Alternatives for Retail, It’s All About the Vehicle

In a recent Bloomberg article, the author lambasted the managed futures industry for non-performance, high fees and being confusing.  In our opinion, the research done by the author and the facts presented were not representative of the industry as a whole.  The article’s research analyzed the commonly available managed futures investments to the retail investor in the form of mutual funds and summarized their shortcomings.

The problem is not with the managed futures asset class or its place in the investor’s portfolio, but with the vehicle through which they are available to the general public.

In our article, Managed Futures Mutual Funds Don’t Work.  Here is Why published in December 2012, we pointed out these mutual fund shortcomings for investing in alternatives and why they could not deliver what they promised or aspire to do.

According to Opalesque, assets in US alternative mutual funds “have ballooned to $550 billion” with an equally impressive growth in the asset class in Europe.  It is therefore imperative that financial advisors understand the shortcomings of mutual funds in delivering what they promise and seek out alternative vehicles that are available to the retail investors.

Lack of Exposure and Costs

Mutual funds, which are registered under the 1940 Act, limit the non-security exposure of a mutual fund to no more than 25%.  This creates two problems for mutual fund when investing in futures contracts or CTAs.  The first is obviously not enough exposure to the asset class as they are limited to investing only 25% of capital directly into managed futures.

The second problem comes when mutual funds try to circumvent the 25% limitation.  A mutual fund will set up an offshore vehicle in the Caymans or British Virgin Islands and invest 25% of the mutual fund’s capital in this offshore vehicle.  Then the mutual fund will engage in a total return swap between the offshore vehicle and a prime broker to leverage their exposure to managed futures.  This practice is not illegal, but the conduit involving a foreign corporation and swaps adds another 0.50% to 2% in costs annually to the mutual fund investor and an added layer of counterparty risk where the mutual fund investor is now exposed to the credit risk of the prime broker.

A hedge fund registered under the 1933 Act is not limited by how much it can invest in managed futures and therefore does not have to set up offshore vehicles and incur additional costs.  Contrary to popular belief that hedge fund structures are only available to accredited investors with high minimums, usually $1 million, and lock up an investor’s money for a long time, there are managed futures offerings listed with the SEC as hedge funds that are available to non-accredited investors with minimums as low as $5,000 and no lock-ups.

Increased Performance Dispersion Requires Skill in Picking the Right Strategy

A look at the Barclay CTA Index shows not just a drop in performance but also increased dispersion of returns.  The CTA index has performed poorly since 2008 both on an absolute basis as well as on a relative basis when compared to the S&P 500 Index.

Estimated YTD performance for 2013 calculated with reported data as of November-6-2013 14:29 US CST

This poses a challenge for the portfolio manager who is trying to create a fund of managed futures strategies.  Given the poor overall performance and the large dispersion between the successful and the average strategies, the portfolio manager needs to possess an investment edge.

The dispersion of 449 CTA one-year returns shows an extremely wide distribution.

The highest one-year return is                                     56%.

The lowest one-year return is                                     -87%.

The percentage of CTAs with positive returns is           35%.

The percentage of CTAs with negative returns is          65%.

And worse still, 13% of these CTAs are so deeply negative that most likely they will go out of business.

Source: BarclayHedge, MA Capital Management.  Data is a compilation of one year returns of 449 CTAs from 7/2012-7/2013.

The above dispersion chart of 449 CTAs shows that 33% of CTAs have positive returns for 2013, even though the index is negative and 24% have performed very well in 2013 with returns greater than 10%.

This clearly shows that the managed futures as an asset class is a viable performer even in a low volatility year like 2013, but it also shows the need for expertise on part of the portfolio manager in identifying the right strategy to put in their portfolio.

Unfortunately, most managed futures mutual fund portfolio managers do not have this required expertise, as few have ever traded futures or managed other futures traders in their careers, which means that they provide little to no edge when picking strategies for their mutual funds.

