Bruce Berkowitz

An Interview with Bruce Berkowitz - Part 2


Part 2 of portfolio management highlights extracted from an August 2010 WealthTrack interview with Consuelo Mack (in my opinion, WealthTrack really is an underrated treasure trove of investment wisdom). Be sure to check out Part 1.

AUM, Compounding, Subscription, Redemptions

MACK: There’s a saying on Wall Street...that size is the enemy of performance…

BERKOWITZ: …we think about this every day. And, the important point is that, as the economy still is at the beginning of a recovery, and there's still much to do…we can put the money to work. The danger's going to be when times get better, and there's nothing to do, and the money keeps flocking in. That obviously is going to be a point we're going to have to close down the fund...But of course, it's more than that. Because if we continue to perform, which I hope we do, 16 billion's going to become 32, and 32's going to become 64.”

Berkowitz makes a great point. It’s not just subscriptions and redemptions that impact assets under management. Natural portfolio (upward or downward) compounding will impact AUM as well.

We’ve discussed before: there’s no such thing as a “right” AUM, statically speaking. The “right” number is completely dependent upon opportunities available and market environment.

AUM, Sourcing

"CONSUELO MACK: …as you approached 20 billion under management, has the size affected the way you can do business yet?

BRUCE BERKOWITZ: Yes. It's made a real contribution. How else could we have committed almost $3 billion to GGP, or to have done an American Credit securitization on our own, or help on a transformation transaction with Hertz, or offer other companies to be of help in their capital structure, or invest in CIT, or be able to go in with reasonable size? It's helped, and we think it will continue to help…”

In some instance, contrary to conventional Wall Street wisdom, larger AUM – and the ability to write an extremely large equity check – actually helps source proprietary deals and potentially boost returns.

Diversification, Correlation, Risk

“MACK: Just under 60% of his stock holdings are in companies such as AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, CIT Group and bond insurer, MBIA…your top 10 holdings…represent two-thirds of your fund, currently?

BERKOWITZ: Yes…we always have focused. And we're very aware of correlations…When times get tough, everything's correlated. So, we're wary. But we've always had the focus. Our top four, five positions have always been the major part of our equity holdings, and that will continue.”

“…the biggest risk would be the correlation risk, that they all don't do well.”

Weirdly, or perhaps appropriately, for someone with such a concentrated portfolio, Berkowitz is acutely aware of correlation risk. Better this than some investors who think they have “diversified” portfolios of many names only to discover that the names are actually quite correlated even in benign market environments.

As Jim Leitner would say, “diversification only works when you have assets which are valued differently…”

Making Mistakes, Sizing

“What worries me is knowing that it's usually a person's last investment idea that kills them…as you get bigger, you put more into your investments. And, that last idea, which may be bad, will end up losing more than what you've made over decades.”

For more on this, be sure to see a WealthTrack interview with Michael Mauboussin in which he discusses overconfidence, and how it can contribute to portfolio management errors such as bad sizing decisions.

Creativity, Team Management, Time Management

“…once we come up with a thesis about an idea, we then try and find as many knowledgeable professionals in that industry, and pay them to destroy our idea…We're not interested in talking to anyone who’ll tell us why we're right. We want to talk to people to tell us why we're wrong, and we're always interested to hear why we're wrong…We want our ideas to be disproven.”

According to a 2010 Fortune Magazine article, there are “20 or so full-time employees to handle compliance, investor relations, and trading. But there are no teams of research analysts.” Instead, “Berkowitz hires experts to challenge his ideas. When researching defense stocks a few years ago, he hired a retired two-star general and a retired admiral to advise him. More recently he's used a Washington lobbyist to help him track changes in financial-reform legislation.”       

This arrangement probably simplifies Berkowitz’s daily firm/people management responsibilities. Afterall, the skills necessary for successful investment management may not be the same as those required for successful team management.

When To Sell, Expected Return, Intrinsic Value, Exposure

MACK: So, Bruce, what would convince you to sell?

BERKOWITZ: It's going to be a price decision…eventually…at what point our investments start to equate to T-bill type returns.”

As the prices of securities within your portfolio change, so too do the future expected returns of those securities. As Berkowitz points out, if the prices of his holdings climbed high enough, they could “start to equate to T-bill type returns.”

So with each movement in price, the risk vs. reward shifts accordingly. But the main question is what actions you take, if any, between the moment of purchase to when the future expected return of the asset becomes miniscule.

