Soros' Alchemy - Preface & Intro


Dear Readers, apologies for the length of time since our last article. It’s been a busy year – got married, growing the business, grappling with a large position ruining otherwise healthy year-to-date performance – you know, all the usual life items. We have all experienced situations when the fundamentals of a business are moving in an expected direction, yet the price does not respond in kind. Many moons ago, we highlighted an interview with Stanley Druckenmiller in which he stated:

“…I focus my analysis on seeking to identify the factors that were strongly correlated to a stock’s price movement as opposed to looking at all the fundamentals. Frankly, even today, many analysts still don’t know what makes their particular stocks go up and down.”

“I never use valuation to time the market…Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction…The catalyst is liquidity…”

Very interesting indeed, but also incredibly vague. Thankfully, Druckenmiller’s zen master George Soros has written multiple books. And that’s where we went searching for more detailed explanations on how to gauge supply and demand, the driving forces behind market liquidity and price movement. Without further ado, portfolio management highlights from George Soros’ Alchemy of Finance – Preface & Introduction:

Psychology, Catalyst, Liquidity, Intrinsic Value

“The phenomena studied by social sciences, which include the financial markets, have thinking participants and this complicates matters…the participants views are inherently bias. Instead of a direct line leading from one set of conditions to the next one, there is a constant criss-crossing between the objective, observable conditions and the participant’s observations and vice versa: participants base their decisions not on objective conditions but on their interpretation of those conditions. This is an important point and it has far-reaching consequences. It introduces an element of indeterminacy which renders the subject matter less amendable to…generalizations, predictions, and explanations…”

“It is only in certain…special circumstances that the indeterminacy becomes significant. It comes into play when expectations about the future have a bearing on present behavior – which is the case in financial markets. But even there, some mechanism must be triggered for the participants’ bias to affect not only market prices but the so-called fundamentals which are supposed to determine market prices…My point is that there are occasions when the bias affects not only market prices but also the so-called fundamentals. This is when reflexivity becomes important. It does not happen all the time but when it does, market prices follow a different pattern…they do not merely reflect the so-called fundamentals; they themselves become one of the fundamentals which shape the evolution of prices. This recursive relationship renders the evolution of prices indeterminate and the so-called equilibrium price irrelevant.”

“Natural science studies events that consist of a sequence of facts. When events have thinking participants, the subject matter is no longer confined to facts but also includes the participants' perceptions. The chain of causation does not lead directly from fact to fact but from fact to perception and from perception to fact.”

“Economic theory tries to sidestep the issue by introducing the assumption of rational behavior. People are assumed to act by choosing the best of the available alternatives, but somehow the distinction between perceived alternatives and facts is assumed away. The result is a theoretical construction of great elegance that resembles natural science but does not resemble reality…It has little relevance to the real world in which people act on the basis of imperfect understanding…”

“The generally accepted view is that markets are always right – that is, market prices tend to discount future developments accurately even when it is unclear what those developments are. I start with the opposite point of view. I believe that market prices are always wrong in the sense that they present a biased view of the future. But distortion works in both directions: not only do market participants operate with a bias, but their bias can also influence the course of events. This may create the impression that markets anticipate future developments accurately, but in fact it is not present expectations that correspond to future events but future events that are shaped by present expectations. The participants' perceptions are inherently flawed, and there is a two-way connection between flawed perceptions and the actual course of events, which results in a lack of correspondence between the two. I call this two-way connection ‘reflexivity.’”

“Making an investment decision is like formulating a scientific hypothesis and submitting it to a practical test. The main difference is that the hypothesis that underlies an investment decision is intended to make money and not to establish a universally valid generalization. Both activities involve significant risk, and success brings a corresponding reward-monetary in one case and scientific in the other. Taking this view, it is possible to see financial markets as a laboratory for testing hypotheses, albeit not strictly scientific ones. The truth is, successful investing is a kind of alchemy. Most market participants do not view markets in this light. That means that they do not know what hypotheses are being tested…”

“…I did not play the financial markets according to a particular set of rules; I was always more interested in understanding the changes that occur in the rules of the game. I started with hypotheses relating to individual companies; with the passage of time my interests veered increasingly toward macroeconomic themes. This was due partly to the growth of the fund and partly to the growing instability of the macroeconomic environment.”

“Most of what I know is in the book, at least in theoretical form. I have not kept anything deliberately hidden. But the chain of reasoning operates in the opposite direction: I am not trying to explain how to use my approach to make money; rather, I am using my experiences in the financial markets to develop an approach to the study of historical processes in general and the present historical moment…If I did not believe that my investment activities can serve that purpose, I would not want to write about them. As long as I am actively engaged in business, I would be better off to keep them a trade secret. But I would value it much more highly than any business success if I could contribute to an understanding of the world in which we live or, better yet, if I could help to preserve the economic and political system that has allowed me to flourish as a participant.”


“Monetary and real phenomena are connected in a reflexive fashion; that is, they influence each other mutually. The reflexive relationship manifests itself most clearly in the use and abuse of credit. Loans are based on the lender's estimation of the borrower's ability to service his debt. The valuation of the collateral is supposed to be independent of the act of lending; but in actual fact the act of lending can affect the value of the collateral. This is true of the individual case and of the economy as a whole. Credit expansion stimulates the economy and enhances collateral values; the repayment or contraction of credit has a depressing influence both on the economy and on the valuation of the collateral.”

“Periodic busts have been so devastating that strenuous efforts have been made to prevent them. These efforts have led to the evolution of central banking and of other mechanisms for controlling credit and regulating economic activity. To understand the role of the regulators it must be realized that they are also participants: their understanding is inherently imperfect and their actions have unintended consequences.”


Klarman’s Margin of Safety: Ch.13 – Part 2


This is a continuation in our series of portfolio construction & management highlights extracted from Seth Klarman's Margin of Safety. In Chapter 13 (Portfolio Management and Trading) - Part 2 below, Klarman shares his thoughts on the illusory nature of liquidity, and the tricky task of knowing when to sell. Liquidity, Catalyst, When To Buy, When To Sell

Liquidity can be illusory. As Louis Lowenstein has stated, ‘In the stock market, there is liquidity for the individual but not for the whole community. The distributable profits of a company are the only rewards for the community.’ In other words, while any one investor can achieve liquidity by selling to another investor, all investors taken together can only be made liquid by generally unpredictable external events such as takeover bids and corporate-share repurchases. Except for such extraordinary transactions, there must be a buyer for every seller of a security."

Liquidity is possible not only through sale of securities, but also through other events & catalysts that result in cash flowing into the portfolio. 

“In times of general market stability the liquidity of a security or class of securities can appear high. In truth liquidity is closely correlated with investment fashion. During a market panic the liquidity that seemed miles wide in the course of an upswing may turn out only to have been inches deep. Some securities that traded in high volume when they were in favor may hardly trade at all when they go out of vogue.”

