Klarman 1991 Interview with Barron's


This 1991 Barron's interview with Seth Klarman offers some intriguing insights into how Baupost got its start, and the nature of Klarman’s initial client base and business structure. Baupost currently manages ~$32 Billion AUM (per latest firm ADV), whereas ~24 years ago that figure stood at $400mm, and ~33 years ago only $27mm. Time + compounding + inflows can lead to staggering absolute sums. Clients

“My first real education in investing came when I took a summer job in my junior year at college with Max Heine and Mike Price at Mutual Shares. They invited me back to join them in January of '79. I worked there about 20 months until I left for business school. Just before graduation, I was offered the opportunity to join with several individuals who had decided to pool their assets and helped to form the Baupost Group to steward those assets. That was 9 1/2 years ago…These people are all still involved. They were never active day to day…They are wonderful partners…They are on the board of the company. They are partial owners of the company. And each of them has all of his liquid investable assets here, as do all the principals, all the people who run the money.”

“We set out at the beginning to be somewhat unconventional, with our clients acting as board members and as part owners. The incentive really was to do whatever it took to maximize the return on their money, not necessarily to grow a profitable business. Along the way, some decisions were made, including one to turn down most of the people who tried to become clients. We actually closed for new clients about five years ago. And we have grown from compounding ever since…over the years we have grown through word of mouth. In the earlier years, we grew beyond the initial three families, for a couple of reasons. One was that they had some friends who liked the idea of what we were trying to do and wanted to come in. They are the kind of people who say yes to friends. And also partly because we didn't want to be overly dependent on any one person for the success of our business going forward…There were the three families and I had a partner who was a part-time person who focused primarily on administrative matters… The compound return to investors after our profit-sharing arrangement has been 20%-25% in the limited partnerships…over the 8 3/4 years the partnerships have been in existence.”

“They correctly perceived that they could spend a lot of their time clipping coupons, collecting dividends, making sure that all the numbers were right. And it could become, if not a full-time job, at least one that consumed a substantial amount of their time. And these were the kind of people who didn't want to spend all their time just counting their money and paying attention to such details. So they pooled it to form Baupost.”

“We are blessed with a client base that is not short-term-oriented. I don't think any money manager knows how deep the reservoir of client goodwill is.”

Maximizing performance returns and building a profitable investment management business are not necessarily mutually inclusive objectives. The latter often requires quick AUM ramp. This is why seed investor arrangements can lead to potential conflicts.

Klarman and his capital partners first defined the goal and alignment of interest (usually the hardest part). The rest was structuring and execution. Baupost wasn’t conventional or unconventional, simply a solution to their circumstance and situation.


“Q: How much money do you manage? A: A little bit over $400 million. Q: And how much did you start with 10 years ago? A: $27 million.”

“Q: …Can we take it you stopped accepting new money because you think there is only a certain amount of money you can efficiently manage? A: That is a fair way to put it. There are dis-economies of scale in terms of the returns that can be earned on managed money. That probably kicks in a lot smaller than we are. It probably kicks in at $50 million or $100 million. But over the realm of all possible sizes, you just don't want to get beyond a certain level, particularly when you have an eclectic strategy like ours. There is only so much that you can buy that fits our kind of criteria. And we are comfortable at our current size. Q: So this is pretty much a matter of feel? A: That's right. I think we also want to stay small because it is frankly more fun. We enjoy the camaraderie of being a small firm with everybody doing work, and everybody understanding pretty much where we are going. The last thing I want to be is manager of a staff of a dozen analysts and portfolio managers. I wouldn't like that at all.”

Um, that obviously changed. A friend recently commented that all successful investors must eventually learn to manage larger amounts of capital. Why? Even without large inflows, compounding alone will force you into ever larger realms of AUM.


“Q: Is this institutional money you're managing? A: All individual money. Q: It's really unusual to have that much individual money…”

“Q: Do you call yourself a hedge fund? A: No. We do not. We are compensated somewhat like hedge funds but do not hedge in the sense of always being long and short. We tend to be long investors. We are rarely on the short side.”

It’s okay to admit that you’re not a “hedge fund”…

“…perhaps most important, we are not just focusing on equities. We focus on any security of a company that is mispriced. We can even find some companies where one security, like the equity, is overvalued, but where another security, like the debt, might be undervalued. We have flexibility in our partnership agreement to do pretty much anything we like. Right now, and for the better part of the last two years, much of our investment has been in the senior securities of overleveraged companies.”

It puzzles me when people fixate on Baupost’s 13F (the latest discloses $5.9Bn worth of public equity assets). This is only ~18% of the firm’s total AUM. The remaining 82% is invested elsewhere included private real estate & bankruptcy workouts (such as a large position in Lehman).

“If you are asking, ‘Is there more competition in many of the areas that we are looking at?’ that is absolutely true. The good news is that first of all, we are flexible enough to not be committed in any single area. Take, for example, distressed securities. In 1985, as far as we can remember there was only one firm doing research in dis tress. That was R.D. Smith. In 1991, we check our faxes and our research reports, and we count 44 firms doing work in that area…So there is no question that there's now a crowd. The research coverage and Wall Street's attention to it have increased probably more than the considerable proliferation of opportunities in that area. So we have more competition. But we have flexibility, we also have patience. These people have special-purpose funds to do whatever it is they are doing, to do distressed securities, to do LBOs, whatever their funds are looking for. And when opportunities cease to exist, they will probably distribute the funds and go out of business. Already, we see many of the arbitrageurs from the 'Eighties disappear and go into new lines of business like distressed securities.”

Mandate flexibility provides a competitive advantage. Investing is a fiercely competitive. Why make your life harder by limiting where you may seek returns? Klarman may have lots of institutional capital today, but it didn’t start off that way. An institutional capital base may/will constrain the type of investments you can or can’t make.


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 18


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 18 “The Most Important Thing Is…Avoiding Pitfalls” Risk, Volatility

“…trying to avoid losses is more important than striving or great investment successes. The latter can be achieved some of the time, but the occasional failures may be crippling. The former can be done more often and more dependably…and with consequences when it fails that are more tolerable…A portfolio that contains too little risk can make you underperform in a bull market, but no one ever went bust from that; there are far worse fates.

“You could require your portfolio to do well in a rerun of 2008, but then you’d hold only Treasurys, cash and gold. Is that a viable strategy? Probably not. So the general rule is that it’s important to avoid pitfalls, but there must be a limit. And the limit is different for each investor.”

Volatility, Psychology, Trackrecord, When To Buy, When To Sell, Clients

“…almost nothing performed well in the meltdown of 2008…While it was nigh onto impossible to avoid declines completely, relative outperformance in the form of smaller losses was enough to let you do better in the decline and take grater advantage of the rebound.”