For more on his, check out Steve Romick's thoughts on this same topic


Here’s a 2012 Fortune Magazine interview with Bruce Berkowitz, as he looks back and reflects upon the events that took place in the past 3 years:

Cash, Redemptions, Liquidity, When To Sell

“I always knew we'd have our day of negative performance. I'd be foolish not to think that day would arrive. So we had billions in cash, and the fund was chastised somewhat for keeping so much cash. But that cash was used to pay the outflows, and then when the cash started to get to a certain level, I began to liquidate other positions.”

“The down year was definitely not outside of what I thought possible. I was not as surprised by the reaction and the money going out as I was by the money coming in. When you tally it all up, we attracted $5.4 billion in 2009 and 2010 into the fund and $7 billion went out in 2011. It moves fast.”

Although Berkowitz was cognizant of the potential devastating impact of redemptions and having to liquidate positions to raise cash (as demonstrated by the 2010 interview, see Part 1), he still failed to anticipate the actual magnitude of the waves of redemptions that ultimately hit Fairholme.

I think this should serve as food for thought to all investors who manage funds with liquid redemption terms.



An Interview with Bruce Berkowitz - Part 1


Bruce Berkowitz of Fairholme Funds manages $7Bn+ of assets (this figure is based on fund prospectus disclosures, may not be inclusive of separately managed accounts) and was once named Morningstar’s Manager of the Decade. As you are probably aware, since 2010, it’s been a trying couple of years for Berkowitz. His fund was down 32% in 2011, then rallied ~37% in 2012 -- such volatility is not for the faint of heart!

However, we believe that trying times often reveal wonderful insights into an investor’s investment philosophy (his thoughts on cash are especially interesting). Accordingly, below are portfolio management highlights extracted from an August 2010 WealthTrack interview with Consuelo Mack (which, by the way, is an absolute treasure trove of investment wisdom). For more on Berkowitz, there’s also a thorough Fortune Magazine article from December 2010.

Cash, Liquidity, Redemptions, Expected Return

MACK: Another Wall Street kind of conventional wisdom is that…you shouldn't hold a lot of cash in equity funds. Well, the Fairholme Fund has a history of holding a lot of cash. And I remember you telling me that cash is your financial valium.

BERKOWITZ: Yes. Well, the worst situation is if you're backed into a corner and you can't get out of it, whether for illiquidity reasons, shareholders may need money, or you have an investment that, as usual, you're a little too early, and you don't have the money to buy more, or you don't have the flexibility. That's a nightmare scenario. And this is nothing new. I mean, the great investors never run out of cash. It's just as simple as that…We haven't re-created the wheel here, but we always want to have a lot of cash, because cash can become awfully valuable when no one else has it.”

I have written in the past about the parallels between operating businesses and the investment management business (i.e., capital reinvestment and compounding).

Cash management is yet another relevant parallel – both should monitor future liquidity obligations, whether it’s client redemptions, debt maturity, potential future asset purchases or expansion opportunities.

Operating businesses have the advantage of term financing that’s permanent for a specified period of time. Most public market investors don’t have this luxury (private equity and real estate investors are more fortunate in this respect), which should compel them to keep even more rainy day cash.

However, as Mack describes, conventional Wall Street wisdom dictates the exact opposite -- that investors should not hold excess cash on the sidelines!

Also, Berkowitz’s last sentence about cash becoming “awfully valuable when no one else has it” implies that the value of cash changes in different market environments. This is in essence a calculation of the future expected return of cash – crazy I know, but similar to an idea echoed by another very smart investor named Jim Leitner, who said:

“The correct way to measure the return on cash is more dynamic: cash is bound on the lower side by its actual return, whereas, the upper side possesses an additional element of positive return received from having the ability to take advantage of unique opportunities.”

For those of you who have not read the pieces on Jim Leitner, a former member of Yale Endowment's Investment Committee, I highly recommend doing so.

When To Buy, Intrinsic Value, Cash, Expected Return, Hurdle Rate, Opportunity Cost

We don't predict. We price. So if timing the market means we buy stressed securities when their prices are way down, then yes. Guilty as charged. But, again, we're trying to compare what we're paying for something, versus what we think, over time, we're going to get for the cash we're paying. And, we try not to have too many predetermined notions about what it's going to be.”

The first part is self-explanatory.

In the second portion, when Berkowitz refers to comparing “what we’re paying for something, versus what we think, over time, we’re going to get for the cash we’re paying,” he’s inherently talking about a hurdle rate and opportunity cost calculation that’s going to determine whether it’s worthwhile to purchase a particular asset.

The purchase decision is not solely driven by price vs. intrinsic value. There’s an additional factor that’s slightly more intangible, because its calculation involves predicting both the future expected return of cash (see above), as well as the future expected return of XYZ under evaluation.