In the book, The Future of Hedge Fund Investing (Wiley,09) our Chief Investment Officer, Monty Agarwal, states that portfolio managers who invest in alternative strategies need to understand how these strategies work and how to pick the right traders to trade them.  The only way to acquire these skills is through experience in trading and managing traders.  Just as you would not go to a heart surgeon who does not possess the right education and experience, similarly, an investor should not invest with a managed futures mutual fund portfolio manager who has not traded these strategies himself.

Alpha is Not a Constant but Depends on Market Volatility Cycle

In one of our papers, Constructing a Robust Absolute Return Portfolio, we showed that there are three types of markets, trending, shock and noise with different volatility profiles.  But more importantly, a managed futures strategy exhibits different risk/return profile under different market cycles.  It is the job of the portfolio manager to understand these cycles and how different strategies behave under these cycles and allocate capital accordingly.

A systematic allocation of capital that changes with the market volatility cycles can ensure that the managed futures portfolio performs well in not just a 2008 type market cycle, but also in a 2013 market cycle.

If you would like to learn more about an alternative vehicle other than a mutual fund or are interested in distributing it to your clients, please email us at info@macmllc.com.

Constructing a Robust Absolute Return Portfolio

Summary

Most investors are familiar with the concept of an absolute return portfolio.  As the name suggests, “an absolute return portfolio” strives to provide positive returns over any distinct time period, regardless of the performance of the relevant index, such as the S&P 500 Index.

Clearly, constructing such a portfolio requires asset classes that exhibit return and volatility characteristics that are not correlated to other assets in the portfolio.  The earliest attempts were made to construct such portfolios with a mix of long-only assets such as domestic stocks and bonds.  Then global securities were added to the mix as well, including developed markets, such as in Europe, emerging markets, and even frontier markets of Africa or South East Asia.  Later, alternative strategies were also added to the mix using hedge funds, managed futures, real estate and other esoteric classes such as art and wine.

But most such absolute return portfolios suffered from an over reliance on historical performance parameters.  Market history has shown time and time again that correlations are not stable and market returns are not normally distributed.  In fact, in a recent research piece[i], we showed that the number of months that the S&P 500 Index is down greater than 3σ has been occurring with a higher frequency since 2000 than at any time since 1950.

Research has also shown repeatedly, that a portfolio of only hedge funds or only managed futures does not produce alpha on a consistent basis.  Later in this paper we will show how the hedge fund index beta to the S&P 500 Index is quite high and higher still during large volatility periods.

In our quest to create a robust absolute return portfolio that can adapt with changing market conditions we started with a mix of stocks, bonds, managed futures and hedge funds.  We further assigned the following constraints to the portfolio:

-       High liquidity

-       Low bid-offer spreads

-       Complete transparency at the position level, including pricing

-       Low counterparty credit risk

The philosophy behind our portfolio construction was:

-       Returns, alpha, volatility and correlations are not a constant but change with market conditions

-       100% systematic approach to portfolio construction, allocation and risk management

-       Dynamic allocation across strategies

-       Active risk management

Conclusions:

  1. A portfolio of only alternatives, like hedge funds or managed futures, does not create a robust absolute return portfolio.
  2. The most robust absolute return portfolio we found had systematic beta, in the form of actively managed S&P 500 sub-index ETFs and a portfolio of multi-manager managed futures strategies.
For the full research paper, please click the link below:

Constructing a Robust Absolute Return Portfolio

 


[i] Monty Agarwal, A Statistical Analysis Of S&P 500 Index, MA Capital Management, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Feb 11, 2013, http://seekingalpha.com/article/1172871-a-statistical-analysis-of-s-p-500

The Next Credit Driven Crisis

Since 1998, markets have been stuck in a vicious boom and bust cycle which is a direct result of the Fed’s over tampering with monetary policy.  The last three major global financial crises have all been caused by prolonged periods of easy credit which were then followed by rapid tightening phases.  There are quite a few parallels that can be drawn between the previous three situations and the current market environment.