“For many securities the depth of the market as well as the quoted price is an important consideration. You cannot sell, after all, in the absence of a willing buyer; the likely presence of a buyer must therefore be a factor in the decision to sell. As the president of a small firm specializing in trading illiquid over-the-counter (pink-sheet) stocks once told me: ‘You have to feed the birdies when they are hungry.’”

Historical liquidity does not equal future liquidity. Miscalculation on this front has contributed to a phenomenon eloquently described as “up the stairs, out the window” syndrome.

When To Sell, Expected Return, Risk, Opportunity Cost

“Many investors are able to spot a bargain but have a harder time knowing when to sell. One reason is the difficulty of knowing precisely what an investment is worth. An investor buys with a range of value in mind at a price that provides a considerable margin of safety. As the market price appreciates, however, that safety margin decreases; the potential return diminishes and the downside risk increases. Not knowing the exact value of the investment, it is understandable that an investor cannot be confident in the sell decision as he or she was in the purchase decision.

To deal with the difficulty of knowing when to sell, some investors create results for selling…none of these rules make good sense. Indeed, there is only one valid rule for selling: all investments are for sale at the right price…Decisions to sell, like to buy, must be based upon underlying business value. Exactly when to sell – or buy – depends on the alternative opportunities that are available…It would be foolish to hold out for an extra fraction of a point of gain in a stock selling just below underlying value when the market offers many bargains.”

Awhile ago, we featured an interview with Steve Romick of FPA discussing the sizing & dilemma of whether to sell as price moves closer, though not quite yet, to intrinsic value. Here, Klarman's comment advises investors to also take into consideration "alternative opportunities that are available" during this decision making process.

When To Buy

“In my view, investors should usually refrain from purchasing a ‘full position’ (the maximum dollar commitment they intend to make) in a given security all at once…Buying a partial position leaves reserves that permit investors to ‘average down’ lowering their average cost per share, if prices decline.

Evaluating your own willingness to average down can help you distinguish prospective investments from speculations. If the security you are considering is truly a good investment, not a speculation, you would certainly want to own more at lower prices.”


Klarman's Margin of Safety: Ch.13 - Part 1


Many years ago, Seth Klarman wrote a book titled “Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor.” It is now out of print, and copies sell for thousands on eBay, etc. This marks our first installment of portfolio construction & management highlights extracted from this book. We begin this series not with Chapter 1, but more appropriately with Chapter 13 which discusses “Portfolio Management and Trading.” In Part 1 below, Klarman offers some differentiated insights on portfolio liquidity and cash flow.

Portfolio Management, Liquidity, Cash, Catalyst, Duration, Mistakes, Expected Return, Opportunity Cost

“All investors must come to terms with the relentless continuity of the investment process. Although specific investments have a beginning and an end, portfolio management goes on forever.”

“Portfolio management encompasses trading activity as well as the regular review of one’s holdings. In addition, an investor’s portfolio management responsibilities include maintaining appropriate diversification, making hedging decisions, and managing portfolio cash flow and liquidity.”

Investing is in some ways an endless process of managing liquidity. Typically an investor begins with liquidity, that is, with cash that he or she is looking to put to work. This initial liquidity is converted into less liquid investments in order to earn an incremental return. As investments come to fruition, liquidity is restored. Then the process begins anew.

This portfolio liquidity cycle serves two important purposes. First…portfolio cash flow – the cash flowing into a portfolio – can reduce an investor’s opportunity cost. Second, the periodic liquidation of parts of a portfolio has a cathartic effect. For many investors who prefer to remain fully invested at all times, it is easy to become complacent, sinking or swimming with current holdings. ‘Dead wood’ can accumulate and be neglected while losses build. By contrast, when the securities in a portfolio frequently turn into cash, the investor is constantly challenged to put that cash to work, seeking out the best values available.”

Cash flow and liquidity management is not what usually comes to mind when one thinks about the components of portfolio management. “Investing is in some ways an endless process of managing liquidity.” It’s actually quite an elegant interpretation.

Diversification (when implemented effectively) assures that certain assets in the portfolio do not decline (relative to other assets) and are therefore able to be sold at attractive prices (if/when desired) with proceeds available for reinvestment. Hedges provide liquidity at the “right” time to redeploy when assets are attractively priced. Catalysts ensure duration (and cash flow) for an otherwise theoretically infinite duration equity portfolio. Duration also forces an investor to remain vigilant and alert, constantly comparing and contrasting between potential opportunities, existing holdings, and hoarding cash.

The spectrum of liquidity of different holdings within a portfolio is determined by the ability to transition between investments with minimal friction (transaction costs, wide bid-ask spread, time, etc).

“Since no investor is infallible and no investment is perfect, there is considerable merit in being able to change one’s mind…An investor who buys a nontransferable limited partnership interest or stock in a nonpublic company, by contrast, is unable to change his mind at any price; he is effectively locked in. When investors do no demand compensation for bearing illiquidity, they almost always come to regret it.

Most of the time liquidity is not of great importance in managing a long-term-oriented investment portfolio. Few investors require a completely liquid portfolio that could be turned rapidly into cash. However, unexpected liquidity needs do occur. Because the opportunity cost of illiquidity is high, no investment portfolio should be completely illiquid either. Most portfolios should maintain a balance, opting for great illiquidity when the market compensates investors well for bearing it.

A mitigating factor in the tradeoff between return and liquidity is duration. While you must always be well paid to sacrifice liquidity, the required compensation depends on how long you will be illiquid. Ten or twenty years of illiquidity is far riskier than one or two months; in effect, the short duration of an investment itself serves as source of liquidity.”

People often discuss the risk-adjusted return. However you define “risk,” it may make sense to consider a liquidity-adjusted return.

Liquidity affords you the luxury to change your mind. This not only applies to instances when you realize that you have made a mistake (preventing potential capital loss), but also helps minimize opportunity cost from not being able to invest in something “better” that materializes at a later date.


Baupost Letters: 1999


Continuation in our series on portfolio management and Seth Klarman, with ideas extracted from old Baupost Group letters. Our Readers know that we generally provide excerpts along with commentary for each topic. However, at the request of Baupost, we will not be providing any excerpts, only our interpretive summaries, for this series.

Sizing, Catalyst, Expected Return, Hurdle Rate, Cash, Hedging, Correlation, Diversification

In the 1999 letter, Klarman breaks down the portfolio, which consists of the following components:

  1. Cash (~42% of NAV) – dry powder, available to take advantage of bargains if/when available
  2. Public & Private Investments (~25% of NAV) – investments with strong catalysts for partial or complete realization of underlying value (bankruptcies, restructurings, liquidations, breakups, asset sales, etc.), purchased with expected return of 15-20%+, likelihood of success dependent upon outcome of each situation and less on the general stock market movement. This category is generally uncorrelated with markets.
  3. Deeply Undervalued Securities – investments with no strong catalyst for value realization, purchased at discounts of 30-50% or more below estimated asset value. “No strong catalyst” doesn’t mean “no catalyst.” Many of the investments in this category had ongoing share repurchase programs and/or insider buying, but these only offered modest protection from market volatility. Therefore this category is generally correlated with markets.
  4. Hedges (~1% NAV)

Often, investments are moved between category 2 and 3, as catalyst(s) emerge or disappear.

