Saturday, 25 February 2017

Lucky Monkeys

The legendary Warren Buffett's annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders is out, always very readable and well worth reading. 

Along with his common sense wisdom, he also has a great sense of humour, throwing out lines such as:

As is the case in marriage, business acquisitions often deliver surprises after the “I do’s.”
Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. 
Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.
Charlie and I, however, will sleep in; the fudge and peanut brittle we eat throughout the Saturday meeting takes its toll.
Remember, the more you buy, the more you save (or so my daughter tells me when we visit the store).
He also doesn't shy away from admitting mistakes, which is rare in today's world. Everyone makes them, well I don't personally, but everyone else does...
My error caused Berkshire shareholders to give far more than they received (a practice that – despite the Biblical endorsement – is far from blessed when you are buying businesses). 
A few, however – these are serious blunders I made in my job of capital allocation – produce very poor returns. In most cases, I was wrong when I originally sized up the economic characteristics of these companies or the industries in which they operate, and we are now paying the price for my misjudgments. In a couple of instances, I stumbled in assessing either the fidelity or ability of incumbent managers or ones I later put in place. I will commit more errors; you can count on that. Fortunately, Charlie – never bashful – is around to say “no” to my worst ideas.
He's also not afraid of taking a subtle dig at the current administration:
Our efforts to materially increase the normalized earnings of Berkshire will be aided – as they have been throughout our managerial tenure – by America’s economic dynamism. One word sums up our country’s achievements: miraculous. From a standing start 240 years ago – a span of time less than triple my days on earth – Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers.
As for the future, he's full of optimism:
American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that. Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle. 
That same year, Craig Mundie of Microsoft asserted that pilotless planes would routinely fly passengers by 2030, while Eric Schmidt of Google argued otherwise. The stakes were $1,000 each. To ease any heartburn Eric might be experiencing from his outsized exposure, I recently offered to take a piece of his action. He promptly laid off $500 with me. (I like his assumption that I’ll be around in 2030 to contribute my payment, should we lose.)
On the topic of economic downturns and market panics, he says:
During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.
There are always paragraphs which you can apply to trading, for example this section on stock repurchase which has parallels in when / if you should close out of a trading position:
For continuing shareholders, however, repurchases only make sense if the shares are bought at a price below intrinsic value. When that rule is followed, the remaining shares experience an immediate gain in intrinsic value. Consider a simple analogy: If there are three equal partners in a business worth $3,000 and one is bought out by the partnership for $900, each of the remaining partners realizes an immediate gain of $50. If the exiting partner is paid $1,100, however, the continuing partners each suffer a loss of $50. The same math applies with corporations and their shareholders. Ergo, the question of whether a repurchase action is value-enhancing or value-destroying for continuing shareholders is entirely purchase-price dependent.
Written about hedge fund managers, but applicable to tipsters perhaps:
Further complicating the search for the rare high-fee manager who is worth his or her pay is the fact that some investment professionals, just as some amateurs, will be lucky over short periods. If 1,000 managers make a market prediction at the beginning of a year, it’s very likely that the calls of at least one will be correct for nine consecutive years. Of course, 1,000 monkeys would be just as likely to produce a seemingly all-wise prophet. But there would remain a difference: The lucky monkey would not find people standing in line to invest with him.
Here's another line which leads neatly into another topic close to my heart:
A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.
Paradox of skill, anyone? Perhaps the most interesting section for me is the one in which those words were found, on the subject of his well known wager that over a ten year period, passively investing in the S&P 500 would beat any portfolio of at least five actively managed funds. 

