Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 19


This concludes our series on portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 19 “The Most Important Thing Is…Adding Value” Trackrecord, Compounding, Capital Preservation

“It means relatively little that a risk taker achieves a high return in a rising market, or that a conservative investors is able to minimize losses in a decline. The real question is how they do in the long run and in climates for which their style is ill suited…Without skill, aggressive investors move a lot in both directions, and defensive investors move little in either direction

Aggressive investors with skill do well in bull markets but don’t’ give it all back in corresponding bear markets, while defensive investors with skill lose relatively little in bear markets but participate reasonably in bull markets. Everything in investing is a two-edged sword and operates symmetrically, with the exception of superior skill.”

“The performance of investors who add value is asymmetrical. The percentage of the market’s gain they capture is higher than the percentage of loss they suffer…Only skill can be counted on to add more in propitious environments than it costs in hostile ones. This is the investment asymmetry we seek.”

“In good years in the market, it’s good enough to be average. Everyone makes money in the good years...There is a time, however, when we consider it essential to beat the market, and that’s in the bad years…it’s our goal to do as well as the market when it does well and better than the market when it does poorly. At first blush that may sound like a modest goal, but it’s really quite ambitious. In order to stay up with the market when it does well, a portfolio has to incorporate good measure of beta and correlation with the market. But if we’re aided by beta and correlation on the way up, shouldn’t they be expected to hurt us on the way down? If we’re consistently able to decline less when the market declines and also participate fully when the market rises, this can be attributable to only one thing: alpha, or skill…Asymmetry – better performance on the upside than on the downside relative to what our style alone would produce – should be every investor’s goal.”

For more on the topic of asymmetry, be sure to check out our article titled “Asymmetry Revisited


“A portfolio with a beta above 1 is expected to be more volatile than the reference market, and a beta below 1 means it’ll be less volatile. Multiply the market return by the beta and you’ll get the return that a given portfolio should be expected to achieve…If the market is up 15 percent, a portfolio with a beta of 1.2 should return 18 percent (plus or minus alpha).”

We often find common threads between different investors. For example, there is evidence that Buffett was thinking about expected beta as early as the 1950s and 1960s (back in the day when he did not have permanent capital) -- see our articles on Buffett Partnership Letters and Volatility.

Expected Return, Risk

“Although I dismiss the identity between risk and volatility, I insist on considering a portfolio’s return in the light of its overall riskiness…A manager who earned 18 percent with a risky portfolio isn’t necessarily superior to one who earned 15 percent with a lower-risk portfolio. Risk-adjusted return holds the key, even though – since risk other than volatility can’t be quantified – I feel it is best assessed judgmentally, not calculated scientifically.”

“‘beating the market’ and ‘superior investing’ can be far from synonymous…It’s not just your return that matters, but also what risk you took to get it…”

Opportunity Cost, Benchmark

“…all equity investors start not with a blank sheet of paper but rather with the possibility of simply emulating an index...investors can decide to deviates from the index in order to exploit their stock-picking ability…In doing so they will alter the exposure of their portfolio to…price movements that affect only certain stocks, not the index…their return will deviate as well."

We are all faced with this choice that, at a minimum, we can emulate an index. If we choose not to, it’s because we believe we can generate outperformance via higher returns and same risk, similar returns at lower risk, or higher returns at lower risk. If we cannot accomplish any of the above, then we have failed to do better than an index (and failed to add value as investors). But if we did not have an index or benchmark against which to measure progress, how would we know whether we have succeeded or failed?



Elementary Worldly Wisdom – Part 2


The following is Part 2 of 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. Expected Return, Selectivity, Sizing, When To Buy

“…the one thing that all those winning betters in the whole history of people who've beaten the pari-mutuel system have is quite simple: they bet very seldom… the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don't. It's just that simple.

…yet, in investment management, practically nobody operates that way…a huge majority of people have some other crazy construct in their heads. And instead of waiting for a near cinch and loading up, they apparently ascribe to the theory that if they work a little harder or hire more business school students, they'll come to know everything about everything all the time.”