The three past crises we are referring to are:

  1. The 1998 Asian financial crisis
  2. The Internet bust from 2000-2002
  3. The housing crisis of 2008

Asian Financial Crisis of 1998.  1998 is remembered most commonly in the financial markets as the year of Asian crisis.  In reality it was far more widespread than just Asia.  The crisis spread to other emerging markets including Russia and Latin America and was averted in the US by some deft maneuvering by the Federal Reserve who intervened to shore up market confidence by bailing out Long Term Capital Management.

The Asian bubble of 1998 was fueled by a massive inflow of global capital into the Asian markets that resulted in the funding of poor projects that eventually went bankrupt.  Recession and low interest rates in the developed capitalist world generated substantial interest on the part of investment houses and international banks in the “emerging” markets of Southeast Asia.  The trigger for the crisis was the eventual realization by foreign investors that their investments were not performing, which led to concerted selling, loss of confidence and a massive outflow of capital.

Fast forward to the present and once again it is quite clear that a rush of capital into certain asset classes over the past four years has been engineered by cheap credit and a lack of global investment opportunities.

Case study 2; the internet bust of 2000.  If you remember, the Fed had cut rates aggressively in the US as a result of the 1998 Asian crisis and had also flooded the market with liquidity in anticipation of disruption from the Y2K computer bug.  This had led to aggressive buying of internet stocks, a lot of which was done on margin, leading the NASDAQ to record heights of 4,572 and the Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan to remark about the “irrational exuberance” of the markets.  To curb the market exuberance, the Fed had started hiking interest rates, as it took them from 5% to 6% all through 2000.  The result was the bursting of the internet bubble and a subsequent drop of 74% in the NASDAQ.

Case study 3; the more recent housing bubble burst of 2008.  Once again a lot of fingers have been pointed at the Fed for keeping monetary policy too easy for too long after the internet crisis of 2000.  The Fed Fund rates had dropped to a low of 1% in 2003 and it took the Fed three years to normalize them.  This prolonged period of cheap credit fueled the housing market bubble which eventually burst in 2008 as once again investors realized that they were invested en-masse in non-performing assets.

In all the three cases, asset bubbles were inflated by cheap credit and a lack of investment opportunities, which caused capital to rush into a few select asset classes and markets.  And then the bubbles burst, when investors realized that they were invested in non-performing assets and the Fed realized that credit needed to be tightened.

Once again when we see the market dynamics of the past four years, we are seeing history repeat itself.  The housing crisis of 2008 caused the Fed to lower rates to effectively zero and embark on quantitative easing to promote US equity markets.  The three asset classes that have been the best beneficiaries of the current Fed policy have been Gold, Bonds and the US equity markets both on an absolute basis as well as a relative basis.

1/2008 – 3/2012:

Gold + 100%

30 year US Treasury Bond Price: +50%

S&P 500: +21%

Over the same period, the European equity markets returned -38% (SPDR EURO STOXX 50) and the emerging markets indices have returned anywhere from -1% for MSCI ASIA APEX 50 to -9% for the BRIC Index.

I think it is quite easy to see which market has been the beneficiary of easy credit policy and where the largest bubble potential lies.  In the past two months, gold has fallen from a high of $1,900 to $1,250, a drop of 34%.  The market is calling for a fair value bottom around $1,100, but rarely does the market stop at its fair value.  It always overshoots, so if is not unrealistic to conclude that gold might fall to below $1,000.

US 30 year bonds yields hit a low of 2.47% and have since risen to 3.60% a drop in price of nearly 15%.  Yields could easily rise to 5% as the Fed normalizes the yield curve and stops buying bonds.

The S&P 500 has been resilient thus far, with a drop of only 6% from its high of 1,660.  But if history is a guide, the US equity markets have a lot further to correct if the Fed’s credit spigot is turned off.

The chart below is a comparison of the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and the performance of the S&P 500 as money has been driven from bonds into stocks.  The data from 2008 shows an 86% positive correlation between the S&P 500 performance and the size of the Fed’s balance sheet.  So, it is logical to assume that as the Fed’s balance sheet stops expanding, we can see the S&P 500 lose steam.   Also, if the Fed’s balance sheet starts contracting, the S&P 500 could go in reverse quite sharply.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the smart money is listening very closely to what the Fed governors are saying and selling the S&P in anticipation of such an announcement.