One brave soul stepped up to the $500,000 challenge, and the bet has been running for nine years. While the probable outcome is no surprise to me, and shouldn't be to any readers, the likely margin of victory might be. Here was Warren Buffett's assertion:
Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.
A lot of very smart people set out to do better than average in securities markets. Call them active investors.
Their opposites, passive investors, will by definition do about average. In aggregate their positions will more or less approximate those of an index fund. Therefore, the balance of the universe—the active investors—must do about average as well. However, these investors will incur far greater costs. So, on balance, their aggregate results after these costs will be worse than those of the passive investors.
Costs skyrocket when large annual fees, large performance fees, and active trading costs are all added to the active investor’s equation. Funds of hedge funds accentuate this cost problem because their fees are superimposed on the large fees charged by the hedge funds in which the funds of funds are invested.
A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.
What transpired since then is below:
Subsequently, I publicly offered to wager $500,000 that no investment pro could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees. I suggested a ten-year bet and named a low-cost Vanguard S&P fund as my contender. I then sat back and waited expectantly for a parade of fund managers – who could include their own fund as one of the five – to come forth and defend their occupation. After all, these managers urged others to bet billions on their abilities. Why should they fear putting a little of their own money on the line?
What followed was the sound of silence. Though there are thousands of professional investment managers who have amassed staggering fortunes by touting their stock-selecting prowess, only one man – Ted Seides – stepped up to my challenge. Ted was a co-manager of Protégé Partners, an asset manager that had raised money from limited partners to form a fund-of-funds – in other words, a fund that invests in multiple hedge funds.
I hadn’t known Ted before our wager, but I like him and admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth was. He has been both straight-forward with me and meticulous in supplying all the data that both he and I have needed to monitor the bet.
For Protégé Partners’ side of our ten-year bet, Ted picked five funds-of-funds whose results were to be averaged and compared against my Vanguard S&P index fund. The five he selected had invested their money in more than 100 hedge funds, which meant that the overall performance of the funds-of-funds would not be distorted by the good or poor results of a single manager.
Each fund-of-funds, of course, operated with a layer of fees that sat above the fees charged by the hedge funds in which it had invested. In this doubling-up arrangement, the larger fees were levied by the underlying hedge funds; each of the fund-of-funds imposed an additional fee for its presumed skills in selecting hedge-fund managers.
Here are the results for the first nine years of the bet – figures leaving no doubt that Girls Inc. of Omaha, the charitable beneficiary I designated to get any bet winnings I earned, will be the organization eagerly opening the mail next January.

Footnote: Under my agreement with Protégé Partners, the names of these funds-of-funds have never been publicly disclosed. I, however, see their annual audits.
The compounded annual increase to date for the index fund is 7.1%, which is a return that could easily prove typical for the stock market over time. That’s an important fact: A particularly weak nine years for the market over the lifetime of this bet would have probably helped the relative performance of the hedge funds, because many hold large “short” positions. Conversely, nine years of exceptionally high returns from stocks would have provided a tailwind for index funds.
Instead we operated in what I would call a “neutral” environment. In it, the five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually. That means $1 million invested in those funds would have gained $220,000. The index fund would meanwhile have gained $854,000. 22
Bear in mind that every one of the 100-plus managers of the underlying hedge funds had a huge financial incentive to do his or her best. Moreover, the five funds-of-funds managers that Ted selected were similarly incentivized to select the best hedge-fund managers possible because the five were entitled to performance fees based on the results of the underlying funds.
I’m certain that in almost all cases the managers at both levels were honest and intelligent people. But the results for their investors were dismal – really dismal. And, alas, the huge fixed fees charged by all of the funds and funds-of-funds involved – fees that were totally unwarranted by performance – were such that their managers were showered with compensation over the nine years that have passed. As Gordon Gekko might have put it: “Fees never sleep.”
The underlying hedge-fund managers in our bet received payments from their limited partners that likely averaged a bit under the prevailing hedge-fund standard of “2 and 20,” meaning a 2% annual fixed fee, payable even when losses are huge, and 20% of profits with no clawback (if good years were followed by bad ones). Under this lopsided arrangement, a hedge fund operator’s ability to simply pile up assets under management has made many of these managers extraordinarily rich, even as their investments have performed poorly.
Still, we’re not through with fees. Remember, there were the fund-of-funds managers to be fed as well. These managers received an additional fixed amount that was usually set at 1% of assets. Then, despite the terrible overall record of the five funds-of-funds, some experienced a few good years and collected “performance” fees. Consequently, I estimate that over the nine-year period roughly 60% – gulp! – of all gains achieved by the five funds-of-funds were diverted to the two levels of managers. That was their misbegotten reward for accomplishing something far short of what their many hundreds of limited partners could have effortlessly – and with virtually no cost – achieved on their own.
In my opinion, the disappointing results for hedge-fund investors that this bet exposed are almost certain to recur in the future.
His conclusion:
The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds. 
Well worth a few minutes of your time to read the entire report, and looking back on previous ones is always time well spent. This one brought to mind the excellent book “Where Are The Customers’ Yachts?” which includes this great quote:
“There have always been a considerable number of pathetic people who busy themselves examining the last thousand numbers which have appeared on a roulette wheel, in search of some repeating pattern. Sadly enough, they have usually found it.”