Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX)

By David Snowball

The fund:

Beck, Mack & Oliver Partners Fund (BMPEX)


Zachary Wydra, portfolio manager.

The call:

I spoke for about an hour on Wednesday, October 16, with Zac Wydra of BMPEX. There were about 30 other participants on the call. I’ve elsewhere analogized Beck, Mack to Dodge & Cox: an old money, white shoe firm whose core business is helping the rich stay rich. In general, you need a $3 million minimum investment to engage with them. Partners was created in 1991 as a limited partnership to accommodate the grandkids or staff of their clients, folks who might only have a few hundred thousand to commit. (Insert about here: “Snowball gulps”) The “limited” in limited partnership signals a maximum number of investors, 100. The partnership filled up and prospered. When the managing partner retired, Zac made a pitch to convert the partnership to a ’40 fund’ and make it more widely available. He argued that he thought there was a wider audience for a disciplined, concentrated fund.

He was made the fund’s inaugural manager. He’s 41 and anticipates running BMPEX for about the next quarter century, at which point he’ll be required – as all partners are – to move into retirement and undertake a phased five year divestment of his economic stake in the firm. His then-former ownership stake will be available to help attract and retain the best cadre of younger professionals that they can find. Between now and retirement he will (1) not run any other pooled investment vehicle, (2) not allow BMPEX to get noticeably bigger than $1.5 billion – he’ll return capital to investors first – and (3) will, over a period of years, train and oversee a potential successor.

In the interim, the discipline is simple:

  1. never hold more than 30 securities – he can hold bonds but hasn’t found any that offer a better risk/return profile than the stocks he’s found. 
  2. only invest in firms with great management teams, a criterion that’s met when the team demonstrates superior capital allocation decisions over a period of years
  3. invest only in firms whose cash flows are consistent and predictable. Some fine firms come with high variable flows and some are in industries whose drivers are particularly hard to decipher; he avoids those altogether. 
  4. only buy when stocks sell at a sufficient discount to fair value that you’ve got a margin of safety, a patience that was illustrated by his decision to watch Bed, Bath & Beyond for over two and a half years before a short-term stumble triggered a panicky price drop and he could move in. In general, he is targeting stocks which have the prospect of gaining at least 50% over the next three years and which will not lose value over that time. 
  5. ignore the question of whether it’s a “high turnover” or “low turnover” strategy. His argument is that the market determines the turnover rate. If his holdings become overpriced, he’ll sell them quickly. If the market collapses, he’ll look for stocks with even better risk/return profiles than those currently in the portfolio. In general, it would be common for him to turn over three to five names in the portfolio each year, though occasionally that’s just recycling: he’ll sell a good firm whose stock becomes overvalued then buy it back again once it becomes undervalued.

There were three questioners:

Kevin asked what Zac’s “edge” was. A focus on cash, rather than earnings, seemed to be the core of it. Businesses exist to generate cash, not earnings, and so BM&O’s valuations were driven by discounted cash flow models. Those models were meaningful only if it were possible to calculate the durability of cash flows over 5 years. In industries where cash flows have volatile, it’s hard to assign a meaningful multiple and so he avoids them.

In follow up: how do you set your discount rate. He uses a uniform 10% because that reflects consistent investor expectations.

Seth asked what mistakes have you made and what did you learn from them? Zac hearkened back to the days when the fund was still a private partnership. They’d invested in AIG which subsequently turned into a bloody mess. Ummm, “not an enjoyable experience” was his phrase. He learned from that that “independent” was not always the same as “contrary.” AIG was selling at what appeared to be a lunatic discount, so BM&O bought in a contrarian move. Out of the resulting debacle, Zac learned a bit more respect for the market’s occasionally unexplainable pricings of an asset. At base, if the market says a stock is worth twenty cents a share, you’d better than remarkably strong evidence in order to act on an internal valuation of twenty dollars a share.

Andy asked how Zac established valuations on firms with lots of physical resources. Very cautiously. Their cash flows tend to be unpredictable. That said, BMPEX was overweight energy service companies because things like deep water oil rig counts weren’t all that sensitive to fluctuations in the price of oil.

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:

Successful investing does not require either a magic wand or a magic formula. No fund or strategy will win in each year or every market. The best we can do is to get all of the little things right: don’t overpay for stocks and don’t over-diversify, limit the size of the fund and limit turnover, keep expenses low and keep the management team stable, avoid “hot” investments and avoid unforced errors, remember it isn’t a game and it isn’t a sprint. Beck, Mack & Oliver gets an exceptional number of the little things very right. It has served its shareholders very well and deserves close examination.

The Mutual Fund Observer profile of BMPEX, September 2013.

podcastThe BMPEX audio profile


BM&O Partners website

Fund Focus: Resources from other trusted sources

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About David Snowball

David Snowball, PhD (Massachusetts). Cofounder, lead writer. David is a Professor of Communication Studies at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, a nationally-recognized college of the liberal arts and sciences, founded in 1860. For a quarter century, David competed in academic debate and coached college debate teams to over 1500 individual victories and 50 tournament championships. When he retired from that research-intensive endeavor, his interest turned to researching fund investing and fund communication strategies. He served as the closing moderator of Brill’s Mutual Funds Interactive (a Forbes “Best of the Web” site), was the Senior Fund Analyst at FundAlarm and author of over 120 fund profiles. David lives in Davenport, Iowa, and spends an amazing amount of time ferrying his son, Will, to baseball tryouts, baseball lessons, baseball practices, baseball games … and social gatherings with young ladies who seem unnervingly interested in him.