This portfolio construction approach is similar to Buffett’s approach during the Partnership days (see our 1961 Part 3 article for portfolio construction parallels). Perhaps Klarman drew inspiration from the classic Buffett letters. Or perhaps Klarman arrived at this approach independently because the “bucket” method to portfolio construction is quite logical, allowing the portfolio manager to breakdown the attributes (volatility, correlation, catalysts, underlying risks, etc.) and return contribution of each bucket to the overall portfolio.

Klarman also writes that few positions in the portfolio exceed 5% of NAV in the “recent” years around 1999. This may imply that the portfolio is relatively diversified, but does lower sizing as % of NAV truly equate to diversification? (Regular readers know from previous articles that correlation significantly impacts the level of portfolio diversification vs. concentration of a portfolio.) One could make the case that the portfolio buckets outlined above are another form of sizing – a slight twist on the usual sizing of individual ideas and securities – because the investments in each bucket may contain correlated underlying characteristics. 

Duration, Catalyst

Klarman reminds his investors that stocks are perpetuities, and have no maturity dates. However, by investing in stocks with catalysts, he creates some degree of duration in a portfolio that would otherwise have infinite duration. In other words, catalysts change the duration of equity portfolios.


Vicious Cycle = protracted underperformance causes disappointed holder to sell, which in turn produces illiquidity and price declines, prompting greater underperformance triggering a  new wave of selling. This was true for small-cap fund managers and their holdings during 1999 as small-cap underperformed, experienced outflows, which triggered more selling and consequent underperformance. The virtuous cycle is the exact opposite of this phenomenon, where capital flows into strongly performing names & sectors.

Klarman’s commentary indirectly hints at the hypothesis that momentum is a by-product of investors’ psychological tendency to chase performance.

Risk, Psychology

Klarman writes that financial markets have been so good for so long that fear of market risk has completely evaporated, and the risk tolerance of average investors has greatly increased. People who used to invest in CDs now hold a portfolio of growth stocks. The explanation of this phenomenon lies in human nature’s inability to comprehend that we may not know everything, and an unwillingness to believe that everything can change on a dime.

This dovetails nicely with Howard Mark’s notion of the ‘perversity of risk’:

“The ultimate irony lies in the fact that the reward for taking incremental risk shrinks as more people move to take it. Thus, the market is not a static arena in which investors operate. It is responsive, shaped by investors’ own behavior. Their increasing confidence creates more that they should worry about, just as their rising fear and risk aversion combine to widen risk premiums at the same time as they reduce risk. I call this the ‘perversity of risk.’”

When To Buy, Psychology

Klarman writes that one should never be “blindly contrarian” and simply buy whatever is out of favor believing it will be restored because often investments are disfavored for good reason. It is also important to gauge the psychology of other investors – e.g., how far along is the current trend, what are the forces driving it, how much further does it have to go? Being early is synonymous to being wrong. Contrarian investors should develop an understanding of the psychology of sellers. Sourcing

When sourcing ideas, Baupost employs no rigid formulas because Klarman believes that flexibility improves one’s prospectus for returns with limited risk.


Baupost Letters: 1998


Continuation in our series on portfolio management and Seth Klarman, with ideas extracted from old Baupost Group letters. Our Readers know that we generally provide excerpts along with commentary for each topic. However, at the request of Baupost, we will not be providing any excerpts, only our interpretive summaries, for this series.

Hedging, Opportunity Cost, Correlation

Mid-fiscal year through 4/30/98, Klarman substantially increased exposure to disaster insurance (mainly out of the money U.S. equity put options + hedges against rising interest rates and currency fluctuations) because of his fear of a severe market correction and economic weakness. To maintain these hedges, Klarman stated he was willing to give up a portion of portfolio upside in return for protection against downside exposure. For fiscal year ended 10/31/98, these hedges accounted for a -2.8% performance drag.

The performance drag and mistake occurred as a result of expensive & imperfect hedges:

  • cheapest areas of the market (small-cap) became cheaper (Baupost’s portfolio long positions were mainly small cap)
  • most expensive areas of the market (large-cap) went to the moon (Baupost’s portfolio hedges were mostly large cap)

In assessing the performance results, Klarman stated that he did not believe he was wrong to hedge market exposures, his mistake was to use imperfect hedges, which resulted in him losing money on both his long positions and his hedges at the same time. Going forward, he would be searching for more closely correlated hedges.

In many instances, hedging is a return detractor. The trick is determining how much return you are willing to forego (premium spent and opportunity cost of that capital) in order to maintain the hedge, and how well that hedge will actually protect (or provide uncorrelated performance) when you expect it to work.

The only thing worse than foregoing return via premium spent and opportunity cost, is finding out in times of need that your hedges don’t work due to incorrect anticipation of correlation between your hedges and the exposure you are trying to hedge. That’s exactly what happened to Baupost in 1998.

Catalyst, Volatility, Expected Return, Duration

Attempting to reduce Baupost’s dependence on the equity market for future results, and the impact of equity market movement on Baupost’s results, Klarman discusses the increase of catalyst/event-driven positions (liquidations, reorganizations) within the portfolio, which are usually less dependent on the vicissitudes of the stock market for return realization.

Catalysts are a way to control volatility and better predict the expected return of portfolio holdings. Catalysts also create duration for the equity investor, such that once the catalyst occurs and returns are achieved, investors generally must find another place to redeploy the capital (or sit in cash).


Klarman called cash balances in rising markets “cement overshoes.” At mid-year 4/30/98, Baupost held ~17% of the portfolio in cash because Klarman remained confident that cash becomes more valuable as fewer and fewer investors choose to hold cash. By mid-December 1998, Baupost’s cash balance swelled to ~35% of NAV.

Risk, Opportunity Cost, Clients, Benchmark

In the face a strong bull market, Klarman cites the phenomenon of formerly risk-averse fund managers adopting the Massachusetts State Lottery slogan (“You gotta play to win”) for their investment guidelines because the biggest risk is now client firing the manager, instead of potential loss of capital.

Klarman observes the psychological reason behind this behavior: “Very few professional investors are willing to give up the joy ride of a roaring U.S. bull market to stand virtually alone against the crowd…the comfort of consensus serving as the ultimate life preserver for anyone inclined to worry about the downside. As small comfort as it may be, the fact that almost everyone will get clobbered in a market reversal makes remaining fully invested an easy relative performance decision.”

The moral of the story here: it’s not easy to stand alone against waves of public sentiment. For more on this, see Bob Rodriguez experience on the consequences of contrarian actions & behavior.