“In periods that are relatively loss free, people tend to think of risk as volatility and become convinced they can live with it. If that were true, they would experience markdowns, invest more at the lows and go on to enjoy the recovery, coming out ahead in the long run. But if the ability to live with volatility and maintain one’s composure has been overestimated—and usually it has—that error tends to come to light when the market is a its nadir. Loss of confidence and resolve can cause investors to sell at the bottom, converting downward fluctuations into permanent losses and preventing them from participating fully in the subsequent recovery. This is the great error in investing—the most unfortunate aspect of pro-cyclical behavior—because of its permanence and because it tends to affect large portions of portfolios.”

“While it’s true that you can’t spend relative outperformance, human nature causes defensive investors and their less traumatized clients to derive comfort in down markets when they lose less than others. This has two very important effects. First, it enables them to maintain their equanimity and resist the psychological pressures that often make people sell at lows. Second, being in a better frame of mind and better financial condition, they are more able to profit from the carnage by buying at lows. Thus, they generally do better in recoveries.”

Volatility is not the true risk; the true risk lies in what investors do / how they behave during volatile periods.

Mistakes, Creativity, Psychology

“One type of analytical error…is what I call ‘failure of imagination’…being unable to conceive of the full range of possible outcomes or not fully understanding the consequences of the more extreme occurrences.”

“Another important pitfall…is the failure to recognize market cycles and manias and move in the opposite direction. Extremes in cycles and trends don’t occur often, and thus they’re not a frequent source of error, but they give rise to the largest errors.”

“…when the future stops being like the past, extrapolation fails and large amounts of money are either lost or not made…the success of your investment actions shouldn’t be highly dependent on normal outcomes prevailing; instead, you must allow for outliers…"

“…the third form of error doesn’t consist of doing the wrong thing, but rather of failing to do the right thing. Average investors are fortunate if they can avoid pitfalls, whereas superior investors look to take advantage of them…a different kind of mistake, an error of omission, but probably one most investors would be willing to live with.”

“The essential first step in avoiding pitfalls consists of being on the lookout for them…learning about pitfalls through painful experience is of only limited help. The key is to try to anticipate them…The markets are a classroom where lesson are taught every day. The keys to investment success lie in observing and learning.”

“The fascinating and challenging thing is that the error moves around. Sometimes prices are too high and sometimes they’re too low. Sometimes the divergence of prices from value affects individual securities or assets and sometimes whole markets – sometimes one market and sometimes another. Sometimes the error lies in doing something and sometimes in not doing it, sometimes in being bullish and sometimes in being bearish…avoiding pitfalls and identifying and acting on error aren’t susceptible to rules, algorithms, or roadmaps. What I would urge is awareness, flexibility, adaptability and a mind-set that is focused on taking cues from the environment.”

Correlation, Diversification, Risk

“There’s another important aspect of failure of imagination. Everyone knows assets have prospective returns and risks, and they’re possible to guess at. But few people understand asset correlation: how one asset will react to a change in another, or that two assets will react similarly to a change in a third. Understanding and anticipating the power of correlation – and thus the limitations of diversification – is a principal aspect of risk control and portfolio management, but it’s very hard to accomplish…Investors often fail to appreciate the common threads that run through portfolios.”

“Hidden fault lines running through portfolios can make the prices of seemingly unrelated assets move in tandem. It’s easier to assess the return and risk of an investment than to understand how it will move relative to others. Correlation is often underestimated, especially because of the degree to which it increases in crisis. A portfolio may appear to be diversified as to asset class, industry and geography, but in tough times, non-fundamental factors such as margin calls, frozen markets and a general risk in risk aversion can become dominant, affecting everything similarly.”

Hedging, Expected Return, Opportunity Cost, Fat Tail

“…a dilemma we have to navigate. How much time and capital should an investor devote to protecting against the improbable disaster? We can insure against every extreme outcome…But doing so will be costly, and the cost will detract form investment returns when that protection turns out not to have been needed…and that’ll be most of the time.”


Elementary Worldly Wisdom - Part 1


The following are portfolio management highlights extracted from a gem of a Munger speech given at USC 20 years ago in 1994. It’s long, but contains insights collected over many years by one of the world's greatest investment minds. Caustically humorous, purely Munger, it is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your day between browsing ESPN and TMZ. Creativity

“…the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.”

“The…basic approach…that Ben Graham used—much admired by Warren and me…this concept of value to a private owner...if you could take the stock price and multiply it by the number of shares and get something that was one third or less of sellout value, he would say that you've got a lot of edge going for you...

You had a huge margin of safety—as he put it—by having this big excess value going for you. But he was, by and large, operating when the world was in shell shock from the 1930s—which was the worst contraction in the English-speaking world in about 600 years...People were so shell-shocked for a long time thereafter that Ben Graham could run his Geiger counter over this detritus from the collapse of the 1930s and find things selling below their working capital per share and so on… 

…the trouble with what I call the classic Ben Graham concept is that gradually the world wised up and those real obvious bargains disappeared. You could run your Geiger counter over the rubble and it wouldn't click.

But such is the nature of people who have a hammer—to whom, as I mentioned, every problem looks like a nail that the Ben Graham followers responded by changing the calibration on their Geiger counters. In effect, they started defining a bargain in a different way. And they kept changing the definition so that they could keep doing what they'd always done. And it still worked pretty well. So the Ben Graham intellectual system was a very good one…

However, if we'd stayed with classic Graham the way Ben Graham did it, we would never have had the record we have. And that's because Graham wasn't trying to do what we did…having started out as Grahamites which, by the way, worked fine—we gradually got what I would call better insights. And we realized that some company that was selling at 2 or 3 times book value could still be a hell of a bargain because of momentums implicit in its position, sometimes combined with an unusual managerial skill plainly present in some individual or other, or some system or other.

And once we'd gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses…Much of the first $200 or $300 million came from scrambling around with our Geiger counter. But the great bulk of the money has come from the great businesses.”

“…Berkshire Hathaway's system is adapting to the nature of the investment problem as it really is.”

So much of life consists of identifying problems and finding creative solutions. This is also true for the investment business. Yet, our industry sometimes focuses so much on complying with the rules, chasing that institutional $ allocation, that we fail to consider the rationale and why the rules came into existence in the first place. Conventionality does not equate the best approach. 

The content and knowledge featured on PM Jar is far more useful to Readers when digested and synthesized into your own mental latticeworks. Liberal interpretations are encouraged. Great and unique ideas are usually the craziest (at first).


“…the reason why we got into such idiocy in investment management is best illustrated by a story that I tell about the guy who sold fishing tackle. I asked him, ‘My God, they're purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?’ And he said, ‘Mister, I don't sell to fish.’

Investment managers are in the position of that fishing tackle salesman. They're like the guy who was selling salt to the guy who already had too much salt. And as long as the guy will buy salt, why they'll sell salt. But that isn't what ordinarily works for the buyer of investment advice.