“How many insights do you need? Well, I'd argue: that you don't need many in a lifetime. If you look at Berkshire Hathaway and all of its accumulated billions, the top ten insights account for most of it. And that's with a very brilliant man—Warren's a lot more able than I am and very disciplined—devoting his lifetime to it. I don't mean to say that he's only had ten insights. I'm just saying, that most of the money came from ten insights.

So you can get very remarkable investment results if you think more like a winning pari-mutuel player. Just think of it as a heavy odds-against game full of craziness with an occasional mispriced something or other. And you're probably not going to be smart enough to find thousands in a lifetime. And when you get a few, you really load up. It's just that simple…

Again, this is a concept that seems perfectly obvious to me. And to Warren it seems perfectly obvious. But this is one of the very few business classes in the U.S. where anybody will be saying so. It just isn't the conventional wisdom.

To me, it's obvious that the winner has to bet very selectively. It's been obvious to me since very early in life. I don't know why it's not obvious to very many other people.”

“…investment management…is a funny business because on a net basis, the whole investment management business together gives no value added to all buyers combined. That's the way it has to work…I think a select few—a small percentage of the investment managers—can deliver value added. But I don't think brilliance alone is enough to do it. I think that you have to have a little of this discipline of calling your shots and loading up—you want to maximize your chances of becoming one who provides above average real returns for clients over the long pull.”

“…huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit back and wait: You're paying less to brokers. You're listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the governmental tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded.”

Tax, Compounding, When To Sell

“Another very simple effect I very seldom see discussed either by investment managers or anybody else is the effect of taxes. If you're going to buy something which compounds for 30 years at 15% per annum and you pay one 35% tax at the very end, the way that works out is that after taxes, you keep 13.3% per annum.

In contrast, if you bought the same investment, but had to pay taxes every year of 35% out of the 15% that you earned, then your return would be 15% minus 35% of 15%—or only 9.75% per year compounded. So the difference there is over 3.5%. And what 3.5% does to the numbers over long holding periods like 30 years is truly eye-opening. If you sit back for long, long stretches in great companies, you can get a huge edge from nothing but the way that income taxes work.

Even with a 10% per annum investment, paying a 35% tax at the end gives you 8.3% after taxes as an annual compounded result after 30 years. In contrast, if you pay the 35% each year instead of at the end, your annual result goes down to 6.5%. So you add nearly 2% of after-tax return per annum if you only achieve an average return by historical standards from common stock investments in companies with tiny dividend payout ratios.

…business mistakes that I've seen over a long lifetime, I would say that trying to minimize taxes too much is one of the great standard causes of really dumb mistakes. I see terrible mistakes from people being overly motivated by tax considerations.”

Diversification, Hedging

“…one of the greatest economists of the world is a substantial shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and has been for a long time. His textbook always taught that the stock market was perfectly efficient and that nobody could beat it. But his own money went into Berkshire and made him wealthy…he hedged his bet.”

If you can hedge without negative consequences, do it. It's likely that the economist's investment in Berkshire was not public knowledge.


Wisdom From James Montier


I have a confession to make: I have a huge crush on James Montier. I think the feeling might be mutual (see picture below, from a signed copy of his book Value Investing: Tools and Techniques for Intelligent Investment.) Jokes aside, below are some fantastic bits from his recent essay titled “No Silver Bullets.”






Risk, Correlation

“…private equity looks very much like public equity plus leverage minus a shed load of costs…hedge funds as an ‘asset class’ look like they are doing little more than put selling! In fact, I’d even go as far as to say if you can’t work that out, you probably shouldn’t be investing; you are a danger to yourself and to others!

The trick to understanding risk factors is to realize they are nothing more than a transformation of assets. For instance, what is the ‘equity risk?’ It is defined as long equities/short cash. The ‘value’ risk factor is defined as long cheap stocks/short expensive stocks. Similarly, the ‘momentum’ risk factor is defined as long stocks that have gone up, and short stocks that have done badly. ‘Carry’ is simply long high interest rate currencies/short low rate currencies. Hopefully you have spotted the pattern here: they are all long/short combinations.”