When the world is soaring, to hold large amounts of cash and spending performance units on hedges could lead to serious client-rebellion and business risk. I do not mean to imply that it’s wrong to hold cash or hedge the portfolio, merely that fund managers should be aware of possible consequences, and makes decisions accordingly.

Expected Return, Intrinsic Value

Klarman discusses how given today’s high equity market levels, future long-term returns will likely be disappointing because future returns have been accelerated into the present and recent past.

Future returns are a function of asset price vs. intrinsic value. The higher prices rise (even if you already own the asset), the lower future returns will be (assuming price is rising faster than asset intrinsic value growth). For a far more eloquent explanation, see Howard Mark’s discussion of this concept



Wisdom from Peter Lynch


Previously, we summarized an interview with Michael F. Price & an interview with David E. Shaw from Peter J. Tanous’ book Investment Gurus. Below are highlight from yet another fantastic interview, this time with Peter Lynch, the legendary investor who ran Fidelity's Magellan Fund from 1977-1990, compounding at ~30% annually during that period.

When To Buy, Volatility, Catalyst

On technical buy indicators, expected volatility, and catalysts:

“I have traditionally liked a certain formation. It’s what I call the electrocardiogram of a rock. The goes from, say, 50 to 8. It has an incredible crater. Then it goes sideways for a few years between 8 and 11. That’s why I call it the EKG of a rock. It’s never changing. Now you know if something goes right with this company, the stock is going north. In reality, it’s probably just going to go sideways forever. So if you’re right it goes north and if you’re wrong it goes sideways. These stocks make for a nice research list…stocks that have bottomed out...

...When it’s going from 50 to 8, it looks cheap at 15; it looks cheap at 12. So you want the knife to stick in the wood. When it stops vibrating, then you can pick it up. That’s how I see it on a purely technical basis…why the stock is on your research list, not on your buy list. You investigate and you find that of these ten stories, this one has something going on. They’re getting rid of a losing division, one of their competitors is going under, or something else.”

When To Buy

“You could have bought Wal-Mart ten years after it went public…it was a twenty-year-old company. This was not a startup…You could have bought Wal-Mart and made 30 times your money. If you bought it the day it went public you would have made 500 times your money. But you could have made 30 times your money ten years after it went public.”

Many value investors experience difficulty buying assets when prices are moving upward. At those moments, perhaps it’s important to remember to see the forest (ultimate risk-reward) through the trees (an upward moving price).

Expected Return, Fat Tail

“There may be only a few times a decade when you make a lot of money. How many times in your lifetime are you going to make five times on your money?”

I hear chatter about “lotto ticket” and “asymmetric risk-reward” ideas all the time. A friend recently joked that he would rather buy actual lotto tickets than the lotto-ticket-ideas because with the former he actually stands a chance of hitting the jackpot.

Apparently, Peter Lynch sort of agrees with my friend. Markets are generally efficient enough that asymmetric risk-reward opportunities rarely occur. The tricky part is discerning between the real deal vs. imitations conjured from misjudgment or wishful thinking analysis.

Diversification, Correlation

“If you buy ten emerging growth funds and all these companies have small sales and are very volatile companies, buying ten of those is not diversification.”

The correlation between assets, not the number of assets, ultimately determines the level of diversification within a portfolio.


“One out of every hundred Americans was in my fund…For many of these people, $5,000 is half their assets other than their house. And there are people you meet who say we sent our kids to college, or we paid off the mortgage. What I’m saying is that it’s very rewarding to have a fund where you really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

How refreshing. Those who work in the investment management world sometimes forget for whom they toil (beyond numero uno). A job well done could potentially make large positive impacts on the lives of others.

Team Management

On how he’s spending his time after stepping down from managing the Magellan Fund:

“…I work with young analysts. We bring in six new ones a year and I work with them one-on-one.”

Process Over Outcome

On whether Peter Lynch would have pursued an investment career had he lost money in his first stock purchase:

“Well, I guess if I’d lost money over and over again then maybe I would have gone into another field.”

Only in the long-run is outcome indicative of skill.


“…I was always upset by the fact that they called Magellan a growth fund. I think that is a mistake. If you pigeonhole somebody and all they can buy are the best available growth companies, what happens if all the grow companies are overpriced? You end up buying the least overpriced ones.”



Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 11


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 11 “The Most Important Thing Is…Contrarianism” Trackrecord, Clients, Mistakes, Redemptions, Patience

“‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ market extremes seem to occur once every decade or so – not often enough for an investor to build a career around capitalizing on them. But attempting to do so should be an important component of any investor’s approach. Just don’t think it’ll be easy. You need the ability to detect instances in which prices have diverged significantly from intrinsic value. You have to have a strong-enough stomach to defy conventional wisdom…And you must have the support of understanding, patient constituents. Without enough time to ride out the extremes while waiting for reason to prevail, you’ll become that most typical of market victims: the six-foot-tall man who drowned crossing the stream that was five feet deep on average.”

I wonder, if an investor was able to find a firm or client base with patient & long-term focus, could not profiting from “market extremes” be the basis of a very long-term & successful, albeit not headline-grabbing, wealth creation vehicle?

Marks also highlights a very costly mistake – one that has nothing to do with investing, and everything to do with operational structure and business planning. The “most typical” market victim of Marks’ description is one who has misjudged the nature of his/her liabilities vs. portfolio assets. Your patience is not enough. The level of patience of your capital base matters.

When To Buy, When To Sell, Catalyst

“Bull markets occur because more people want to buy than sell, or the buyers are more highly motivated than the sellers…If buyers didn’t predominate, the market wouldn’t be rising…figuratively speaking, a top occurs when the last person who will become a buyer does so. Since every buyer has joined the bullish herd by the time the top is reached, bullishness can go no further and the market is as high as it can go. Buying or holding is dangerous.”

“The ultimately most profitable investment actions are by definition contrarian: you’re buying when everyone else is selling (and the price is thus low) or you’re selling when everyone else is buying (and the price is high).”

“Accepting contrarianism is one thing; putting it into practice is another. On one hand, we never know how far the pendulum will swing, when it will reverse, and how far it will then go in the opposite direction. On the other hand, we can be sure that, once it reaches an extreme position, the market eventually will swing back toward the midpoint (or beyond)…Even when an excess does develop, it’s important to understand that ‘overpriced’ is incredibly different from ‘going down tomorrow.’ Markets can be over- or underpriced and stay that way – or become more so – for year.”

Tricky part is determining the timing when “the top is reached.” As Stanley Druckenmiller astutely points out: “I never use valuation to time the market…Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction…The catalyst is liquidity…” Unfortunately, neither Druckenmiller nor Marks offers additional insight as to how one should identify the catalyst(s) signaling reversals of the pendulum.

I have also heard many value investors bemoan that they often sell too soon (because they base sell decisions on intrinsic value estimates), and miss out on the corresponding momentum effect. (See Chris Mittleman discussion). The solution involves adjusting sell decision triggers to include psychological tendency. But this solution is a delicate balance because you don’t want to stick around too long and get caught with the hot potato at the end when ‘the last person who will become a buyer does so” and “bullishness can go no further.”

When To Buy

“…one thing I’m sure of is that by the time the knife has stopped falling, the dust has settled and the uncertainty has been resolved, there’ll be no great bargains left.”

Gumption is rewarded during periods of uncertainty.


“You must do things…because you know why the crowd is wrong. Only then will you be able to hold firmly to your views and perhaps buy more as your positions take on the appearance of mistakes and as losses accrue rather than gains.”

In this business, mistake & profit are exact and opposite mirror images between buyer and seller. Frankly, at times, it’s difficult to distinguish between temporary impairments vs. actual mistakes.

Expected Return

“…in dealing with the future, we must think about two things: (a) what might happen and (b) the probability that it will happen.”

For Marks, future expected return is a probably-adjusted figure.


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 9


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 9 “The Most Important Thing Is…Awareness of the Pendulum” Psychology, Risk, When To Buy, When To Sell

As the title of this chapter gives away, much of Marks’ comments emphasize the importance of awareness of market participants’ psychology, specifically their attitudes toward risk, which creates optimal conditions for buying or selling (depending on the “location” of the pendulum). For more on this, be sure to read a previous discussion on Howard Marks’ concept of the “perversity of risk and resulting risk manifestation.

“Investment markets follow a pendulum-like swing:

  • Between euphoria and depression;
  • Between celebrating positive developments and obsessing over negatives…
  • Between overpriced and underpriced.”

“…the pendulum also swings with regard to greed versus fear; willingness to view things through an optimistic or a pessimistic lens; faith in developments that are on-the-come; credulousness versus skepticism; and risk tolerance versus risk aversion.

The swing in the last of these – attitudes toward risk – is a common thread that runs through many of the market’s fluctuations. Risk aversion is THE essential ingredient in a rational market…and the position of the pendulum with regard to it is particularly important. Improper amounts of risk aversion are key contributors to the market excesses of bubble and crash.”

When To Buy

“Major bottoms occur when everyone forgets that the tide also comes in. Those are the times we live for.”

“The swing back from the extreme is usually more rapid – and thus takes much less time – than the swing to the extreme.”

The comment regarding the speed of swing back from the extremes is interesting.

Mariko Gordon of Daruma Capital (who writes wonderfully insightful and entertaining letters) once pointed out that opportunities “tend to make themselves available between the two extremes of ‘fire hose’ and ‘dripping faucet’ and that what ultimately matters is “having a sound strategy for uncovering the best when ideas are as plentiful as mushrooms after a rain, and locating the gems when the pendulum inevitably swings back the other way.”

I think both Marks and Gordon would agree that it’s not only the ability to identify when the pendulum reaches the extremes that counts, but also the ability to act quickly and take advantage of those rare and fleeting moments.


“The market has a mind of its own, and its changes in valuation parameters, caused primarily by changes in investor psychology (not changes in fundamentals), that account for most short-term changes in security prices. This psychology, too, moves like a pendulum.”

Stanley Druckenmiller once commented that: “I never use valuation to time the market…Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction…The catalyst is liquidity…”

Is investor psychology (one of) the initial catalyst(s) that impacts liquidity, which then drives valuation?

Risk, Expected Return, Capital Preservation, Opportunity Cost

“In my opinion, the greed/fear cycle is caused by changing attitudes toward risk. When greed is prevalent, it means investors feel a high level of comfort with risk and the idea of bearing it in the interest of profit. Conversely, widespread fear indicates a high level of aversion to risk. The academics consider investors’ attitudes toward risk a constant, but certainly it fluctuates greatly. Finance theory is heavily dependent on the assumption that investors are risk-averse. That is, they ‘disprefer’ risk and must be induced – bribed – to bear it, with high expected returns.”

“…I’ve recently boiled down the main risks in investing to…: the risk of losing money and the risk of missing opportunity. It’s possible to largely eliminate either one, but not both. In an ideal world, investors would balance these two concerns…In 2005, 2006, and early 2007, with things going so swimmingly and the capital markets wide open, few people imagined that losses could lie ahead. Many believed risk had been banished. Their only worry was that they might miss an opportunity; if Wall Street came out with a new financial miracle and other investors bought and they didn’t…since they weren’t concerned about losing money, they didn’t insist on low purchase prices, adequate risk premiums or investor protection. In short, they behaved too aggressively.”

2005-2007 provides a great example of how misjudgments in risk and expected return can also cloud estimations of opportunity cost (which is a function of expected risk and return predictions). This caused investors to think the opportunity cost of not investing high – when in fact the exact opposite was true – leading to detrimental results.

Stanley Druckenmiller Wisdom - Part 3


Here is Part 3 of portfolio management highlights extracted from an interview with Stanley Druckenmmiller in Jack D. Schwager’s book The New Market Wizards. Be sure to check out the juicy bits from Part 1 and Part 2. Druckenmiller is a legendary investor, and protégé of George Soros, who compounded capital ~30% annualized since 1986 before announcing in 2010 that his Duquesne fund would return all outside investor capital, and morph into a family office.

Liquidity, Making Mistakes, Position Review

“The wonderful thing about our business is that it’s liquid, and you can wipe the slate clean on any day.”

Liquidity makes it easier to change your mind and to deal with mistakes. This is why people talk about the “liquidity premium.” Theoretically, this flexibility is worth something. But how does one place a value or price upon liquidity (or illiquidity for that matter)? The Pensioner in Drobny’s book Invisible Hands has some interesting thoughts on this.

Our next point on liquidity has to do with a comment that Seth Klarman made about “re-buying the portfolio each day” and the related implications (of opportunity cost, hurdle rate, etc.).

For example: Prices in the marketplace are constantly shifting. Does your portfolio currently offer the best risk-reward profile given present market conditions, or can you improve it by buying or selling certain securities/assets? Mariko Gordon of Daruma Capital has some really interesting insights on portfolio review, decluttering, and improvement (made possible by liquidity).

Remember, investors of private assets do not have this luxury – so take advantage of liquidity wisely.

Sourcing, Liquidity, When To Buy

Q: Did you have any difficulty putting on a position of that size? A: No, I did it over a few days’ time. Also, putting on the position was made easier by the generally bearish sentiment at the time.

People often say that historical returns are not indicative of future performance.

Well, this is also true for trading liquidity: historical liquidity levels are not indicative of future liquidity.

Liquidity is not stagnant! What is liquid today may not be liquid tomorrow, and vice versa. This is why I find it funny when people reference historical trading liquidity. I’ve seen securities seesaw from trading a miniscule 30,000 shares a day, to more than 1MM shares a day.

Also, to Druckenmiller’s point, the time to buy (or sell) is often when there’s a liquidity imbalance somewhere in the marketplace. Liquidity imbalances have the ability to drive prices down (or up).

Volatility, Catalyst, Liquidity

“…I focus my analysis on seeking to identify the factors that were strongly correlated to a stock’s price movement as opposed to looking at all the fundamentals. Frankly, even today, many analysts still don’t know what makes their particular stocks go up and down.”

“I never use valuation to time the market…Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture to change the market direction…The catalyst is liquidity…” 

Look for reasons behind price movement (volatility), such as liquidity imbalances as mentioned above.

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1964 Part 3


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Historical Performance Analysis, Process Over Outcome, Psychology

“…the workouts (along with controls) saved the day in 1962, and if we had been light in this category that year, our final results would have been much poorer, although still quite respectable considering market conditions during the year…In 1963 we had one sensational workout which greatly influenced results, and generals gave a good account of themselves, resulting in a banner year. If workouts had been normal, (say, more like 1962) we would have looked much poorer compared to the Dow…Finally, in 1964 workouts were a big drag on performance.”

There is a chart in the January 18, 1965 partnership letter, in which Buffett breaks down the performance of Generals vs. Workouts for 1962-1964, and discusses the return attribution of each category in different market environments.

Most investors conduct some form of historical performance review, on a quarterly or annual basis. It’s an important exercise for a variety of reasons:

  • To better understand your sources of historical return – performance analysis forces you to examine the relationship between your process vs. the outcome. Was the outcome as expected? If not, do changes need to be made to the process?
  • To help you and your team become more self-aware – what you do well, badly, and perhaps reveal patterns of behavioral strength and weakness (here's an article about an interesting firm that offers this analysis)
  • Team Compensation
  • Highlight necessary adjustment to the portfolio and business
  • Etc.

The investment management world spends a lot of time scrutinizing the operations of other businesses. Shouldn’t we apply the same magnifying glass to our own?

Sizing, Catalyst, Hedging, Activism, Control

“What we really like to see in situations like the three mentioned above is a condition where the company is making substantial progress in terms of improving earnings, increasing asset values, etc., but where the market price of the stock is doing very little while we continue to acquire it…Such activity should usually result in either appreciation of market prices from external factors or the acquisition by us of a controlling position in a business at a bargain price. Either alternative suits me.”

“Many times…we have the desirable ‘two strings to our box’ situation where we should either achieve appreciation of market prices from external factors or from the acquisition of control positions in a business at a bargain price. While the former happens in the overwhelming majority of cases, the latter represents an insurance policy most investment operations don’t have.”

Buffett discusses the phenomenon known as the “two strings” on his bow which allowed for heavy concentration in a few positions. The potential to (eventually) acquire a controlling stake in the underlying company served has an “insurance policy” via the creation of a catalyst after asserting control. (Some may argue that activism is applicable here as well. However, we tread cautiously on this train of thought because activism by no means entails a 100% success rate.)

It’s important to understand that control is not an option available to all investors. Therefore, when sizing positions, one should reconsider the exact emulation of Buffett’s enthusiastic buying as price continues to decline, and concentrated approach.

Interestingly, if a controlling stake in a company serves as an insurance policy (as Buffett describes it), is ‘control’ a type of portfolio hedge?

Activism, Control

“We have continued to enlarge the positions in the three companies described in our 1964 midyear report where we are the largest stockholders…It is unlikely that we will ever take a really active part in policy-making in any of these three companies…”

Control ≠ Activism


“To too many people conventionality is indistinguishable from conservatism. In my view, this represents erroneous thinking. Neither a conventional or an unconventional approach, per se, is conservative.”

“Truly conservative actions arise from intelligent hypotheses, correct facts and sound reasoning. These qualities may lead to conventional acts, but there have been many times when they have led to unorthodoxy. In some corner of the world they are probably still holding regular meetings of the Flat Earth Society.”

“We derive no comfort because important people, vocal people, or great numbers of people agree with us. Nor do we derive comfort if they don’t. A public opinion poll is no substitute for thought. When we really sit back with a smile on our face is when we run into a situation we can understand, where the facts are ascertainable and clear, and the course of action obvious. In that case – whether conventional or unconventional – whether others agree or disagree – we feel we are progressing in a conservative manner.”

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1963 Part 3


Continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Topics covered include: When To Buy, When To Sell, Activism, Catalyst, AUM When To Buy, Activism, Catalyst, Control

“…controls develop from the general category. They results from situations where a cheap security does nothing price-wise for such an extended period of time that we are able to buy a significant percentage of the company’s stock…Whether we become active or remain relatively passive at this point depends upon our assessment of the company’s future and the management’s capabilities.”

“We do not want to get active merely for the sake of being active. Everything else being equal I would much rather let others do the work. However, when an active role is necessary to optimize the employment of capital, you can be sure we will not be standing in the wings.”

“Active or passive, in a control situation there should be a built-in profit…Our willingness and financial ability to assume a controlling position gives us two-way stretch on many purchases in our group of generals. If the market changes its opinion for the better, the security will advance in price. If it doesn’t, we will continue to acquire stock until we can look to the business itself rather than the market for vindication of our judgment.” 

Warren Buffett is renowned for his strong stomach, and willingness to continuously purchase and ingest increasing stakes as falling prices deter others. I believe the quote above holds the rationale behind this courageous behavior.

I think it's important to point out, that for each purchasing quest as the price falls, there exists a tipping point – the point at which Buffett obtains a controlling position – such that if the market continues to undervalue the asset, he will “look to the business itself rather than the market for vindication,” thus unlocking value by enacting his own catalyst as a control/majority investor.

Many investors attempt to emulate Buffett’s strong-stomach approach. However, I would advise caution to those investors with limited cash resources or asset under management, without which investors could end up with too much of his/her portfolio in a minority stake of an asset that remains perpetually undervalued.



“Our rapid increase in assets always raises the question of whether this will result in a dilution of future performance. To date, there is more of a positive than inverse correlation between size of the Partnership and its margin over the Dow…Larger sums may be an advantage at times and a disadvantage at others. My opinion is that our present portfolio could not be improved if our assets were $1 million or $5 million. Our idea inventory has always seemed to be 10% ahead of our bank account. If that should change, you can count on hearing from me.”

I have heard it remarked that capital is the enemy of return. This is true under many circumstances, however in some instances, as Buffett outlines above, a large capital base has its benefits. For example, see our discussion above on When To Buy, Activism, Catalyst, and Control.


When To Sell

“Our business is making excellent purchases – not making extraordinary sales.”

Baupost Letters: 1995


Here is the first installment of a series on portfolio management and Seth Klarman, with ideas extracted from old Baupost Group letters. Our Readers know that we generally provide excerpts along with commentary for each topic. However, at the request of Baupost, we will not be providing any excerpts for this series.


When To Buy, Risk

In a previous article on The Pensioner in Steve Drobny’s book Invisible Hands, we discussed how most people analyze risk as an afterthought once a portfolio has been constructed (whether by identifying factors, or by analyzing the resulting return stream), and not usually as an input at the beginning of the portfolio construction process.

Klarman’s discusses how risk can slip into the portfolio through the buying process, for example, when investors purchase securities too soon and that security continues to decline in price.

This would support the idea of controlling risk at the start, not just the end. To take this notion further, if risk can sneak in through the buying process, can it also do so during the diligence process, the fundraising process (certain types of client, firm liquidity risk), etc.?


Benchmark, Conservatism, Clients

Baupost is focused on absolute, not relative performance against the S&P 500.

Similar to what Buffett says about conservatism, Klarman believes that the true test for investors occurs during severe down markets. Unfortunately, the cost of this conservatism necessary to avoid losses during these difficult times is underperformance during market rallies.

Klarman also deftly sets the ground rules and client expectations, such that if they did not agree with his philosophy of conservatism and underperformance during bull markets, they were more than welcomed to take their money and put it with index funds.


Selectivity, Cash

We’ve discussed in the past the concept of selectivity– a mental process that occurs within the mind of each investor, and that our selectivity criteria could creep in either direction (more strict or lax) with market movements.

Klarman is known for his comfort with holding cash when he cannot find good enough ideas. This would imply that his level of selectivity does not shift much with market movements.

The question then follows: how does one ensure that selectivity stays constant? This is easily said in theory, but actual implementation is far more difficult, especially when one is working with a large team.


Catalyst, Volatility, Special Situations

Following in the tradition of Max Heine and Michael Price, Klarman invested in special situations / catalyst driven positions, such as bankruptcies, liquidations, restructurings, tender offers, spinoffs, etc.

He recognized the impact of these securities on portfolio volatility, both the good (cushioning portfolio returns during market declines by decoupling portfolio returns from overall market direction) and the bad (relative underperformance in bull markets).



Many people made money hedging in 2008. In the true spirit of performance chasing, hedging remains ever popular today, 4 years removed from the heart of financial crisis.

Hopefully, our Readers have read our previous article on hedging, and the warnings from other well-known investors (such as AQR and GMO) to approach with caution. I believe that hedging holds an important place in the portfolio management process, but investors should hold no illusion that hedging is ever profitable.

For example, even the great Seth Klarman has lost money on portfolio hedges. However, he continues to hedges with out-of-the-money put options to protect himself from market declines.

The moral of the story: be sure to carefully consider the purpose of hedges and the eventual implementation process, especially in the context of the entire portfolio as a whole.

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1961 Part 3


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.



“The first section consists of generally undervalued securities (hereinafter called “generals”)…Over the years, this has been our largest category of investment…We usually have fairly large portions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen.”

“…and probably 40 or so securities.”

Today, people often reference Buffett’s concentrated portfolio approach for sizing advice. Although Buffett wasn’t shy about pressing his bets when opportunity knocked (Dempster Mill was 21% of the total Partnership NAV), he didn’t always run an extremely concentrated portfolio, at least not in the partnership days.

The “generals” portion had 5-6 positions consisting of 5-10% each, and another 10-15 smaller positions. So the “generals” segment as a whole comprised approximately 25-60% of NAV in 15-20 or more positions. Also, see discussion on diversification of “generals” below.

The “work-out” segment usually had 10-15 positions (see next section).

At the end of 1961, his portfolio consisted of ~40 securities.


Catalyst, Diversification, Expected Return

“The first section consists of generally undervalued securities (hereinafter called “generals”) where we have nothing to say about corporate policies and no time table as to when the undervaluation may correct itself…Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they takes years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price. However, because of this lack of glamour or anything pending which might create immediate favorable market action, they are available at very cheap prices. A lot of value can be obtained for the price paid…This individual margin of safety, coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential.”

“Our second category consists of “work-outs.” These securities whose financial results depend on corporate action…with a timetable where we can predict, within reasonable error limits, when we will get how much and what might upset the applecart. Corporate events such as mergers, liquidations, reorganizations, spin-offs, etc. lead to works-outs…At any given time, we may be in ten to fifteen of these, some just beginning and others in the late stage of their development.”

“Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought in mind that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low…for a long period, this might very well happen.”

Catalysts helped Buffett “predict within reasonable error limits, when [he] will get how much and what might upset the applecart.” Put differently, catalysts enhanced the likelihood of value appreciation and accuracy of expected returns.

In his “generals” basket, to compensate for the lack of catalysts (and inability to predict when price would reach fair value), Buffett employed diversification unconventionally. Investors usually diversify portfolio positions to mitigate portfolio losses. Here, Buffett applies the concept of diversification to portfolio upside potential through his “diversity of commitments.” By spreading his bets, Buffett smoothed the upside potential of his “general” positions over time – a few “generals” would inevitably encounter the catalyst and move toward fair value each year.

Lastly, Buffett believed that the lack of catalyst creates opportunity. As long as investors are short-term results driven, this tenet will remain true. He sometimes took advantage by acquiring large enough stakes in these no-catalyst-generals and creating his own catalyst through activism.



“We believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior. Results, excluding the benefits derived from the use of borrowed money, usually fall in the 10% to 20% range. My self-imposed limit regarding borrowing is 25% of partnership net worth. Oftentimes we owe no money and when we do borrow, it is only as an offset against work-outs.”

Here we observe the first evidence of Buffett employing leverage, nor was this to be the last. Despite warning others against the dangers of leverage, Buffett embraced leverage prudently his entire life – from the very beginning of the partnership, to his investments in banking and insurance, to the core spread structure of Berkshire Hathaway today.

Why he imposed the 25% limit figure, I do not know. (It would certainly be interesting to find out.) I suspect it is because he utilized leverage exclusively for the “work-out” segment which was a smaller portion of the portfolio. Also, the “work-outs” were already returning 10-20% unlevered, so leverage was not always necessary to achieve his return goal of 10% above the Dow.

Intrinsic Value, When to Sell

“We do not go into these generals with the idea of getting the last nickel, but are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner.”

Don’t be too greedy.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1961 Part 1


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. During 1961, Buffett started to write semi-annual letters because his clients told him the annual letter was “a long time between drinks.” The summary below is derived from the first of two letters written about the results of 1961.

Separate Accounts, Fee Structure

The business underwent conversion from multiple separately managed accounts to a pooled partnership vehicle. Buffett grappled with housekeeping issues such as proper allocation of “future tax liability due to unrealized gains” during the transition process since all the different partnerships would contribute different tax liabilities to the new pooled vehicle.

More interesting is the fee structure of the Buffett Partnerships. The new pool vehicle would charge 0% management fees, 25% incentive fee above a 6% hurdle, and “any deficiencies in earnings below the 6% would be carried forward against future earnings, but would not be carried back.”

Previously, the multiple partnerships had a number of different fee structures including:

  1. 6% Hurdle, 33.33% incentive fee
  2. 4% Hurdle, 25.00% incentive fee
  3. 0% Hurdle, 16.67% incentive fee

Additionally, Buffett provides his clients with a unique liquidity mechanism to supplement the annual redemption window:

“The right to borrow during the year, up to 20% of the value of your partnership interest, at 6%, such loans to be liquidated at yearend or earlier. This will add a degree of liquidity to an investment which can now only be disposed of at yearend…I expect this to be a relatively unused provision, which is available when something unexpected turns up and a wait until yearend to liquidate part or all of a partner’s interest would cause hardship.”


“Estimated total assets of the partnership will be in the neighborhood of $4 million, which enables us to consider investments such as the one mentioned earlier in this letter, which we would have had to pass several years ago.”

Buffett was cognizant of the relationship between AUM and his fund’s investment strategy. I suspect the investment “mentioned earlier in this letter” was an activist situation which required him owning an influential or controlling stake in the company – therefore requiring a minimum amount of capital commitment, now made possible by the higher total partnership assets of $4 million.

Portfolio managers are not the own ones who should monitor the AUM figure. The relevance of the relationship between AUM and a fund’s investment strategy has wider implications. For example, investors who allocate capital to funds should also be monitoring AUM and asking whether the changes in AUM impact a fund’s ability to generate returns due to sizing, strategy shift / drift, changing opportunity sets, etc.

Expected Return, Catalyst, Risk

“We have also begun open market acquisitions of a potentially major commitment which I, of course, hope does nothing marketwise for at least a year. Such a commitment may be a deterrent to short range performance but it gives strong promise of superior results over a several year period combined with substantial defensive characteristics.

The above quote highlights two important portfolio management topics.

First: the concept of “yield to catalyst.” Similar in concept to yield to call or maturity for bonds, it’s the annualized return between today to until the catalyst or price target occurrence – a sort of expected annualized return figure. In this situation, the price target was high enough that even if the security “does nothing for at least a year,” the “superior results over a several year period” was enough to make the investment worthwhile. For his basket of “work-outs” (see our 1957 Part 1 post for more details on this), the price target was usually lower, but the catalyst was usually not far away, therefore the yield to catalyst was still adequately high to justify an investment.

Second: the concept of risk-adjusted return. This one is slightly more difficult to estimate since “risk” is a squishy term and difficult to quantify. In the quote above, Buffett references the “substantial defensive characteristics” of the investment. This indicates that he is measuring the return against the risk profile. Unfortunately, he does not give any details as to how he defines risk, or does that math.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1958 Part 1


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. Volatility

“…widespread public belief in the inevitability of profits from invest in stocks will led to eventual trouble…prices, not intrinsic value in my opinion, of even undervalued securities can be expected to be substantially affected.”

Price does not always equal intrinsic value, and the resulting impact is volatility due to price, not intrinsic value, movement. Unlike some value investors today, Buffett (especially in the Partnership days) never ignored volatility because he recognized the impact of this phenomenon on his performance return stream. Instead, he anticipated sources of possible price volatility and stood with cash or “work-outs” ready to deploy in case price, not intrinsic value, declined. Please see the 1957 Part 1 and 1957 Part 2 commentary for more details on “work-outs.”


Diversification, Liquidity, Catalyst, Activism

“Commonwealth only had about 300 stockholders and probably averaged two trades or so per month…”

“Over a period of a year or so, we were successful in obtaining about 12% of the bank at a price averaging about $51 per share…our block of stock increased in value as its size grew, particularly after we became the second largest stockholder with sufficient voting power to warrant consultation on any merger proposal.”

“This new situation is somewhat larger than Commonwealth and represents about 25% of the assets of the various partnerships. While the degree of undervaluation is no greater than in many other securities we own…we are the largest stockholder and this has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation.”

“To the extent possible…I am attempting to create my own work-outs by acquiring large positions in several undervalued securities.”

Not surprisingly, Buffett was never one to preach the merits of diversification or liquidity, even in the pre-Berkshire days when he did not have permanent capital. (Side Note: At the 2012 DJCO Shareholders’ Meeting, Charlie Munger stated that the Volcker Rule would actually improve the markets by decreasing trading liquidity.) He seemed unafraid of liquidity constraints created by little/no trading activity, holding 12% of total shares outstanding of a company, or making a single position 25% of portfolio NAV.

In the Partnership days, Buffett conducted some degree of shareholder activism (this was to change down the road). In certain instances, he held the belief that the value of a holding increased once a large enough stake was accumulated due to the intangible control premium and higher potential to create your own catalyst, thereby controlling the expected annualized return.

And it begins...with Michael F. Price


Michael F. Price is going to kick off our inagural post. Well, sort of. I'd like to share the summary (mainly the categorized juicy portfolio management bits) of an interview with MFP in Peter J. Tanous' book Investment Gurus.

Sourcing, Creativity: Price discusses how competitive the traditional bankruptcy and restructuring game has become (this was 1997 folks, think of how much more competitive it must be today). As a creative way to deploy capital into distressed situations, he would do “standby purchaser” deals, in which companies would do a rights offering to raise additional capital and reserve a certain % of the deal for Mutual Series, as well as whatever % existing shareholders didn’t want. These “standby purchaser” deals required him to keep an eye out for companies near liquidity crunches, and meet with them beforehand to offer his assistance, thereby requiring more work and proprietary sourcing, but involved far less competition than traditional bankruptcy/restructuring situations. Reminds of the recent Buffett deals (convertible preferred + warrants) with GE, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America.

Risk: “Risk is not the same as volatility. It’s very hard to measure risk. It’s very simple to measure return. You can’t model it.” He also discusses how earnings and asset value both help mitigate risk.

Cash / Special Situations / Volatility: Cash is ~5-25% of his portfolio “always.” Special situations (bankruptcy, arbitrage, tender offer, merger, buyback, liquidation, etc.) positions don’t move with general market but more with progress of individual situation. Cash + Special Situation is ~40% portfolio. The remaining ~60% consists of POCS (Plain Old Common Stock, value ideas trading below “intrinsic value”) which should theoretically go down less than the market. Therefore his portfolio beta is ~0.6.

Catalyst, Activism: “We perform well because some of our stocks have these catalysts. You asked why do we spend our time going around to shake some cages? It’s because a lot of times you can buy good values. But until there’s a catalyst, the value is not going to get realized.”

Turnover: Portfolio turnover is in mid-70s, skewed upwards by Special Situations basket.

Capital Preservation: “My mission isn’t to make money in bull markets. My mission is to preserve capital.”

Foreign Exchange: “Foreign positions are hedged perfectly every day so currency movements don’t affect our fund price.”

So there you have it: a little sample to whet your appetite! I'll be posting more summaries from other great investors in the weeks and months ahead, be sure to check back for updates.