The problem with credit driven crises is that the unwind is never orderly.  This is mostly because in times of cheap and plentiful credit, leverage is abused heavily and during an exodus the selling gets magnified by the leverage in the system.  We see no reason why the past four years of asset binging period be any different as investor behavior rarely changes.  The best course of action is to be smart and recognize that the party is over and head for the exits before the masses do.

Portfolio Risk Management – Position Sizing

The next article in our series on strategic risk management talks about position sizing, why it’s useful and how to determine it.

Position sizing and stop-losses [link to blog post] go hand in hand.  Having the proper position size will limit loss in any one holding.  The best way to illustrate this is through an example.  Take a $40,000 account, we decide to limit our loss per trade to no more than $1,200.

But this $1,200 depends on two things: the position size and the size of the market move.

For example:

Position Size                        Market Move                        Loss

100 shares                           $12                             $1,200

200 shares                           $6                               $1,200

300 shares                           $4                               $1,200

The above example makes it clear that to limit your loss to $1,200 per trade you have to look at both the position size and the price move.

So which combination to choose?  Do you trade 100 shares and wait for a $12 adverse price move, or trade 300 shares and wait for a $4 adverse price move.

The answer to that question lies in the volatility of the stock.

Measuring the volatility of the underlying stock

If the underlying stock moves $2 in a day then clearly picking your price stop of $4 is way too tight, because if the stock moves two days in a row against you, you will be stopped out.  But, if your underlying stock moves $1 on average in a day, then you can probably pick a price stop of $4 and trade 300 shares.  The stock price would have to move against you for four days in this case.

This is a very simple example.  Professional money managers typically employ very intricate mathematical models to constantly measure the volatility of the underlying stock, currencies or commodities and constantly keep changing the position sizes and adjusting the stop-losses.  That discussion is out of the scope of this discussion, but we want to pass on the essence of the methodology.

Here are three simple steps to use when determining the stop-loss as a function of the underlying stock’s volatility.  Remember these are guidelines, and how an investor ultimately uses them depends on their portfolio’s particular circumstances.

Step 1:

Look at the daily move in the stock price as a percentage of the stock price over the last year.  There are many publicly available sources for price data such as Yahoo! Finance or CNBC.com.

Example:

Stock Price              Daily Move                Move – % of stock price

$25                      $0.50                          2.00%

$28                      $0.65                          2.32%

$22                      $0.40                          1.81%

Step 2:

Take the average of these percentage moves over the last year.  So you will have about 252 numbers to average (as there are roughly 252 trading days in a year). In our example above, the average of the three numbers is 2.04%.

Step 3:

Now that we know how much this stock can move in a day, give yourself a margin of three straight days of a move against your position.  This means that if the stock moves three days against your position, the position is liquidated. To calculate that stop-loss percentage, we multiply this daily average move by three.

In our example we get 6.12% (=2.04% x 3).

So on the day you put on the trade, if the stock is trading at $30, my stop loss on that stock would be $1.84 (=6.12% x $30).

And from this you can calculate how many shares to buy.  If you were going to set your total loss on this trade at $1,200, you would buy no more than 652 shares (=$1,200 / $1.84).

As always, never implement any trading or investing rules without thoroughly testing and refining them on a “paper portfolio”.

 

 

 

 

 

Portfolio Risk Management – Stop-Losses

Professional traders and investors have been using risk management techniques for decades to help safeguard their portfolios from catastrophic losses.

In our blog series, Portfolio Risk Management, you can begin to learn some of those same techniques and how to implement them in your portfolio. Some of the topics we will be covering will be:

Stop losses

Position sizing

Measuring stock volatility

Risk vs Reward ratio

Hit ratio

Let’s start with stop losses. Stop losses are designed to remove positions that are declining in value.

