“In present-day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”
Calvin Trillin, remarking on the problems in writing satire today.
So, the year has ended and again there is no joy in Mudville. The investors have no yachts or NetJet cards but on a trailing fee basis, fund managers still got rich. The S&P 500, which by the way has 30-35% of the earnings of its component companies coming from overseas so it is internationally diversified, trounced most active managers again. We continued to see the acceleration of the generational shift at investment management companies, not necessarily having anything to do with the older generation becoming unfit or incompetent. After all, Warren Buffett is in his 80’s, Charlie Munger is even older, and Roy Neuberger kept working, I believe, well into his 90’s. No, most such changes have to do with appearances and marketing. The buzzword of the day is “succession planning.” In the investment management business, old is generally defined as 55 (at least in Boston at the two largest fund management firms in that town). But at least it is not Hollywood.
One manager I know who cut his teeth as a media analyst allegedly tried to secure a place as a contestant on “The Bachelor” through his industry contacts. Alas, he was told that at age 40 he was too old. Probably the best advice I had in this regard was a discussion with a senior infantry commander, who explained to me that at 22, a man (or woman) was probably too old to be in the front lines in battle. They no longer believed they couldn’t be killed. The same applies to investment management, where the younger folks, especially when dealing with other people’s money, think that this time the “new, new thing” really is new and this time it really is different. That is a little bit of what we have seen in the energy and commodity sectors this year, as people kept doubling down and buying on the dips. This is not to say that I am without sin in this regard myself, but at a certain point, experience does cause one to stand back and reassess. Those looking for further insight, I would advise doing a search on the word “Passchendaele.” Continuing to double down on investments especially where the profit of the underlying business is tied to the price of a commodity has often proved to be a fool’s errand.
The period between Christmas and New Year’s Day is when I usually try to catch up on seeing movies. If you go to the first showing in the morning, you get both the discounted price and, a theater that is usually pretty empty. This year, we saw two movies. I highly recommend both of them. One of them was “The Big Short” based on the book by Michael Lewis. The other was “Spotlight” which was about The Boston Globe’s breaking of the scandal involving abusive priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Now, I suspect many of you will see “The Big Short” and think it is hyped-up entertainment. That of course, the real estate bubble with massive fraud taking place in the underwriting and placement of mortgages happened in 2006-2008 but ….. Yes, it happened. And a very small group of people, as you will see in the story, saw it, thought something did not make sense, asked questions, researched, and made a great deal of money going against the conventional wisdom. They did not just avoid the area (don’t invest in thrifts or banks, don’t invest in home building stocks, don’t invest in mortgage guaranty insurers) but found vehicles to invest in that would go up as the housing market bubble burst and the mortgages became worthless. I wish I could tell you I was likewise as smart to have made those contrary investments. I wasn’t. However, I did know something was wrong, based on my days at a bank and on its asset-liability committee. When mortgages stopped being retained on the books by the institutions that had made them and were packaged to be sold into the secondary market (and then securitized), it was clear that, without ongoing accountability, underwriting standards were being stretched. Why? With gain-on-sale accounting, profits and bonuses were increased and stock options went into the money. That was one of the reasons I refused to drink the thrift/bank Kool-Aid (not the only time I did not go along to get along, but we really don’t change after the age of 8). One food for thought question – are we seeing a replay event in China, tied as their boom was to residential construction and real estate?
One of the great scenes in the “Big Short” is when two individuals from New York fly down to Florida to check on the housing market and find unfinished construction, mortgages on homes being occupied by renters, people owning four or five homes trying to flip them, and totally bogus underwriting on mortgage lending. The point here is that they did the research – they went and looked. Often in fund management, a lot of people did not do that. After all, fill-in-the blank sell-side firm would not be recommending purchase of equities in home builders or mortgage lenders, without actually doing the real due diligence. Leaving aside the question of conflicts of interest, it was not that difficult to go look at the underlying properties and check valuations out against the deeds in the Recorder’s Office (there is a reason why there are tax stamps on deeds). So you might miss a few of your kid’s Little League games. But what resonates most with me is that no senior executive that I can remember from any of the big investment banks, the big thrifts, the big commercial banks was criminally charged and went to jail. Instead, what seems to have worked is what I will call the “good German defense.” And another aside, in China, there is still capital punishment and what are capital crimes is defined differently than here.
This brings me to “Spotlight” where one of the great lines is, “We all knew something was going on and we didn’t do anything about it.” And the reason it resonates with me is that you see a similar conspiracy of silence in the financial services industry. Does the investor come first or the consultant? Is it most important that the assets grow so the parent company gets a bigger return on its investment, or is investment performance most important? John Bogle, when he has spoken about conflicts of interest, is right when he talks about the many conflicts that came about when investment firms were allowed to sell themselves and basically eliminate personal responsibility.
This year, we have seen the poster child for what is wrong with this business with the ongoing mess at The Third Avenue Funds. There is a lot that has been written so far. I expect more will be written (and maybe even some litigation to boot). I commend all of you to the extensive pieces that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal. But what they highlight that I don’t think has been paid enough attention to is the problem of a roll-up investment (one company buying up and owning multiple investment management firms) with absentee masters. In the case of Third Avenue, we have Affiliated Managers Group owning, as reported by the WSJ, 60% of Third Avenue, and those at Third Avenue keeping a 40% stake (to incentivize them). With other companies from Europe, such as Allianz, the percentages may change but the ownership is always majority. So, 60% of the revenues come off the top, and the locals are left to grow the business, reinvest in it by hiring and retaining talent, focus on investment performance, etc., with their percentage Unfortunately, when the Emperor is several states, or an ocean away, one often does not know what is really going on. You get to see numbers, you get told what you want to hear (ISIS has been contained, Bill Gross is a distraction to the other people), and you accept it until something stops working.
So I leave you with my question for you all to ponder for 2016. Is the 1940 Act mutual fund industry, the next big short? Investors, compliments of Third Avenue, have now been reminded that daily liquidity and redemption is that until it is not. As I have mentioned before, this is an investment class with an unlimited duration and a mismatch of assets and liabilities. This is perhaps an unusual concern for a publication named “Mutual Fund Observer.” But I figure if nothing else, we can always start a separate publication called “Mutual Fund Managers Address Book” so you can go look at the mansions and townhouses in person.
Edward A. Studzinski