There’s Got to be a Pony In This Room …….

By Edward A. Studzinski

“Life is an unbroken succession of false situations.”

                                     Thornton Wilder

Given my predilection to make reference to scenes from various movies, some of you may conclude I am a frustrated film critic. Since much that is being produced these days appears to be of questionable artistic merit, all I would say is that there would be lifetime employment (or the standards that exist for commercial success have declined). That said, an unusual Clint Eastwood movie came out in 1970. One of the more notable characters in the movie was Sergeant “Oddball” the tanker, played by Canadian actor Donald Sutherland. And one of the more memorable scenes and lines from that movie has the “Oddball” character saying  “Always with the negative waves Moriarty, always with the negative waves.”

Over the last several months, my comments could probably be viewed as taking a pessimistic view of the world and markets. Those who are familiar with my writings and thoughts over the years would not have been surprised by this, as I have always tended to be a “glass half-empty” person. As my former colleague Clyde McGregor once said of me, the glass was not only half-empty but broken and on the floor in little pieces. Some of this is a reflection of innate conservatism. Some of it is driven by having seen too many things “behind the curtain” over the years. In the world of the Mutual Fund Observer, there is a different set of rules by which we have to play, when comments are made “off the record” or a story cannot be verified from more than one source. So what may be seen as negativism or an excess of caution is driven by a journalistic inability to allow those of you would so desire, to paraphrase the New Testament, to “put your hands into the wounds.”  Underlying it all of course, as someone who finds himself firmly rooted in the camp of “value investor” is the need for a “margin of safety” in investments and adherence to Warren Buffett’s Rules Numbers One and Two for Investing. Rule Number One of course is “Don’t lose money.” Rule Number Two is “Don’t forget Rule Number One.”

So where does this leave us now? It is safe to say that it is not easy to find investments with a margin of safety currently, at least in the U.S. domestic markets. Stocks on various metrics do not seem especially undervalued. A number of commentators would argue that as a whole the U.S. market ranges from fully valued to over-valued. The domestic bond market, on historic measures does not look cheap either. Only when one looks at fixed income on a global basis does U.S. fixed income stand out when one has negative yields throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia starting to move in that direction. All of course is driven by central banks’ increasing fear of deflation. 

Thus, global capital is flowing into U.S. fixed income markets as they seem relatively attractive, assuming the strengthening U.S. currency is not an issue.  Overhanging that is the fear that later this year the Federal Reserve will begin raising rates, causing bond prices to tumble.  Unfortunately, the message from the Fed seems to be clearly mixed.  Will it be a while before rates really are increased in the U.S. , or,  will they start to raise rates in the second half of this year?  No one knows, nor should they.

As one who built portfolios on a stock by stock basis, rather than paying attention to index weightings, does this mean I could not put together a portfolio of undervalued stocks today?   I probably could but it would be a portfolio that would have a lot of energy-related and commodity-like issues in it.  And I would be looking for long-term investors who really meant it (were willing to lock up their money) for at least a five-year time horizon.  Since mutual funds can’t do that, it explains why many of the value-oriented investors are carrying a far greater amount of cash than they would like or is usual.  As an aside, let me say that in the last month, I have had more than one investment manager tell me that for the first time in their investing careers, they really were unsure as to how to deal with the current environment.

What I will leave you with are questions to ponder.  Over the years, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger have indicated that they would prefer to buy very good businesses at fair prices. And those businesses have traditionally been tilted towards those that did not require a lot of capital expenditures but rather threw off lots of cash with minimal capital investment requirements, and provided very high returns on invested capital. Or they had a built-in margin of safety, such as property and casualty insurance businesses where you were in effect buying a bond portfolio at a discount to book, had the benefit of investing the premium float, had a necessary product (automobile insurance) and again did not need a lot of capital investment. But now we see, with the Burlington Northern and utility company investments a different kettle of fish. These are businesses that will require continued capital investment going forward, albeit in oligopoly-like businesses with returns that may be fairly certain (in an uncertain world). Those investments will however not leave as much excess capital to be diverted into new portfolio investments as has historically been the case. There will be in effect required capital calls to sustain the returns from the current portfolio of businesses.  And, we see investments being made as joint ventures (Kraft, Heinz) with private equity managers (3G) with a very different mindset than U.S. private equity or investment banking firms. That is, 3G acquires companies to fix, improve, and run for the long term. This is not like your typical private equity firm here, which buys a company to put into a limited life fund which they will sell or take public again later.

So here are your questions to ponder?  Does this mean that the expectation for equity returns in the U.S. for the foreseeable future is at best in the low single digit range?  Are the days of the high single digit domestic long-term equity returns a thing of the past?   And, given how Buffett and Munger have positioned Berkshire now, what does this say about the investing environment?  And in a world of increased volatility (which value investors like as it presents opportunities) what does it say about the mutual fund model, with the requirement for daily pricing and liquidity?

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About Edward A. Studzinski

Ed Studzinski has more than 30 years of institutional investment experience. He was a partner at Harris Associates in Chicago, Illinois. Harris is known for its value-oriented, bottom-up investment approach that frames the investment process as owning a piece of the business relative to the business value of the whole, ideally forever. At Harris, Ed was co-manager of the Oakmark Equity & Income Fund (OAKBX). During the nearly twelve years that he was in that role, the fund in 2006 won the Lipper Award in the balanced category for "Best Fund Over Five Years." Additionally, in 2011 the fund won the Lipper Award in the mixed-asset allocation moderate funds category as "Best Fund Over Ten Years. Concurrently Ed was also an equity research analyst, providing many of the ideas that contributed to the fund’s success. He has specialist knowledge in the defense, property-casualty insurance, and real estate industries, having followed and owned companies as diverse as Catellus Development, General Dynamics, Legacy Hotels, L-3, PartnerRe, Progressive Insurance, Renaissance Reinsurance, Rockwell Collins, SAFECO, St. Joe Corporation, Teledyne, and Textron. Before joining Harris Associates, over a period of more than 10 years, Ed was the Chief Investment Officer at the Mercantile National Bank of Indiana, and also served on their Executive and Asset-Liability Committees. Prior to Mercantile, Ed practiced law. A native of Peabody, Massachusetts, he received his A.B. in history (magna cum laude) from Boston College, where he was a Scholar of the College. He has a J.D. from Duke University and an M.B.A. in marketing and finance, as well as a Professional Accounting Program Certificate, from Northwestern University. Ed has earned the Chartered Financial Analyst credential. Ed belongs to the Investment Analyst Societies of Boston, Chicago, and New York City. He is admitted to the Bar in the District of Columbia, Illinois, and North Carolina.