Ever wonder why some traders survive, or even thrive during times of high market volatility? Many who do exercise good risk management and cut their positions in time and lock in their gains. Those who waited for positions to “come back” may not do as well.

As any investor knows, the Internet crisis of the late 1990s was not an isolated event. Financial crises with massive drops in the market have become quite commonplace. Five years later, many are still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, which saw many portfolios lose value.

Implementing proper stop losses is critical and at the core of proper risk management.

Let’s assume we have a $40,000 account; 3% of $40,000 is $1,200, which is where we set our stop. So, if our stop is hit, our position size needs to be such that our cash loss is no greater than $1,200.

A 3% maximum loss on a position will ensure that you will have a losing streak of 33 trades before you are taken out of the markets. This is arrived at by simply risking 3% of the original capital on every trade. So if there are 33 trades in a row wrong, the total loss of capital is (3% x 33trades = 99% of capital).

As always, we caution that prior to implementing a systematic rule to your investing, investors should test and perfect their techniques on paper portfolios. Stay tuned. In the following weeks we will delve deeper into more sophisticated risk management techniques.

Portfolio Management Rules – Balancing Risk and Reward

These days, we get a lot of questions of whether it is too late to start investing given the recent run up in the US market. For the long-term investor, disciplined portfolio management and risk management can mean the difference between generating and destroying wealth, regardless of when investing begins.

But many individual investors allow emotions to enter into it, often times buying too high or selling to low. While others try their hand at “market timing” based on what they are hearing the “experts” say on popular financial channels.

Last week, we wrote about security selection rules, and basically argued that broadly-diversified, low-cost portfolios in different asset classes make more sense to gain exposure than single-stock positions for most investors. This is especially true if, like most average investors, you don’t have the time, resources, or information to thoroughly analyze and track individual companies in a highly competitive world.

This week’s article addresses portfolio management and how to balance risk and maximize opportunities in your portfolio among different asset classes. Portfolio management is all about balancing risk and reward by allocating capital across different asset classes. Risk management is an integral part.

Different asset classes such as real estate, commodities or European equities will respond to different economic factors. For example, one economic environment may be more beneficial for certain commodities than it would be for real estate. It’s the old argument of not putting all your eggs in one basket. When one drops, another rises. This happens when assets have low correlations to each other – their price doesn’t move or correlate well together.

But correlations can and do change during financial crises. Risk management is especially important in these highly volatile markets or in any market where the correlations amongst disparate asset classes increases (like in 2008, when we saw broad drops in a variety of sectors.)

The mix of assets depends on an investors personal risk tolerances and investment goals. Eighty percent in stocks or risk assets may be just fine for an aggressive investor, but not for one who is prone to panic and sell during market drops. Generally portfolios lie on a range of equity/fixed income mixes and can include a broad variety of assets including emerging markets, commodities and real estate.

But what should not vary between investors is having robust risk management processes. There are a variety of forms of systematic risk management, but the premise is the same: a set of rules that reduces a portfolio’s volatility and tries to protect the downside. These can be as simple as having a sell rule of cutting losses at 5% (when an asset drops more than 5%) or a more technical one as faltering relative strength (price movement relative to other assets). These sell rules are based on price action. But they can also be based on fundamentals such as changes in earnings per share or profitability.

At MA Capital Management, we approach risk management from a systematic perspective, so our sell rules are generally based on price movements and asset strength in a particular market environment. An example of this occurred in March, when our models indicated a weakness in gold. We were able to get clients out of commodities several weeks before the sell off in April.

Tell us what you think.

Is it too late to get in the Market? Not if you follow the rules.

The most common characteristic of successful investors is not intelligence, experience or intuition. It’s discipline.

It may be easier than you think.  Systematic investment managers follow the following simple steps:

  1. Security selection rules – find the right securities for you
  2. Portfolio management rules – balance risk and managing your holdings
  3. Buy rules – enter positions correctly
  4. Sell rules – lock in wins, avoid losses

The hard part is sticking to rules.