Proper investing requires an understanding of the exact bet(s) that you are making, and correct anticipation of the inherent risks and correlated interactivity of your holdings. This means going beyond the usual asset class categorizations, and historical correlations. For example, is a public REIT investment real estate, equity, or interest rate exposure?

For further reading on this, check out this article by Andy Redleaf of Whitebox in which he discusses the importance of isolating bets so that one does not end up owning stupid things on accident. (Ironic fact: Redleaf and Montier have butted heads in the recent past on the future direction of corporate margins.)


“…when dealing with risk factors you are implicitly letting leverage into your investment process (i.e., the long/short nature of the risk factor). This is one of the dangers of modern portfolio theory – in the classic unconstrained mean variance optimisation, leverage is seen as costless (both in implementation and in its impact upon investors)…

…leverage is far from costless from an investor’s point of view. Leverage can never turn a bad investment into a good one, but it can turn a good investment into a bad one by transforming the temporary impairment of capital (price volatility) into the permanent impairment of capital by forcing you to sell at just the wrong time. Effectively, the most dangerous feature of leverage is that it introduces path dependency into your portfolio.

Ben Graham used to talk about two different approaches to investing: the way of pricing and the way of timing. ‘By pricing we mean the endeavour to buy stocks when they are quoted below their fair value and to sell them when they rise above such value… By timing we mean the endeavour to anticipate the action of the stock market…to sell…when the course is downward.’

Of course, when following a long-only approach with a long time horizon you have to worry only about the way of pricing. That is to say, if you buy a cheap asset and it gets cheaper, assuming you have spare capital you can always buy more, and if you don’t have more capital you can simply hold the asset. However, when you start using leverage you have to worry about the way of pricing and the way of timing. You are forced to say something about the path returns will take over time, i.e., can you survive a long/short portfolio that goes against you?”

Volatility, Leverage

“As usual, Keynes was right when he noted ‘An investor who proposes to ignore near-term market fluctuations needs greater resources for safety and must not operate on so large a scale, if at all, with borrowed money.’”

Expected Return, Intrinsic Value

“...the golden rule of investing holds: ‘no asset (or strategy) is so good that it can it be purchased irrespective of the price paid.’”

“Proponents of risk parity often say one of the benefits of their approach is to be indifferent to expected returns, as if this was something to be proud of…From our perspective, nothing could be more irresponsible for an investor to say he knows nothing about expected returns. This is akin to meeting a neurosurgeon who confesses he knows nothing about the way the brain works. Actually, I’m wrong. There is something more irresponsible than not paying attention to expected returns, and that is not paying attention to expected returns and using leverage!”

Hedging, Expected Return

“…whenever you consider insurance I’ve argued you need to ask yourself the five questions below:

  1. What risk are you trying to hedge?
  2. Why are you hedging?
  3. How will you hedge?
    • Which instruments will work?
    • How much will it cost?
  4. From whom will you hedge?
  5. How much will you hedge?”

“This is a point I have made before with respect to insurance – it is as much a value proposition as anything else you do in investment. You want insurance when it is cheap, and you don’t want it when it is expensive.”

Trackrecord, Compounding

“…one of the myths perpetuated by our industry is that there are lots of ways to generate good long-run real returns, but we believe there is really only one: buying cheap assets.”


Asymmetry Revisited


Return asymmetry is a topic that emerges over and over again on PM Jar. It’s a topic that spans across investments strategies and philosophies (see the end of this article for links to previous PM Jar articles on return asymmetry). This is no coincidence – creating (positive) return asymmetry over time is the hallmark of great investors. So why is it so important to achieve positive return asymmetry (through decreasing the number of left tail / negative return occurrences)? Because positive return asymmetry saves investors from wasting valuable time and effort digging out of the negative return hole (compounding math is not symmetric: losing 50% in one period requires gaining 100% in the next period just to breakeven). This holds true for all investors, regardless of investment strategy and philosophy, hence why the theme of return asymmetry comes up so often.

