“The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”
I will apologize in advance, for this may end up sounding like the anti-mutual fund essay. Why do people invest, and specifically, why do they invest in mutual funds? The short answer is to make money. The longer answer is hopefully more complex and covers a multitude of rationales. Some invest for retirement to maintain a standard of living when one is no longer working full-time, expecting to achieve returns through diversified portfolios and professional management above and beyond what they could achieve by investing on their own. Others invest to meet a specific goal along the path of life – purchase a home, pay for college for the children, be able to retire early. Rarely does one hear that the goal of mutual fund investing is to become wealthy. In fact, I can’t think of any time I have ever had anyone tell me they were investing in mutual funds to become rich. Indeed if you want to become wealthy, your goal should be to manage a mutual fund rather than invest in one.
How has most of the great wealth been created in this country? It has been created by people who started and built businesses, and poured themselves (and their assets) into a single-minded effort to make those businesses succeed, in many instances beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. And at some point, the wealth created became solidified as it were by either selling the business (as the great philanthropist Irving Harris did with his firm, Toni Home Permanents) or taking it public (think Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos with Microsoft and Amazon). And if one goes further back in time, the example of John D. Rockefeller with the various Standard Oil companies would loom large (and now of course, we have reunited two of those companies, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey aka Exxon and Standard Oil Company of New York aka Mobil as Exxon-Mobil, but I digress).
So, this begs the question, can one become wealthy by investing in a professionally-managed portfolio of securities, aka a mutual fund? The answer is – it depends. If one wants above-average returns and wealth creation, one usually has to concentrate one’s investments. In the mutual fund world you do this by investing in a concentrated or non-diversified fund. The conflict comes when the non-diversified fund grows beyond a certain size of assets under management and number of investments. It then morphs from an opportunistic investment pool into a large or mega cap investment pool. The other problem arises with the unlimited duration of a mutual fund. Daily fund pricing and daily fund flows and redemptions do have a cost. For those looking for a real life example (I suspect I know the answer but I will defer to Charles to provide the numbers in next month’s MFO), contrast the performance over time of the closed-end fund, Source Capital (SOR) run by one of the best value investment firms, First Pacific Advisors with the performance over time of the mutual funds run by the same firm, some with the same portfolio managers and strategy.
The point of this is that having a fixed capital structure lessens the number of issues with which an investment manager has to deal (focus on the investment, not what to do with new money or what to sell to meet redemptions). If you want a different real life example, take a look at the long-term performance of one of the best investment managers to come out of Harris Associates, whom most of you have never heard of, Peter B. Foreman, and his partnership Hesperus Partners, Ltd.
Now the point of this is not to say that you cannot make money by investing in a mutual fund or a pool of mutual funds. Rather, as you introduce more variables such as asset in-flows, out-flows, pools of analysts dedicated to an entire fund group rather than one investment product, and compensation incentives or disincentives, it becomes harder to generate consistent outperformance. And if you are an individual investor who keeps increasing the number of mutual funds that he or she has invested in (think Noah and the Ark School of Personal Investment), it becomes even more difficult
A few weeks ago it struck me that in the early 1980’s, when I figured out that I was a part of the sub-species of investor called value investor (not “value-oriented investor” which is a term invented by securities lawyers for securities lawyers), I made my first investment in Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company. That was a relatively easy decision to make back then. I recently asked my friend Greg Jackson if he could think of a handful of investments, stocks like Berkshire (which has in effect been a closed-end investment portfolio) that today one could invest in that were one-decision investments. Both of us are still thinking about the answer to that question.
Has something changed in the world in investing in the last fifteen or twenty years? Yes, it is a different world, in terms of information flows, in terms of types of investments, in terms of derivatives, in terms of a variety of things. What it also is is a different world in terms of time horizons and patience. There is a tremendous amount of slippage that can eat into investment returns today in terms of trading costs and taxes (even at capital gains rates). And as a professional investment manager you have lots of white noise to deal with – consultants, peer pressure both internal and external, and the overwhelming flow of information that streams by every second on the internet. Even sitting in Omaha, the net of modern communications still drops over everything.
So, how does one improve the odds of superior long-term performance? One has to be prepared to step back and stand apart. And that is increasingly a difficult proposition. But the hardest thing to do as an investment manager, or in dealing with one’s own personal portfolio, is to sometimes just do nothing. And yes, Pascal the French philosopher was right when he said that most of men’s follies come from not being able to sit quietly in one room. Even more does that lesson apply to one’s investment portfolio. More in this vein at some future date, but those are the things that I am musing about now.