If you invested Berkshire Hathaway-style, it would be hard to get paid as an investment manager as well as they're currently paid—because you'd be holding a block of Wal-Mart and a block of Coca-Cola and a block of something else. You'd just sit there. And the client would be getting rich. And, after a while, the client would think, ‘Why am I paying this guy half a percent a year on my wonderful passive holdings?’

So what makes sense for the investor is different from what makes sense for the manager. And, as usual in human affairs, what determines the behavior are incentives for the decision maker.”

“Most investment managers are in a game where the clients expect them to know a lot about a lot of things. We didn't have any clients who could fire us at Berkshire Hathaway. So we didn't have to be governed by any such construct.”

Clients, Volatility, Trackrecord, Benchmark

“…if you're investing for 40 years in some pension fund, what difference does it make if the path from start to finish is a little more bumpy or a little different than everybody else's so long as it's all going to work out well in the end? So what if there's a little extra volatility.

In investment management today, everybody wants not only to win, but to have a yearly outcome path that never diverges very much from a standard path except on the upside. Well, that is a very artificial, crazy construct…It's the equivalent of what Nietzsche meant when he criticized the man who had a lame leg and was proud of it. That is really hobbling yourself. Now, investment managers would say, ‘We have to be that way. That's how we're measured.’ And they may be right in terms of the way the business is now constructed. But from the viewpoint of a rational consumer, the whole system's ‘bonkers’ and draws a lot of talented people into socially useless activity.”



PM Jar Exclusive Interview With Howard Marks - Part 2 of 5


Below is Part 2 of PM Jar's interview with Howard Marks, the co-founder and chairman of Oaktree Capital Management. In the excerpts below, Marks discusses his approach to the art of investing: transforming symmetrical inputs into asymmetric returns. Be sure to read Part 1: An Idea of What Is Enough. Part 2: Real World Considerations

“You shouldn’t care about volatility intellectually, but there are real world considerations.”

Marks: Client selection is important for professional money managers. You should tell them before they sign on what you’re going to do, what you’re not going to do, what you can do, what you can’t do. For example, we tell our clients, “When the markets boom, we’re not likely to beat the market. If that’s what you want, don’t come to us.” You can influence your probability of success with clients by putting effort into educating them. This way, they are ready for you to take contrarian actions (to buy aggressively when the world is collapsing and to sell aggressively when the world is soaring). I tell them what they can and can’t expect. The ones who don’t want what we can offer turn themselves away. Saying to every client “I can give you whatever you want” is not the foundation for a successful business.

PM Jar: Would you advocate diversification versus concentration of one’s client base?

Marks: I think it’s preferable that you don't have all your money from one client. That’s not a good business model.

PM Jar: In your book, you discuss volatility. When markets are good, people say they don’t care about short-term fluctuations. When things get bad, volatility becomes dangerous because of the impact it has on the human mind, causing people to do the wrong things like selling securities or redeeming from funds at the wrong time. Do you think fund managers have an obligation to keep clients from being their own worst enemy, such as trying to keep volatility lower in the portfolio so as not to cause clients to make irrational decisions? 

Marks: You shouldn’t care about volatility intellectually, but there are real world considerations. It’s very hard to predict volatility. You should only have an amount of risk in the portfolio that your clients can tolerate. It really comes down to the six-foot tall man crossing the river. If you stick your nose in the air and say, “I don’t care about how bad things might get in the interim,” you can subject your clients to risks they can’t afford, which can lead them to sell out at the bottom. On the other hand, what you’re describing is sub-optimizing, and doing clients a disservice by not pursuing the best returns. In a way, you have to do both.

If you have open-ended funds, one way to help your clients would be to hold their hands and keep them in the market so that they will not turn a downward fluctuation into a permanent loss by selling out at the bottom, and thus failing to participate in the recovery. If you have locked-in money, you don’t have to be worried.

No investment vehicle should promise its clients more liquidity than is afforded by the underlying assets. But a lot do. Each manager has to figure out, to his own satisfaction, what he should give the client that would represent doing a good job. One of things that we’ve always thought important is when operating in illiquid markets subject to bouts of chaos, it’s better to have locked-in money. Because then, you can do the right thing. We want to be able to do the right thing. And we want to help our clients do the right thing. 

Continue Reading — Part 3 of 5: The Intertwining Debate of Diversification and Concentration


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



Consequences of Contrarian Actions


Below are excerpts from a speech Bob Rodriguez of First Pacific Advisors gave in May 2009. Quite a few interesting lessons derived from his previous trials and tribulations in dealing with clients and redemptions during periods of contrarian actions and underperformance. Psychology

“I believe I have found success because I have been deeply aware of the need to balance the human emotions of greed and fear. In a word, DISCIPLINE…is a key attribute to becoming a successful investor. I stress that, without a strong set of fundamental rules or a core philosophy, they will be sailing a course through the treacherous investment seas without a compass or a rudder.”

AUM, Clients, Redemptions, Patience

“It seems as though it was a lifetime ago in 1986, when I had few assets under management, and the consultant to my largest account insisted that, if I wanted to continue the relationship, I had to pay to play. I was shocked, dismayed and speechless. Though this would probably have never become public, if I had agreed, how would I have ever lived with myself? By not agreeing, it meant that I would lose nearly 40% of my business. When I was fired shortly thereafter, this termination compromised my efforts in the raising of new money for nearly six years because I could not say why. Despite pain and humiliation, there was no price high enough for me to compromise my integrity. With the subsequent disclosure of improprieties at this municipal pension plan, the cloud of suspicion over me ultimately lifted. I not only survived, I prospered.”

“While technology and growth stock investing hysteria were running wild, we did not participate in this madness. Instead, we sold most of our technology stocks. Our ‘reward’ for this discipline was to watch FPA Capital Fund’s assets decline from over $700 million to just above $300 million, through net redemptions, while not losing any money for this period. We were willing to pay this price of asset outflow because we knew that, no matter what, our investment discipline would eventually be recognized. With our reputation intact, we then had a solid foundation on which we could rebuild our business. This cannot be said for many growth managers, or firms, who violated their clients’ trust.”

“Having the courage to be different comes at a steep price, but I believe it can result in deep satisfaction and personal reward. As an example, FPA Capital Fund has experienced heavy net redemptions since the beginning of 2007, totaling more than $700 million on a base of $2.1 billion. My strong conviction that an elevated level of liquidity was necessary, at one point reaching 45%, placed me at odds with many of our shareholders. I estimate that approximately 60% left because of this strategy…We have been penalized for taking precautionary measures leading up to and during a period of extraordinary risk. Though frustrating, in our hearts, we know that our long-term investment focus serves our clients well. I believe the words of John Maynard Keynes…‘Investment based on genuine long-term expectations is so difficult today as to be scarcely practicable,’ and ‘It is the long-term investor, he who most promotes the public interest, who will in practice come in for the most criticism wherever investment funds are managed by committees or boards or banks. For it is the essence of his behavior that he should be eccentric, unconventional, and rash in the eyes of average opinion.’