Disciplined investors actively use a set of rules that protect and guide them through the swings of the stock market. Those swings can stir up costly emotions. Fear and greed drive poorly timed buys and sells. Pride leads investors to rationalize losses, and hope makes them hold on to stocks that can depress a portfolio. Not only do rules prevent disaster, they represent a consistent approach to making profits and taking better control of your portfolio.

Control is not something that most investors have felt in the last 10-15 years. Since 2000, investing has felt like being Sisyphus, an ancient mythological figure who was condemned to roll an immense boulder up hill only to have it roll back down once he approached the top.  He was cursed to repeat this every day for eternity.

Your portfolio reacts to news like a financial crisis, and then, just when you’re getting ready to invest again, another swing in the market is making headlines. Meanwhile, your original reason for buying that stock doesn’t seem to be helping its price.  You may even hear the experts encouraging you to “buy the dips”.  Then you log in to your account, and your portfolio is down another 15% or 20%.  How are you feeling now?  Your retirement is looking more like a studio apartment rather than a beachfront property, and you still haven’t recouped losses from the 2000 or the 2008 bear market. Your mood gets increasingly sour.  Unfortunately, many individual investors are in the same predicament.

So where does an investor find the courage to remain invested in the market?   We do it by standing firm with our investment rules.  Incorporating rules isn’t necessarily about being smarter, it’s about being more disciplined – this is called Systematic Investing.  When “X” happens, I do “Y.” It’s that simple.

The first rule is all about security selection.  Decide whether asset class exposure comes in the form of individual securities or a broadly diversified basket of securities.  Generally, a well-diversified portfolio is a better idea than picking individual stocks if an investor doesn’t have the time or resources to thoroughly research and keep up to date with individual companies.  Using a low-cost index fund for asset classes like domestic equity, foreign equity, developing markets, real estate, commodities or bonds provides plenty of exposure to those asset classes.  For example, the Vanguard REIT Index, VNQ, provides broad exposure to the REIT sector with very low fees.

Next week’s blog will examine portfolio management rules – balancing risk while keeping your positions manageable.

Top Three Bad Investing Behaviors

Clients occasionally call us with questions on investments and the markets, so we thought it was a good idea to identify the problems.  Questions like, “Should I buy Apple, I use so many of their products already?”  Or comments like “There’s been a good rally, isn’t it too late form me to add more money too my portfolio?”

To decrease the amount and complexity requiring analysis, the brain filters out some information and uses short cuts to decrease the complexity of other information.  These short cuts allow the brain to generate estimates before fully digesting all available information.

Academics have identified a multitude of behavioral and cognitive biases that we, as humans, suffer from and that affect our investing.  The following are some of the more common ones we see.

  1. Representative bias – when the brain assumes that things that share similar qualities are alike.  My favorite example is when investors confuse a good company with a good investment.  Companies that generate high sales, have good earnings and good management are good companies.  But, they are not necessarily good investments.  Good investments are those that go up in price.  So don’t just buy stocks because you like their products or CEOs.
  2. Cognitive dissonance – It is often difficult to learn from past mistakes because our brain is a master at filtering memories.  As humans, we tend to ignore, reject or minimize any information that conflicts with our beliefs.  Sometimes, we even adjust our memories or the recollection of past decisions.  The result is investors avoiding a conflicting belief and seeking out support for a preferred belief.  One of the most common examples of this is when portfolio managers can’t accept the truth about losing positions and hold on to stocks even as they plummet.  Another example is that investors consistently overestimate their investment performance when asked in studies, wanting to believe that their investment decisions were good ones.
  3. Familiarity bias – Humans like things that are familiar.  As a result, investors put too much emphasis on stocks that are familiar and think they are less risky than others or even a diversified basket.  This phenomenon has been widely studied and is one of the biggest reasons that investors have a home bias, or just buy stocks in their own country.  This is a big mistake, as over half the worlds market capitalization is foreign and by not diversifying globally, investors miss growth opportunities.

Increased social interaction and exposure to publicity-seeking financial media can make some of these biases worse.

 

Success or FailureInvestment decision-making should be rational, logical and consistent, not influenced by emotions, mood or herd mentality.  Here’s a checklist you can start using today to help.