Our last article on Howard Marks discussing the ability of a fund manager to outperform and add-value by reducing risk reminded me of article that a kind Reader sent me earlier this summer (Comgest Commentary 2013 July) in which the author describes with refreshing clarity the importance of creating positive return asymmetry and the interplay between compounding, capital preservation, and risk management. Compounding, Capital Preservation, Trackrecord

“The Asymmetry of Returns Dictates the Compounding of Returns:

Berkshire Hathaway CEO and legendary investor Warren Buffett is often quoted as saying, “Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.” But why are these the most important two (well, one) rules of investing? The answer lies in the inherent asymmetry of returns, which is the basis for how returns compound over time.

If you start with $100 and subsequently gain 10% and then lose 10%, it may be surprising that you don’t end up back with the same $100 you had at the beginning. The reason is that your 10% loss hurt more, because it came off the larger asset base you had after your 10% gain. In sequence: $100 → gain 10% ($10) → $110 → lose 10% ($11) → $99. You can reverse the order of the gain and loss and the end result is still the same: $100 → $90 → $99, where your percentage loss is still based on a higher amount of capital than is your percentage gain. The end result is a net loss of 1%, hence the asymmetry – gains and losses of equal percentages have different impacts. As your returns swings get larger, this effect becomes more pronounced. For instance, starting with $100 and then gaining/losing 20% leaves you with a net loss of 4%, while gaining/losing 50% leaves you with a net loss of 25%. At the extreme, gaining/losing 100% leaves you with a net loss of 100% – all your capital, resulting on complete ruin. It doesn’t matter what any of the other payoffs are for someone who at any one point loses his or her entire bankroll.

Another way to look at this is to see what kind of return is necessary to get back to even after a loss. If you lose 10%, you need an 11% gain to get back to even. If you lose 20%, you need a 25% gain to close the gap. Losing 50% requires a doubling of your money, while losing 90% means you need a 900% return (!) to compensate. While 100% losses are rare in equity portfolios and thus true ruin is unlikely, this exercise shows how large losses cripple the long-term returns of a portfolio.”

“...the goal is to avoid an 'extinction' event, which I’ve put in quotes because extinction for an investment portfolio doesn’t only mean complete disappearance. It can also be seen as irreparable damage to a long-term track record.”


“Risk Management and Higher Math Are Not Natural Partners:

…The prevailing view of risk management in today’s investment world seems to be that it must be done with a lot of math and only a set of numbers, preferably from a complicated model, can describe an approach to risk. That’s just not how we see it. Instead, we think understanding the companies’ profitability characteristics is a far more effective way to understand the risk embedded in a portfolio. We side with James Montier, who wrote, “The obsession with the quantification of risk (beta, standard deviation, VaR) has replaced a more fundamental, intuitive, and important approach to the subject. Risk clearly isn’t a number. It is a multifaceted concept, and it is foolhardy to try to reduce it to a single figure.” Even the revered father of modern security analysis, Benjamin Graham, tips his cap to a more fundamental and less market-price-driven approach to risk: “Real investment risk is measured… by the danger of a loss of quality and earnings power through economic changes or deterioration in management.” It’s important to realize that our view of risk is at the fundamental security level, while standard industry risk models start from price volatility and covariance matrices, which are market-level inputs. In other words, we focus on what’s happening in the business, not what’s going on in the market, to understand risk. We think that our approach to risk management, that of decreasing the left tail of the distribution of potential outcomes by buying quality stocks is a more time-tested approach that runs a far lower risk of model specification error.”

In case you'd like some related reading, here is what Howard Marks, Stanley Druckenmiller, Warren Buffett, and others have said about return asymmetry.


