Continuation of content extracted from an interview with Steve Romick of First Pacific Advisors (Newsletter Fall 2010) published by Columbia Business School. Please see Part 1 for more details on this series.
Creativity, Team Management
“G&D: We also noticed that you recently hired Elizabeth Douglass, a former business journalist with the LA Times, which we found interesting – can you talk about that decision?
SR: We are trying to do due diligence in a deeper way and get information that may not be easily accessible. For example, with Aon, Elizabeth will help us track down people who used to work for Aon and get their phone numbers…So, she is an investigative journalist for us, a data synthesizer, research librarian and just a great resource to have.”
During my tenure at the multi-billion family office, my colleagues and I used to joke about Manager Bingo. Instead of numbers, on a bingo card, we’d write certain buzz words – “private equity approach to public market investing,” “long-term focus,” “margin of safety,” “bottom-up stock selection with top-down macro overlay” etc. – you get the idea. In meetings, each time a manager mentioned one of these buzz words/concepts, we’d check off a box. Blackouts were rare, though not impossible, depending on the manager.
But I digress. In the marketing materials of most funds, there’s usually a paragraph or sentence dedicated to “proprietary diligence methodology” or something to that effect. Most never really have anything close to “proprietary” – just the usual team of analysts running models, following earnings, and setting up expert network calls with the same experts as the competition.
Here, Steve Romick describes an interesting approach: a “research librarian” and detective to organize and track down new resources that others on Wall Street have not previously tapped, thus potentially uncovering fresh information and perspective. This is not the first time I’ve heard of investment management firms hiring journalists, but the practice is definitely not commonplace. Kudos on creativity and establishing competitive advantage!
Benchmark, Hurdle Rate
“Beating the market is not our goal. Our goal is to provide, over the long term, equity-like returns with less risk than the stock market. We have beaten the market, but that‘s incidental. We don‘t have this monkey on our back to outperform every month, quarter, and year. If we think the market is going to return 9% and we can buy a high-yield bond that’s yielding 11.5% and we’re confident that the principal will be repaid in the next three years, we‘ll take that…We are absolute value investors. We take our role as guardians of our clients’ capital quite seriously. If we felt the need to be fully invested at all times, then we would have to accept more risk than I think we need to.”
Romick’s performance benchmark is absolute value driven, not to outperform the “market”. I wonder, what is a adequate figure for “long term, equity-like returns?” Is this figure, then, the hurdle rate that determines whether or not an investment is made?
“Fortunately, people are emotional and they make visceral decisions. Such decisions end up manifesting themselves in volatility, where things are oversold and overbought.”
Emotions and investor psychology causes volatility (Howard Marks would agree with this), which is a blessing to the patient, rational investor who can take advantage when “things are oversold or overbought.”
“The government is doing its best to destroy the value of the US dollar. We have made efforts to de-dollarize our portfolio, taking advantage of other parts of the world that have better growth opportunities than the US with more exposure to currencies other than our own.”
“We are seeking those companies that are more protected should inflation be more than expected in the future…We are looking for companies where we feel the pricing power would offset the potential rise in input costs. That leads us to a whole universe of companies, while keeping us away from others.”