  1. Understand psychological biases – easier said than done, but it may also help you to avoid them.
  2. Have realistic investment objectives and constraints – by sticking to self-imposed guidelines, investors can avoid taking on too much risk by trying to “get even” in their portfolios.
  3. Use quantitative investment and risk management techniques – this will help you from investing on emotion, rumor, fear or greed.  A simple example is having a formula for how much loss you are willing to accept in a stock before selling to help provide downside protection.  See our whitepaper on strategic risk management.
  4. Diversify, diversify, diversify – This is self-evident.  Investing to maximize your opportunities for growth and minimize stock-specific risk.

 

 

Warren Buffett Would Not Just Buy and Hold the S&P 500

For a long time, I have advised against buy and hold strategies because they do not consistently work. There are many rational reasons why they do not work, but the biggest is due to economic fundamentals. For any investment to go up in value, there must be a sound economic fundamental reason that is forcing it up. If positive economic fundamentals are not present, then an investor will not receive any asset price appreciation over the long-term. Therefore continually buying and holding the same market blindly over long periods of time with the simple belief that all markets go up over long periods of time is never a sound investment philosophy.

When I voice this opinion, I am always hit with the same few retorts. The first of which is “if one invested in the S&P 500 20 years ago they would be up massively”. The other, which is my personal favourite, is “If you are right, then explain how Warren Buffett became one of the richest people in the world based on buy and hold strategies”.  The best things about these counter arguments is that by answering them you provide clear proof that buy and hold strategies should not be considered as money makers.

First let’s tackle the Warren Buffett phenomenon. Is Warren Buffett a buy and hold strategy user? Absolutely, but it would only be a part of his strategy. Warren Buffett does not arbitrarily or continuously buy the same asset or group of assets such as a broad market index and hold it forever. He buys assets that have very sound economic fundamentals.  For Warren Buffett to buy a stock it must not only have sound economic fundamentals, but also be currently undervalued by the market. The reasons for any incorrect market valuation are numerous, but there are limited numbers of people who have the ability to take advantage of these mis-pricings, especially at scale.   Any asset that Warren Buffett buys has many underlying economic fundamentals that made his investment a rational one. The best strategy to use as a result of these economic fundamentals is buy and hold, but only until the full value of the asset is realized. I am not saying anything new or ground breaking here. Warren Buffett’s investment strategy is very well known.  He would probably be the first to say simply buying and holding a market is not a sound investment strategy. For buy and hold to work, the investment must have sound economic fundamentals. He would also probably be the first one to say his investment style cannot be compared to a simple buy and hold strategy that so many investment professionals compare it to.

Now that the Warren Buffett phenomenon has been addressed, let’s look at what if we had invested in the S&P 500 20 years ago. Would we have made money? Yes, for sure. However, would we have made money because of the buy and hold strategy, or would we have made money because we had sound fundamental economic factors?  I would argue that the individual made money because of economic factors that brought the markets to new price levels. There is not an economist in the world that would not attribute the last 20 years of market growth to globalization, at least in part.

Thus, if you had bought the market 20 years ago, there is no doubt you would have made money.   But an investor would have made money because of economic growth.  Most profits were due to sound economic fundamentals and not simply because of the buy and hold strategy working. Despite this, far too many investment professionals continue to profess that over the long term all markets will have price appreciation, so the buy and hold strategy works. You may ask, what is long term?  The maximum length of time anyone should look at market growth is the average investor’s time period in the market. This means the average amount of time a person has to invest in their lifetime. Let’s look at the 20-year time frame for example.

If buy and hold truly works, then in all 20-year periods on any given asset you should see positive returns after you index for inflation. For this analysis we will use the S&P 500.  How many 20-year periods since 1915 have there been where the market is actually down or has a return on investment that is so low you would have been better off just leaving your money in a bank account? The graph below shows just that. Starting in 1935 and going back 20 years, it shows what your annualized rate of returns would have been. So, in this case an investor that had bought and held 20 years in the 1960’s would have had a negative return on investment.

