we’re less likely to hold hands and go off the cliff together.” In order to avoid that outcome, they spend a lot of time figuring out how not to be stupid. They relegate some intriguing possibilities to the “too hard pile,” those businesses that might have a great story but whose business model or financials are simply too hard to forecast with sufficient confidence. They think about common errors (commitment bias, our ability to rationalize why we’re not going to stop doing something once we’ve started, chief among them) and have generated a set of really interesting tools to help contain them. They maintain, for example, a list all of the reasons why they don’t like their current holdings. In advance of any purchase, they list all of the conditions under which they’d quickly sell (“if their star CEO leaves, we do too”) and keep that on top of their pile of papers concerning the stock.
  3. They’re doing what they love. Before starting Cook & Bynum (the company), both of the guys had high-visibility, highly-compensated positions in financial centers. Richard worked for Tudor Investments in Stamford, CT, while Dowe was with Goldman, Sachs in New York. The guys believe in a fundamental, value- and research-driven, stock-by-stock process. What they were being paid to do (with Tudor’s macro event-driven hedge fund strategies for Richard) was about as far from what they most wanted as they could get. And so they quit, moved back to Alabama and set up their own shop to manage their own money and the investments of high net-worth individuals. They created Cook & Bynum (the fund) in response to an investor’s request for a product accessible to family and friends. The $250 million invested with them (about $100 million in the fund) includes 100% of their own liquid net worth, with their investment split between the fund and the partnerships. Since both sets of vehicles use the same fees and structure, there’s no conflict between the two.
  4. They do prodigious research without succumbing to the “gotta buy something” impulse. While they spend the majority of their time in their offices, they’re also comfortable with spending two or three weeks at a time on the road. Their argument is that they’ve got to understand the entire ecosystem in which a firm operates – from the quality of its distribution network to the feelings of its customers – which they can only do first-hand. Nonetheless, they’ve been pretty good at resisting “deal momentum.” They spent, for example, some three weeks traveling around Estonia, Poland and Hungary. Found nothing compelling. Traveled Greece and Turkey and learned a lot, including how deeply dysfunctional the Greek economy, is but bought nothing.
  5. They’re willing to do what you won’t. Most of us profess a buy low / buy the unloved / break from the herd / embrace our inner contrarian ethos. And most of us are deluded. Cook and Bynum seem rather less so: they’re holding cash now while others buy stocks after the market has doubled and profits margins hit records but in the depth of the 2008 meltdown they were buyers. (They report having skipped Christmas presents in 2008 in order to have extra capital to invest.) As the market bottomed in March 2009, the fund was down to 2% cash.

Bottom Line: the guys seem to be looking for two elusive commodities. One is investments worth pursuing. The other is investing partners who share their passion for compelling investments and their willingness to let other investors charge off in a herd. Neither is as common as you might hope. 

podcastThe conference call (When you click on the link, the file will load in your browser and will begin playing after it’s partially loaded.)

The profile:

It’s working.  Cook and Bynum might well be among the best.  They’re young.  The fund is small and nimble.  Their discipline makes great sense.  It’s not magic, but it has been very, very good and offers an intriguing alternative for investors concerned by lockstep correlations and watered-down portfolios.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of COBYX, April 2013.


 The COBYX audio profile


The Cook & Bynum Fund website

The Cook and Bynum Fact Sheet

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources