This post is a continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters. Please refer to the initial post in this series for more details. For those interested in Warren Buffett’s portfolio management style, I highly recommend the reading of the second 1961 letter in its entirety, and to check out our previous posts on 1961.
“Many people some years back thought they were behaving in the most conservative manner by purchasing medium or long-term municipal or government bonds. This policy has produced substantial market depreciation in many cases, and most certainly has failed to maintain or increase real purchasing power.”
“You will not be right simply because a large number of people momentarily agree with you. You will not be right simply because important people agree with you…You will be right, over the course of many transactions, if your hypothesis is correct, your facts are correct, and your reasoning is correct. True conservatism is only possible through knowledge and reason.”
“I might add that in no way does the fact that our portfolio is not conventional provide that we are more conservative or less conservative than standard methods of investing. This can only be determined by examining the methods or examining the results. I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets.”
Conservatism ≠ Buying “Conservative” Securities
Food for thought: currently (today’s date is 6/23/12), millions of retirees and older individuals in America hold bonds and other fixed income securities believing that they are investing “conservatively.” In light of current bond market conditions, where the 10-Year Treasury and 30-Year Treasury yields 1.67% and 2.76% respectively, is it time for people to reconsider the traditional definition of conservatism and conservative allocation? The bond example recounted by Buffett sounds hauntingly familiar. According to history, it ended badly for bond holders the last time around.
Buffett also highlights the importance of focus on conservatism inherent in the investment process, that of objective fact gathering and interpretation “through knowledge and reason.”
Interestingly, the last quote above implies that Buffett believed “evaluation of performance in down markets” an adequate measure of conservatism. Another name for this measurement is called drawdown analysis, and drawdown analysis is very much a measure of volatility (i.e., temporary impairment of capital). How then, does this view reconcile with his later comments about temporary vs. permanent impairments of capital?
“The outstanding item of importance in my selection of partners, as well as in my subsequent relations with them, has been the determination that we use the same yardstick. If my performance is poor, I expect partners to withdraw…The rub, then, is in being sure that we all have the same ideas of what is good and what is poor. I believe in establishing yardsticks prior to the act; retrospectively, almost anything can be made to look good in relation to something or other.”
“While the Dow is not perfect (nor is anything else) as a measure of performance, it has the advantage of being widely known, has a long period of continuity, and reflects with reasonable accuracy the experience of investors generally with the market…most partners, as an alternative to their investment in the partnership would probably have their funds invested in a media producing results comparable to the Dow, therefore, I feel it is a fair test of performance.”
For any business, tapping the right client base and keeping those clients happy is crucial. Buffett advises the establishment of a mutually agreed upon objective (i.e., benchmark), so that the client and portfolio manager can mutually agree whether performance during any given period is “good” or “poor.” Coincidentally, this is similar to what Seth Klarman advises during an interview with Jason Zweig.
This is why the benchmark is so important – it is the mechanism through which clients can decide if a portfolio manager is doing a good or bad job. Picking the right benchmark is the tricky part…
“With over 90 partners…”
For those of you wondering how many clients Buffett had in his partnerships at the end of 1961, there you go!
Trackrecord, Mark To Market, Liquidity
“Presently, we own 70% of the stock of Dempster with another 10% held by a few associates. With only 150 or so other stockholders, a market on the stock is virtually non-existent…Therefore, it is necessary for me to estimate the value at yearend of our controlled interest. This is of particular importance since, in effect, new partners are buying in based upon this price, and old partners are selling a portion of their interest based upon the same price…and at yearend we valued our interest at $35 per share. While I claim no oracular vision in a matter such as this, I believe this is a fair valuation to both new and old partners.”
With such a large, illiquid controlling stake, Buffett had difficulty determining the “fair” mark to market for Dempster. Dilemmas such as this are still commonplace today, especially at funds that invest in illiquid or private companies.
As Buffett points out, the mark directly impacts new and old investors who wish to invest or redeem capital from the fund. Anyone who invests in a fund of this type should carefully diligence the mark to market methodology before investing (and redeeming) capital.
There’s another more murky dimension, the investment management industry’s dirty little secret: difficulty in determining an accurate mark makes it possible for funds to “jimmy” the mark and therefore influence the performance trackrecord / return stream reported to investors.