S&P 500 20 Year ROI

Source: ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/cpi/cpiai.txt

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/DJIA/downloaddata

From this graph, we can see that there are many times when a buy and hold strategy would not have worked.

Naturally we can look at other asset classes for diversification, and looking at just the S&P 500 in isolation is an unfair comparison. But is the average investor diversified?  Global diversity simply is not a reality for the average person. The average investor knows the S&P 500 so that is what they invest in. The average investor is not diversified because he is naturally geographically biased to their home country.

Even if the investor is lucky enough to have geographic diversification, the investor still will run into times like 2008 where all assets globally are correlated and fall concurrently.

Buy and hold is an investing strategy that only works some of the time and in only particular cases.  If your financial advisor is telling you to buy the market because it always goes up over the long run, you should ask them about the periods where the ROI has been negative. How would he guard against that?  Being fully invested in an index without proper risk management or valuation analysis, is yet another tactic to keep you invested so they receive easy fees. For true diversification, buy and hold should be considered as just one strategy in an array of strategies. If your investment professional argues otherwise, you really should kindly escort them out the door and look for an advisor that offers alternative investment strategies.

 

How to Really Evaluate a Portfolio Manager

Morningstar recently released an analysis of managed ETF portfolios (ETF Managed Portfolios Landscape Report, Q4 2012) where it ranked the programs by assets under management (AUM), 2012 returns, three-year and five-year returns.  The average fees charged by these programs are 1% a year.

For those fees, I would expect these programs to deliver:

-        Performance in excess of the S&P 500

-        Risk management to protect investors from massive drops, such as 2008 financial crisis

As a rational investors who have done their due diligence, for a typical 1% a year in fees, we would want alpha.  If the managed portfolio has not delivered alpha, I would rather just buy the SPY ETF for 0.10% or 1/10th the price.

But to our surprise, that is not the case.  Some of the managed ETF programs with the highest number of investors and the largest assets have done no better than the S&P500.

The following list shows the list of programs that have underperformed the S&P 500 over the past five years with assets under management greater than $50mm.  That is over $5.5 billion in assets!

Furthermore, one would expect to see a strong correlation between AUM and performance.  But, the correlation between the five-year returns and AUM is a measly 22%.  Is this a lack of due diligence on part of the investors or aggressive and glib marketing on part of the salespeople selling these products?  Most likely a combination of both, but nevertheless, proof positive of why the retail investor often gets taken for a ride!

Note: As of Q4 2012, Return is shown as %, AUM in USD Millions, length of track record in years.  Source: Morningstar, MA Capital Management.

Clearly, we see that despite lackluster returns, especially after fees are taken out, evaluating a portfolio manager properly is elusive.  It requires rational logic that is not affected by marketing hype or fancy brochures.  Here are some simple things steps any investor can take to enhance their evaluation of portfolio managers and their products.

  1. Consistency of performance – Whereas past performance is no guarantee, an investor should look for evidence that a manager is doing what they say they are doing.  In other words, if selecting a value manager, make sure they are not investing in growth stocks to spice up returns.
  2. Low volatility of returns – How a manager manages for volatility or risk is equally as important as how they manage for return.  Look for a manager that knows when to sell out of losing positions and knows when to take gains.  Many of these types of managers are systematically driven and do not let human behavioral biases cloud their investment decision-making.
  3. Low draw-downs – This is the “sleep well at night” factor.  Here, examine the manager’s history of poor performing periods.  Has his worst month been down 3% or 30% and what you can live with before hitting the panic button.  This measure tells you how well a manager manages downside risk.
  4. Correlation to the S&P 500 or other benchmark – If you’re paying fees higher than what you would ordinarily pay in an index fund, you should be sure that your manager is adding value.  Correlation measures how closes the portfolio moves with the index.  Correlations, which can range from minus one to one, that approach one move inline with the index.  Why would you want to pay for that?  You should look for managers with correlations that are low or negative to the index for the best diversification value to your overall portfolio.