“I believe superior long-term performance is a function of a manager’s willingness to accept periods of short-term underperformance. This requires the fortitude and willingness to allow one’s business to shrink while deploying an unpopular strategy.”

As I write this, the world’s smallest violin is playing in the background, yet it must be said: what about clients violating a fund’s trust by redeeming capital at inopportune times to chase performance elsewhere? The trust concept flows both ways.

There will be times in every fund manager’s career when doing what you believe is right will trigger negative consequences. The key is anticipation, preparation, and patience.

Historical Performance Analysis, Luck, Process Over Outcome, Mistakes

“Let’s be frank about last year’s performance, it was a terrible one for the market averages as well as for mutual fund active portfolio managers. It did not matter the style, asset class or geographic region. In a word, we stunk. We managers did not deliver the goods and we must explain why. In upcoming shareholder letters, will this failure be chalked up to bad luck, an inability to identify a changing governmental environment or to some other excuse? We owe our shareholders more than simple platitudes, if we expect to regain their confidence.”

“If they do not reflect upon what they have done wrong in this cycle and attempt to correct their errors, why should their investors expect a different outcome the next time?”

Examine your historical performance not only to provide an explanation to your clients, but also to yourself. For example, was there anything that you could have done to avoid the “stink”?

Rodriquez mentions “bad luck.” During this reflective process (which ideally should occur during times of good and bad performance) it’s important to understand whether the returns resulted due to luck or to skill. See Michael Mauboussin & James Montier’s commentary on Process Over Outcome & Luck.

Psychology, When To Sell, When To Buy

“Investors have long memories, especially when they lose money. As an example, prior to FPA’s acquisition of FPA Capital Fund in July 1984, the predecessor fund was a poster child for bad performance from the 1960s era. Each time the fund hit a $10 NAV, it would get a raft of redemptions since this was its original issue price and investors thought they were now finally even and just wanted out.”

Anchoring is a powerful psychological bias that can compel investors to buy and sell for the wrong reasons, as well as to allow those who recognize the phenomenon to take advantage of the bad decisions of others.

Is the opposite true: investors have short memories when they’re make money?


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 13


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 13 “The Most Important Thing Is…Patient Opportunism” Selectivity, Patience, Cash

“…I want to…point out that there aren’t always great things to do, and sometimes we maximize our contribution by being discerning and relatively inactive. Patient opportunism – waiting for bargains – is often your best strategy.”

“…the investment environment is a given, and we have no alternative other than to accept it and invest within it…Among the value prized by early Japanese culture was mujo. Mujo was defined classically for me as recognition of ‘the turning of the wheel of the law,’ implying acceptance of the inevitability of change, of rise and fall…In other words, mujo means cycles will rise and fall, things will come and go, and our environment will change in ways beyond our control. Thus we must recognize, accept, cope, and respond. Isn’t that the essence of investing?...All we can do is recognize our circumstances for what they are and make the best decisions we can, given the givens.”

“Standing at the plate with the bat on your shoulders is Buffett’s version of patient opportunism. The bat should come off your shoulders when there are opportunities for profit with controlled risk., but only then. One way to be selective in this regard is by making every effort to ascertain whether we’re in a low-return environment or a high-return environment.”

In order to practice patient opportunism by implementing standards of selectivity, the investor must first have a method for recognizing & determining the best course of action based on risk-reward opportunities in the past, present, and future.

Selectivity, Clients

“Because they can’t strike out looking, investors needn’t feel pressured to act. They can pass up lot of opportunities until they see one that’s terrific…the only real penalty is for making losing investments…For professional investors paid to manage others’ money, the stakes are higher. If they miss too many opportunities, and if their returns are too low in good times, money managers can come under pressure from clients and eventually lose accounts. A lot depends on how clients have been conditioned.”  

One caveat to the "no called-strikes": clients. For some investors, the client base and permanency of capital will dictate whether or not there are called-strikes in this game. If your investment approach involves waiting for perfect pitches, make sure your clients agree, and double check the rulebook that there are indeed no called-strikes in this game!

Selectivity, Expected Return

“The motto of those who reach for return seems to be: ‘If you can’t get the return you need from safe investments, pursue it via risky investments.”

“It’s remarkable how many leading competitors from our early years as investors are no longer leading competitors (or competitors at all). While a number faltered because of flaws in their organization or business model, others disappeared because they insisted on pursuing high returns in low-return environments.

You simply cannot create investment opportunities when they’re not there. The dumbest thing you can do is to insist on perpetuating high returns – and give back your profits in the process. If it’s not there, hoping won’t make it so.”

Expected return (or future performance) is not a function of wishful thinking, it’s a function of the price you pay for an asset.

Historical Performance Analysis

“In Berkshire Hathaway’s 1977 Annual Report, Buffett talked about Ted Williams – the ‘Splendid Splinter’ – one of the greatest hitters in history. A factor contributed to his success was his intensive study of his own game. By breaking down the strike zone into 77 baseball-sized ‘cells’ and charting his results at the plate, he learned that his batting average was much better when he went after only pitches in his ‘sweet spot.’”

How many Readers have systematically studied your “own game” – the sources of investment performance – good and bad?

Because everyone’s “game” is different, I suspect this exercise will likely vary for each person. I would be curious to hear about the methodologies employed by Readers who conduct this review/analysis on a regular basis.

When To Buy, Liquidity

“The absolute best buying opportunities come when asset holders are forced to sell, and…present in large numbers. From time to time, holders become forced sellers for reasons like these:

  • The funds they manage experience withdrawls.
  • Their portfolio holdings violate investment guidelines such as minimum credit ratings or position maximums.
  • They receive margin calls because the value of their assets fails to satisfy requirements agreed to in contracts with their lenders…

They have a gun at their heads and have to sell regardless of price. Those last three words – regardless of price – are the most beautiful in the world if you’re on the other side of the transaction.”

“…if chaos is widespread, many people will be forced to sell at the same time and few people will be in a position to provide the required liquidity…In that case, prices can fall far below intrinsic value. The fourth quarter of 2008 provided an excellent example of the need for liquidity in times of chaos.”

Ultimately, it’s an imbalance in underlying market liquidity (too many sellers, not enough buyers) that creates bargains so that prices “fall far below intrinsic value.”


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.”



Buffett Partnership Letters: 1967 Part 2


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. For any business, tapping the right client base and keeping those clients happy is crucial. To do so, Buffett believed in the establishment of mutually agreed upon objectives, and keeping his clients abreast of any changes in those objectives.

In 1967, change was indeed in the air. In the passages below, Buffett candidly discusses the rationale and impact of these changes (in both his personal life and the market) with his clients. Such behavior in the investment management industry is rather rare, simply because it risks torpedoing an existing (and very lucrative) business model.


“…some evolutionary changes in several ‘Ground Rules’ which I want you to have ample time to contemplate before making your plans for 1968. Whereas the Partnership Agreement represents the legal understanding among us, the ‘Ground Rules’ represent the personal understanding and in some way is the more important document.”

“Over the past eleven years, I have consistently set forth as the BPL investment goal an average advantage in our performance of ten percentage points per annum in comparison with the Dow…The following conditions now make a change in yardsticks appropriate:

  1. The market environment has changed progressively over the past decade, resulting in a sharp diminution in the number of obvious quantitative based investment bargains available;
  2. Mushrooming interest…has created a hyper-reactive pattern of market behavior against which my analytical techniques have limited value; 
  3. The enlargement of our capital base to about $65 million when applied against a diminishing trickle of good investment ideas has continued to present…problems…;
  4. My own personal interests dictate a less compulsive approach to superior investment results than when I was younger and leaner.

“In my opinion what is resulting is speculation on an increasing scale. This is hardly a new phenomenon; however, a dimension has been added by the growing ranks of professional…investors who feel they must ‘get aboard’…To date it has been highly profitable…Nevertheless, it is an activity at which I am sure I would not do particularly well…It represents an investment technique whose soundness I can neither affirm nor deny. It does not completely satisfy my intellect (or perhaps my prejudices), and most definitely does not fit my temperament. I will not invest my own money based upon such an approach – hence, I will most certainly not do so with your money.

Any form of hyper-activity with large amounts of money in securities markets can create problems for all participants. I make no attempt to guess the actions of the stock market…Even if there are serious consequences results from present and future speculative activity, experience suggests estimates of timing are meaningless…

The above may simply be ‘old fogeyism’ (after all, I am 37). When the game is no longer being played your way, it is only human to say the new approach is all wrong, bound to lead to trouble, etc. I have been scornful of such behavior by others in the past. I have also seen the penalties incurred by those who evaluate conditions as they were – not as they are. Essentially, I am out of step with present conditions. On one point, however, I am clear. I will not abandon a previous approach whose logic I understand (although I find it difficult to apply) even though it may mean foregoing large, and apparently easy, profits to embrace an approach which I don’t fully understand, have not practiced successfully and which, possibly, could lead to substantial permanent loss of capital.”

Psychology, Benchmark

The final, and most important, consideration concerns personal motivation. When I started the partnership I set the motor that regulated the treadmill at ‘ten points better than the Dow.’ I was younger, poorer and probably more competitive. Even without the three previously discussed external factors making for poorer performance [see bullet points at top], I would still feel that changed personal conditions make it advisable to reduce the speed of the treadmill…

Elementary self-analysis tells me that I will not be capable of less than all-out effort to achieve a publicly proclaimed goal to people who have entrusted their capital to me. All-out effort makes progressively less sense…This may mean activity outside the field of investments or it simply may mean pursuing lines within the investment field that do not promise the greatest economic reward. An example of the latter might be the continued investment in a satisfactory (but far from spectacular) controlled business where I like the people and the nature of the business even though alternative investments offered an expectable higher rate of return. More money would be made buying businesses at attractive prices, then reselling them. However, it may be more enjoyable (particularly when the personal value of incremental capital is less) to continue to own them and hopefully improve their performance, usually in a minor way…

Specifically, our longer term goal will be to achieve the lesser of 9% per annum or a five percentage point advantage over the Dow. Thus, if the Dow averages -2% over the next five years, I would hope to average +3% but if the Dow averages +12%, I will hope to achieve an average of only 9%. These may be limited objectives, but I consider it no more likely that we will achieve even these more modest results under present conditions than I formerly did that we would achieve our previous goal of a ten percentage point average annual edge over the Dow.”

Shifting personal goals and life decisions can materially impact future returns.

Time Management

“When I am dealing with people I like, in businesses I find stimulating (what business isn’t), and achieving worthwhile overall returns on capital employed (say, 10-12%) it seems foolish to rush from situation to situation to earn a few more percentage points. It also does not seem sensible to me to trade known pleasant personal relationships with high grade people, at a decent rate of return, for possible irritation, aggravation or worse at potentially higher returns.”

We’ve heard of the concept of risk-adjusted return. But what about time or aggravation-adjusted return?

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.


Munger Wisdom: 2013 Daily Journal Meeting


Below are my personal notes (portfolio management highlights) from Charlie Munger’s Q&A Session during the 2013 Daily Journal Shareholders Meeting this Wednesday in Los Angeles. Opportunity Cost

After the meeting, I approached Munger to ask him about his thoughts on opportunity cost (a topic that he mentioned numerous times while answering questions, and in previous lectures and speeches).

His response: “Everyone should be thinking about opportunity cost all the time.”

During the Q&A session, Munger gave two investment examples in which he cites opportunity cost.

Bellridge Oil: During the the Wheeler-Munger partnership days, a broker called to offer him 300 shares of Bellridge Oil (trading at 20% of asset liquidation value). He purchased the shares. Soon after, the broker called again to offer him 1500 more shares. Munger didn’t readily have cash available to make the purchase and would have had to (1) sell another position to raise cash, or (2) use leverage. He didn’t want to do either and declined the shares. A year and a half later, Bellridge Oil sold for 35x the price at which the broker offered him the shares. This missed profit could have been rolled into Berkshire Hathaway.

Boston-based shoe supplier to JCPenney: One of the worst investments Berkshire made, for which they gave away 2% of Berkshire stock and received a worthless asset in return.

For both examples, opportunity cost was considered in the context of what "could have been" when combined with the capital compounding that transpired at Berkshire.

Making Mistakes, Liquidity

DRC (Diversified Retailing Company) was purchased by Munger & Buffett in the 1960s with a small bank loan and $6 million of equity. Munger owned 10% so contributed $600,000. But as soon as the ink dried on the contract, they realized that it wasn’t all that great a business due to “ghastly competition.” Their solution? Scrambled to get out as FAST as possible.

Related to this, be sure to read Stanley Druckenmiller’s thoughts on making mistakes and its relationship to trading liquidity (two separate articles).

Generally, humans are bad at admitting our mistakes, which then leads to delay and inaction, which is not ideal. Notice Druckenmiller and Munger come from completely different schools of investment philosophies, yet they deal with mistakes the exact same way – quickly – to allow them to fight another day. Liquidity just happens to make this process easier.

Another Munger quote related to mistakes: “People want hope.” Don’t ever let hope become your primary investment thesis.

“Treat success and failures just the same.” Be sure to “review stupidity,” but remember that it’s “perfectly normal to fail.”


Munger told story about press expansion – newspapers paying huge sums for other newspapers – relying largely on leverage given the thesis of regional market-share monopolies. Unfortunately, with technology, the monopolies thesis disintegrated, and the leverage a deathblow.

Perhaps the lesson here is that leverage is most dangerous when coupled with a belief in the continuation of historical status quo.

Luck, Creativity

The masterplan doesn’t always work. Some of life’s success stories derive from situations of people reacting intelligently to opportunities, fixing problems as they emerge, or better yet:

“Playing the big bass tuba in an open field when it happened to rain gold.”







Munger’s personal account had zero transactions in 2012.


On the decline of the General Motors: “prosperity made them weak.”

This is a lesson in hubris, and associated behavioral biases, that's definitely applicable to investment management. Investing, perhaps even more so than most businesses, is fiercely competitive. In this zero sum game, the moment we rest on the laurels of past performance success, and become overconfident etc., is the moment future performance decline begins.

Always be aware, and resist behavior slithering in that dangerous direction.


Berkshire had “two reasonable options” to deploy capital, into both public and private markets. Munger doesn’t understand why Berkshire’s model hasn’t been copied more often. It makes sense to have a flexible hybrid mandate (or structure) which allows for deployment of capital into wherever assets are most attractive or cheapest.

Clients, Time Management

Most people are too competitive – they want ALL business available, and sometimes end up doing things that are "morally beneath them," and/or abandon personal standards. Plus, general happiness should be a consideration as well.

The smartest people figure out what business they don’t want and avoid all together – which leads to foregoing some degree of business and profit – that’s absolutely okay. This is what he and Buffett have figured out and tried to do over time.

On doing what’s right: He and Buffett fulfill their fiduciary duty in that they “wanted people who we barely know who happen to buy the stock to do well.” Munger doesn’t think there are that many people in the corporate world who subscribe to this approach today.



Buffett Partnership Letters: 1966 Part 2


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Duration

“An even more dramatic example of the conflict between short term performance and the maximization of long term results occurred in 1966. Another party, previously completely unknown to me, issued a tender offer which foreclosed opportunities for future advantageous buying…If good ideas were dime a dozen, such a premature ending would not be so unpleasant…However, you can see how hard it is to develop replacement ideas…we came up with nothing during the remainder of the year despite lower stock prices, which should have been conducive to finding such opportunities.”

We previously wrote about “duration risk” for the equity investor in relation to Buffett’s 1965 letter:

“…duration risk is a very real annoyance for the minority equity investor, especially in rising markets. Takeout mergers may increase short-term IRR, but they can decrease overall cash on cash returns. Mergers also result in cash distributions for which minority investors must find additional redeployment options in a more expensive market environment.”

Here is Buffett openly articulating this exact problem one year later in 1966. While increased short-term returns are good, duration creates other unwanted headaches such as finding appropriate reinvestment opportunities.

Liquidity, When To Buy, When To Sell

“Who would think of buying or selling a private business because of someone’s guess on the stock market? The availability of a quotation for your business interest (stock) should always be an asset to be utilized if desired. If it gets silly enough in either direction, you take advantage of it. Its availability should never be turned into a liability whereby its periodic aberrations in turn formulate your judgments.

Market liquidity should be used as an advantage. It’s important to harness the power of liquidity in an effective & productive manner. Of course, leave it to us humans to turn something positive into a force of self-destruction!

Clients, When To Buy, When To Sell

Next time your clients ask you to time the market, be sure to read the following script prepared by Warren Buffett:

“I resurrect this ‘market-guessing’ section only because after the Dow declined from 995 at the peak in February to about 865 in May, I received a few calls from partners suggesting that they thought stocks were going a lot lower. This always raises two questions in my mind: (1) if they knew in February that the Dow was going to 865 in May why didn’t they let me in on it then; and (2) if they didn’t know what was going to happen during the ensuing three months back in February, how do they know in May? There is also a voice or two after any hundred point or so decline suggesting we sell and wait until the future is clearer. Let me again suggest two points: (1) the future has never been clear to me (give us a call when the next few months are obvious to you – or, for that matter, the next few hours); and, (2) no one ever seems to call after the market has gone up one hundred points to focus my attention on how unclear everything is, even though the view back in February doesn’t look so clear in retrospect.”

When To Buy, When To Sell

“We don’t buy and sell stocks based upon what other people think the stock market is going to do (I never have an opinion) but rather upon what we think the company is going to do. The course of the stock market will determine, to a great degree, when we will be right, but the accuracy of our analysis of the company will largely determine whether we will be right. In other words, we tend to concentrate on what should happen, not when it should happen.”

This is similar to Bruce Berkowitz’s comments about not predicting, but pricing.

In the last sentence, Buffett states that he only cares about “what should happen, not when it should happen.” Is this actually true? Buffett, of all people, understood very clearly the impact of time on annualized return figures. 

In fact, BPL’s return goal was 10% above the Dow annually. In order to achieve this, Buffett had to find investments that provided, on average, annual returns 10% greater than the Dow.


“Market price, while used exclusively to value our investments in minority positions, is not a relevant factor when applied to our controlling interests. When our holdings go above 50%, or a smaller figure if representing effective control, we own a business not a stock, and our method of valuation must therefore change. Under scoring this concept is the fact that controlling interests frequently sell at from 60% to 500% of virtually contemporaneous prices for minority holdings.”

There is such a thing as a control premium – theoretically.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1965 Part 3


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Control, Volatility

“When such a controlling interest is acquired, the assets and earnings power of the business become the immediate predominant factors in value. When a small minority interest in a company is held, earning power and assets are, of course, very important, but they represent an indirect influence on value which, in the short run, may or may not dominate the factors bearing on supply and demand which result in price.”

“Market price, which governs valuation of minority interest positions, is of little or no importance in valuing a controlling interest…When a controlling interest is held, we own a business rather than a stock and a business valuation is appropriate.”

Today, people often reference Buffett’s advice about owning a “business,” not just a “stock.” It’s interesting to note that a prerequisite, at the origin of this advice, involves having a “controlling interest.”

Only to investors with control, do earnings power and assets become the predominant determinants of value. Otherwise, for minority investors, outside factors (such as supply and demand) will impact price movement, which in turn will determine portfolio value fluctuations.

This is strangely similar to Stanley Druckenmiller’s advice: “Valuation only tells me how far the market can go once a catalyst enters the picture...The catalyst is liquidity.” Druckenmiller’s “catalyst” is Buffett’s “factors bearing on supply and demand which result in price.”

Control, Liquidity

“A private owner was quite willing (and in our opinion quite wise) to pay a price for control of the business which isolated stock buyers were not willing to pay for very small fractions of the business.

There’s a (theoretical) Control Premium. There’s also a (theoretical) Liquidity Premium. So (theoretically) the black sheep is the minority position that’s also illiquid.

Then again, all this theoretical talk doesn’t amount to much because investment success is price dependent. Even a minority illiquid position purchased at the right price could be vastly profitable.

Mark to Market, Subscriptions, Redemptions

“We will value our position in Berkshire Hathaway at yearend at a price halfway between net current asset value and book value. Because of the nature of our receivables and inventory this, in effect, amounts to valuation of our current assets at 100 cents on the dollar and our fixed assets at 50 cents on the dollar. Such a value, in my opinion, is fair to both adding and withdrawing partners. It may be either higher or lower than market value at the time.”

We discussed in the past the impact of mark to market decision, and why it’s relevant to those seeking to invest/redeem with/from fund vehicles that contain quasi-illiquid (or esoteric difficult to value) investments yet liquid subscriptions and redemption terms (e.g., hedge funds, certain ETFs and Closed End Funds). Click here, and scroll to section at bottom ,for more details.

Benchmark, Clients

“I certainly do not believe the standards I utilize (and wish my partners to utilize) in measuring my performance are the applicable ones for all money managers. But I certainly do believe anyone engaged in the management of money should have a standard of measurement, and that both he and the party whose money is managed should have a clear understanding why it is the appropriate standard, what time period should be utilized, etc.”

“Frankly I have several selfish reasons for insisting that we apply a yardstick and that we both utilize the same yardstick. Naturally, I get a kick out of beating part…More importantly, I ensure that I will not get blamed for the wrong reasons (having losing years) but only for the right reasons (doing poorer than the Dow). Knowing partners will grade me on the right basis helps me do a better job. Finally, setting up the relevant yardsticks ahead of time insures that we will all get out of this business if the results become mediocre (or worse). It means that past successes cannot cloud judgment of current results. It should reduce the chance of ingenious rationalizations of inept performance.”

Time Management, Team Management, Clients

“…our present setup unquestionably lets me devote a higher percentage of my time to thinking about the investment process than virtually anyone else in the money management business. This, of course, is the result of really outstanding personnel and cooperative partners.”

The skill set required for client servicing is completely different from the skills required for investment management. But unfortunately, most investors/funds have clients that require servicing.

Some are fortunate enough to have team resources that shoulder the majority of client obligations. Yet, the client component never disappears completely. Disappearance may be wishful thinking, though minimization is certainly a possibility.

Reflect upon your procedures and processes – what changes could you implement in order to make a claim similar to the one that Buffett makes above?



Buffett Partnership Letters: 1963 Part 1


Continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Clients, Leverage, Subscriptions, Redemptions

“We accept advance payments from partners and prospective partners at 6% interest from date of receipt until the end of the year…Similarly, we allow partners to withdraw up to 20% of their partnership account prior to yearend and charge them 6% from date of withdrawal until yearend…Again, it is not intended that partners use us like a bank, but that they use the withdrawal right for unanticipated need for funds.                                     

“Why then the willingness to pay 6% for an advance payment money when we can borrow from commercial banks at substantially lower rates? For example, in the first half we obtained a substantial six-month bank loan at 4%. The answer is that we except on a long-term basis to earn better than 6%...although it is largely a matter of chance whether we achieve the 6% figure in any short period. Moreover, I can adopt a different attitude in the investment of money that can be expected to soon be part of our equity capital than I can on short-term borrowed money.” 

“The advance payments have the added advantage to us of spreading the investment of new money over the year, rather than having it hit us all at once in January.”

Buffett allowed his investors annual windows for subscription and redemption (to add or withdraw capital). However, clients could withdraw capital early at 6% penalty. Clients could also add capital early and receive 6% return.

Paying investors 6% for their advance payments technically constitutes a form of leverage. However, as Buffett points out, not all forms of leverage are created equal. Margin lines are usually short-term with the amount of capital available constantly shifting, tied to value of underlying portfolio holdings which are usually marketable securities. Bank loans have limited duration until the debt must be repaid or terms renegotiated. In contrast to the two previous common forms of leverage, paying investors 6% (or whatever percentage depending on the environment) is most similar to long-term leverage with permanent terms (until the annual subscription window), since the capital will stay, converting from “debt” to an equity investment.

A friend recently relayed a story on Buffett giving advice to an employee departing to start his own fund. Apparently, it was a single piece of information: allow subscriptions and redemptions only one day per year.

The paperwork, etc. aside, I believe the true rationale behind this advice lies in the last quote shown above. Similar to how advance payments allowed Buffett the advantage of “spreading the investment of new money over the year,” having one subscription/redemption date would allow a portfolio manager to offset capital inflows against capital outflows, thereby decreasing the necessity of having to selling positions to raise liquidity for redemptions and scraping around for new ideas to deploy recent subscriptions. In other words, it minimizes the impact of subscriptions and redemptions on the existing portfolio.


Risk Free Rate, Fee Structure, Hurdle Rate

“…6% is more than can be obtained in short-term dollar secure investments by our partners, so I consider it mutually profitable.”

Not only was 6% the rate applicable to early redemptions or subscriptions, 6% was also the incentive fee hurdle rate, such that if the Partnership returned less than 6%, Buffett would not receive his incentive fee.

Based on the quote above, it would seem in 1963, 6% was approximately the risk free rate. Today (Aug 2012), the rate that can be “obtained in short-term dollar secure investments” is 1% at best.

Some funds still have minimum hurdle rate requirements built into incentive structure (I see this most commonly with private equity / long-term-commitment style vehicles). But most liquid vehicles (e.g., hedge funds) don’t have minimum hurdle rates determining whether they collect incentive fees in any given year.

This makes me wonder: why don’t most liquid funds vehicle fee structures have hurdle rates? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that, at a minimum, these funds should have an incentive fee hurdle rate equivalent to the risk-free-rate in any given year.



“A tremendous number of fuzzy, confused investment decisions are rationalized through so-called ‘tax considerations.’ My net worth is the market value of holdings less the tax payable upon sale. The liability is just as real as the asset unless the value of the asset declines (ouch), the asset is given away (no comment), or I die with it. The latter course of action would appear to at least border on a Pyrrhic victory. Investment decisions should be made on the basis of the most probably compounding of after-tax net worth with minimum risk.”

Taxes made simple by Warren Buffett.

Sadly, many investment funds today fail to consider tax consequences because the clients who matter (the large pensions and foundations) don’t pay taxes. So their smaller taxable clients suffer the consequences of this disregard.


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: 1962 Part 1


This is a continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters. Please see our previous articles for more details. There are 3 separate letters detailing the occurrences of 1962:

  • July 6, 1962 – interim (mid-year) letter
  • December 24, 1962 – brief update with preliminary tax instructions
  • January 18, 1963 – annual (year-end) letter

A slightly off tangent random fact: in 1962, Buffett into new office space stocked with – hold on to your knickers – “an ample supply of Pepsi on hand.”



“In outlining the results of investment companies, I do so not because we operate in a manner comparable to them or because our investments are similar to theirs. It is done because such funds represent a public batting average of professional, highly-paid investment management handling a very significant $20 billion of securities. Such management, I believe, is typical of management handling even larger sums. As an alternative to an interest in the partnership, I believe it reasonable to assume that many partners would have investments managed similarly.”

We’ve discussed in the past the importance of choosing a benchmark. It seems Buffett chose to benchmark himself against the Dow and a group of investment companies not because of similarities in style, but because they represented worthy competition (a group of smart, well-paid, people with lots of resources) and realistic alternatives to where Buffett’s clients would otherwise invest capital.


“Our job is to pile up yearly advantage over the performance of the Dow without worrying too much about whether the absolute results in a given year are a plus or a minus. I would consider a year in which we were down 15% and the Dow declined 25% to be much superior to a year when both the partnership and the Dow advanced 20%.”

Interestingly, the quote above implies that Buffett focused on relative, not absolute performance.



“Please keep in mind my continuing admonition that six-months’ or even one-year’s results are not to be taken too seriously. Short periods of measurement exaggerated chance fluctuations in performance… experience tends to confirm my hypothesis that investment performance must be judged over a period of time with such a period including both advancing and declining markets…While I much prefer a five-year test, I feel three years is an absolute minimum for judging performance…If any three-year or longer period produces poor results, we all should start looking around for other places to have our money.”

In other words, short-term performance doesn’t mean anything so don’t let it fool you into a false sense of investment superiority. A three-year trackrecord is the absolute minimum upon which results should be judged, although five or more years is best in Buffett’s opinion. Additionally, the last sentence seems to imply that Buffett was willing to shut down the Partnership if return goals were not met.


“If you will…shuffle the years around, the compounded result will stay the same. If the next four years are going to involve, say, a +40%, -30%, +10%, and -6%, the order in which they fall is completely unimportant for our purposes as long as we all are around all the end of the four years.”

Food for thought: the order of annual return occurrence doesn’t impact the final compounding result (as long as you stick around for all the years). Not sure what the investment implications are, just a fun fact I guess – one that makes total sense once Buffett has pointed it out. Basic algebra dictates that the sequential order of figures in a product function doesn’t change the result.


Clients, Time Management

“Our attorneys have advised us to admit no more than a dozen new partners (several of whom have already expressed their desire) and accordingly, we have increased the minimum amount for new names to $100,000. This is a necessary step to avoid a more cumbersome method of operation.”

“…I have decided to emphasize certain axioms on the first pages. Everyone should be entirely clear on these points…this material will seem unduly repetitious, but I would rather have nine partners out of ten mildly bored than have one out of ten with any basic misconceptions.”

Each additional moment spent on client management, is a moment less on investing.

Keeping down the number of clients keeps things simple operationally – at least according to Buffett. I have heard contradicting advice from some fund managers who claim to prefer a larger number of clients (something about Porter’s Five Forces related to Customer Concentration).

For his existing clients, Buffett smartly set ground rules and consistently reminded his clients of these rules, thereby dispelling any myths or incorrect notions and (hopefully) preventing future misunderstandings.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1961 Part 4


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?


Clients, Benchmark

“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.


Klarman-Zweig Banter: Part 1


Seth Klarman of Baupost is a great investor. Jason Zweig is a great writer. When combined, we get a great Klarman-Zweig Interview published Fall 2010 in the Financial Analyst Journal (Volume 66 Number 5) by the CFA Institute. Here is Part 1 of tidbits from that conversation. Part 2 is available here.


Graham and Dodd’s works help Klarman “think about volatility in marks as being in your favor rather than as a problem.” Volatility is a good thing because it creates opportunities and bargains.

Intrinsic Value, Exposure

“A tremendous disservice is perpetrated by the idea that stocks are for the long run” because most people don’t have enough staying power or a long time horizon to actually implement this belief. “The prevailing view has been that the market will earn a high rate of return if the holding period is long enough, but entry point is what really matters.”

“If we buy a bond at 50 and think it’s worth par in three years but it goes to 90 the year we bought it, we will sell it because the upside/downside has totally changed. The remaining return is not attractive compared with the risk of continuing to hold.”


Baupost does not sell short because the “market is biased upward over time…the street is biased toward the bullish side.” But this also means that there are more “low-hanging fruit on the short side.”


“We do not borrow money. We don’t use margin.” However, it should be pointed out that Baupost has substantial private real estate investments, many of which would employ leverage or financing. Perhaps it’s the non-recourse nature of real estate financing that distinguishes whether Klarman is willing to employ leverage. In addition, Baupost does engage in derivative transactions (such as interest rate options) that are quasi forms of leverage (e.g., premiums in return for large notional exposure).


The “inability to hold cash and the pressure to be fully invested at all times meant that when the plug was pulled out of the tub, all boats dropped as the water rushed down the drain.”

“We are never fully invested if there is nothing great to do…we always have cash available to take advantage of bargains – we now have about 30 percent cash across our partnerships – and so if clients ever feel uncomfortable with our approach, they can just take their cash back.”


“…probably number one in my mind most of the time – how to think about firm size and assets under management. Throughout my entire career, I have always thought size was a negative. Large size means small ideas can’t move the needle as much…As we entered the chaotic period of 2008…for the first time in eight years, we went to our wait list...We got a lot of interesting phone calls from people who needed to move merchandise in a hurry – some of it highly illiquid…So, to have a greater amount of capital available proved to be a good move.”

Returning Capital

“…I think returning cash is probably one of the keys to our future success in that it lets us calibrate our firm size so that we are managing the right amount of money, which isn’t necessarily the current amount of money.”


“Not only are actual redemptions a problem, but also the fear of redemptions, because the money manager’s behavior is the same in both situations.” In preparation for, or the mere threat of possible redemptions, may prompt a manager to start selling positions at exactly the wrong time in an effort to make the portfolio more liquid.


“Having great clients is the real key to investment success. It is probably more important than any other factor…We have emphasized establishing a client base of highly knowledgeable families and sophisticated institutions…”

Ideal clients have two characteristics:

  1. “…when we think we’ve had a good year, they will agree.”
  2. “…when we call to say there is an unprecedented opportunity set, we would like to know that they will at least consider adding capital rather than redeeming.”

“Having clients with that attitude allowed us to actively buy securities through the fall of 2008, when other money managers had redemptions and, in a sense, were forced not only to not buy but also to sell their favorite ideas when they knew they should be adding to them.”