Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.
We are now at the seven month mark. All would not appear to be well in the investing world. But before I head off on that tangent, there are some housekeeping matters to address.
First, at the beginning of the year I suggested that the average family unit should own no more than ten mutual funds, which would cover both individual and retirement assets. When my long-suffering spouse read that, the question she asked was how many we had. I stopped counting when I got to twenty-five, and told her the results of my search. I was then told that if I was going to tell others they should have ten or less per family unit, we should follow suit. I am happy to report that the number is now down to seventeen (exclusive of money market funds), and I am aiming to hit that ten number by year-end.
Obviously, tax consequences play a big role in this process of consolidation. One, there are tax consequences you can control, in terms of whether your ownership is long-term or short-term, and when to sell. Two, there are tax consequences you can’t control, which are tied in an actively-managed fund, to the decision by the portfolio manager to take some gains and losses in an effort to manage the fund in a tax-efficient manner. At least that is what I hope they are doing. There are other tax consequences you cannot control when the fund in question’s performance is bad, leading to a wave of redemptions. The wave of redemptions then leads to forced selling of equity positions, either en masse or on a pro rata basis, which then triggers tax issues (hopefully gains but sometimes not). The problem with these unintended or unplanned for tax consequences, is that in non-retirement accounts, you are often faced with a tax bill that you have not planned for at filing time, and need to come up with a check to pay the taxes due. A very different way to control the tax consequences, especially if you are of a certain age, is to own passive index funds, whose portfolios won’t change except for those issues going into or leaving the index. Turnover and hence capital gains distributions, tend to be minimized. And since they do tend to own everything as it were, you will pick up some of the benefit of merger and acquisition activity. However, index funds are not immune to an investor panic, which leads to forced selling which again triggers tax consequences.
In this consolidation process, one of the issues I am wrestling with is what to do with money market funds, given that later this year unless something changes again, they will be allowed to “break the buck” or no longer have a constant $1 share price. My inclination is to say that cash reserves for individuals should go back into bank certificates of deposit, up to the maximum amounts of the FDIC insurance. That will work until or unless, like Europe, the government through the banks decides to start charging a negative interest rate on bank deposits. The other issue I am wrestling with is the category of balanced funds, where I am increasingly concerned that the three usual asset classes of equities, fixed income, and cash, will not necessarily work in a complementary manner to reduce risk. The counter argument to that of course, is that most people investing in a balanced (or equity fund for that matter) investment, do not have a sufficiently long time horizon, ten years perhaps being the minimum commitment. If you look at recent history, it is extraordinary how many ten year returns both for equity funds and balanced funds, tend to cluster around the 8% annualized mark.
One of the more interesting lunch meetings I had around the Morningstar conference that I did not attend, was with a Seattle-based father-son team with an outstanding record to date in their fund. One of the major research tools used was, shock of shock, the Value Line. But that should not surprise people. Many of Buffet’s own personal investments were, as he relates it, arrived at by thumbing through things like a handbook of Korean stocks. I have used a similar handbook to look at Japanese stocks. One needs to understand that in many respects, the purpose of hordes of analysts, producing detailed models and exhaustive reports is to provide the cover of the appearance of adequate due diligence. Years ago, when I was back in the trust investment world, I used to have various services for sale by the big trust banks (think New York and Philadelphia) presented to me as necessary. Not necessary to arrive at good investment decisions, but necessary to have as file drawer stuffers when the regulators came to examine why a particular equity issue had been added to the approved list. Now of course with Regulation FD, rather than individual access to managements and the danger of selective disclosure of material information, we have big and medium sized companies putting on analyst days, where all investors – buy side, sell side, and retail, get access to the same information at the same time, and what they make of it is up to them.
So how does one improve the decision making process, or rather, get an investment edge? The answer is, it depends on the industry and what you are defining as your circle of competency. Let’s assume for the moment it is property and casualty reinsurance. I would submit that one would want to make a point of attending the industry meetings, held annually, in Monte Carlo and Baden-Baden. If you have even the most rudimentary of social skills, you will come away from those events with a good idea as to how pricing (rate on line) is going to be set for categories of business and renewals. You will get an idea as to whose underwriting is conservative and whose is not. And you will get an idea as to who is under-reserved for prior events and who is not. You will also get a sense as to how a particular executive is perceived.
Is this the basis for an investment decision alone? No, but in the insurance business, which is a business of estimates to begin with, the two most critical variables are the intelligence and integrity of management (which comes down from the top). What about those wonderfully complex models, forecasting interest rates, pricing, catastrophic events leading to loss ratios and the like? It strikes me that fewer and fewer people have taken sciences in high school or college, where they have learned about the Law of Significant Numbers. Or put another way, perhaps appropriately cynical, garbage in/garbage out.
Now, many of you are sitting there thinking that it really cannot be this simple. And I will tell you that the finest investment analyst I have ever met, a contemporary of mine, when he was acting as an analyst, used to do up his research ideas by hand, on one or one and a half sheets of 8 ½ by 11 paper.
There would be a one or two sentence description of the company and lines of business, a simple income statement going out maybe two years beyond this year, several bullet points as to what the investment case was, with what could go right (and sometimes what could go wrong), and that was generally it, except for perhaps a concluding “Reasons to Own. AND HIS RETURNS WERE SPECTACULAR FOR HIS IDEAS! People often disbelieve me when I tell them that, so luckily I have saved one of those write-ups. My point is this – the best ideas are often the simplest ideas, capable of being presented and explained in one or two declarative sentences.
And finally, for a drop of my usual enthusiasm for the glass half empty. There is a lot of strange stuff going on in the world at the moment, much of it not going according to plan, for governments, central banks, and corporations as one expected in January. Commodity prices are collapsing. Interest rates look to go up in this country, perhaps sooner rather than later. China may or may not have lost control of its markets, which would not augur well for the rest of us. I will leave you with something else to ponder. The “dot.com” crash in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2007-2008-2009 were water-torture events. Most of the people running money now were around for them, and it represents their experiential reference point. The October 1987 crash was a very different animal – you came in one day, and things just headed down and did not stop. Derivatives did not work, portfolio insurance did not work, and there was no liquidity as everyone panicked and tried to go through the door at once. Very few people who went through that experience are still actively running money. I bring this up, because I worry that the next event (and there will be one), will not necessarily be like the last two, where one had time to get out in orderly fashion. That is why I keep emphasizing – do not put at risk more than you can afford to lose without impacting your standard of living. Investors, whether professional or individual, need to guard mentally against always being prepared to fight the last war.
Edward A. Studzinski