Mauboussin on Position Sizing


Below are excerpts from an article written by Michael Mauboussin in 2006 on the importance of position sizing (Size Matters). For fans of the Kelly formula, this is a must-read. Mauboussin highlights a few very important flaws of the Kelly formula when applied to our imperfect, non-normally distributed world of investing. Sizing, Diversification

“To suppose that safety-first consists in having a small gamble in a large number of different [companies] where I have no information to reach a good judgment, as compared with a substantial stake in a company where one’s information is adequate, strikes me as a travesty of investment policy. -- John Maynard Keynes, Letter to F.C. Scott, February 6, 1942”

“As an investor, maximizing wealth over time requires you to do two things: find situations where you have an analytical edge; and allocate the appropriate amount of capital when you do have an edge. While Wall Street dedicates a substantial percentage of time and effort trying to gain an edge, very few portfolio managers understand how to size their positions to maximize long-term wealth.”

“Position size is extremely important in determining equity portfolio returns. Two portfolio managers with the same list and number of stocks can generate meaningfully different results based on how they allocate the capital among the stocks. Great investors don’t stop with finding attractive investment opportunities; they know how to take maximum advantage of the opportunities. As Charlie Munger says, good investing combines patience and aggressive opportunism.”

This is consistent with my belief that investors can differentiate himself/herself from the pack by going beyond security selection, and applying superior portfolio management tactics.

Sizing, Expected Return, Fat Tails, Compounding, Correlation

“We can express the Kelly formula a number of ways. We’ll follow Poundstone’s exposition: Edge / Odds = F

Here, edge is the expected value of the financial proposition, odds reflect the market’s expectation for how much you win if you win, and F represents the percentage of your bankroll you should bet. Note that in an efficient market, there is no edge because the odds accurately represent the probabilities of success. Hence, bets based on the market’s information have zero expected value (this before the costs associated with betting) and an F of zero…if there is a probability of loss, even with a positive expected value economic proposition, betting too much reduces your expected wealth.”

"Though basic, this illustration draws out two crucial points for investors of all stripes: • An intelligent investor needs an edge (a view different than that of the market); and • An investor needs to properly allocate capital to maximize value when an investment idea does appear."

“In the stock market an investor faces many more outcomes than a gambler in a casino…Know the distribution. Long-term stock market investing differs from casino games, or even trading, because outcomes vary much more than a simple model suggests. Any practical money management system faces the challenge of correcting for more complicated real-world distributions. Substantial empirical evidence shows that stock price changes do not fall along a normal distribution. Actual distributions contain many more small change observations and many more large moves than the simple distribution predicts. These tails play a meaningful role in shaping total returns for assets, and can be a cause of substantial financial pain for investors who do not anticipate them.”

“…the central message for investors is that standard mean/variance analysis does not deal with the compounding of investments. If you seek to compound your wealth, then maximizing geometric returns should be front and center in your thinking…For a geometric mean maximization system to work, an investor has to participate in the markets over the long term. In addition, the portfolio manager must be able to systematically identify investment edges—points of view different than that of the market and with higher expected returns. Finally, since by definition not all market participants can have an edge, not all investors can use a Kelly system. In fact, most financial economists believe markets to be efficient. For them, a discussion of optimal betting strategy is moot because no one can systematically gain edges.”

Notice in order for the Kelly Formula to work effectively, the devil (as usual) lies in the details. Get the odds wrong, or get the edge wrong, the sizing allocation will be wrong, which can reduce your expected wealth.

Another question that I’ve been pondered is how the Kelly formula/criterion accounts for correlation between bets. Unlike casino gambling, probability outcomes in investing are often not independent events.

Psychology, Volatility

“The higher the percentage of your bankroll you bet (f from the Kelly formula) the larger your drawdowns.

Another important lesson from prospect theory—and a departure from standard utility theory—is individuals are loss averse. Specifically, people regret losses roughly two to two and a half times more than similar-sized gains. Naturally, the longer the holding period in the stock market the higher the probability of a positive return because stocks, in aggregate, have a positive expected value. Loss aversion can lead investors to suboptimal decisions, including the well-documented disposition effect.

Investors checking their portfolios frequently, especially volatile portfolios, are likely to suffer from myopic loss aversion. The key point is that a Kelly system, which requires a long-term perspective to be effective, is inherently very difficult for investors to deal with psychologically.”

“Applying the Kelly Criterion is hard psychologically. Assuming you do have an investment edge and a long-term horizon, applying the Kelly system is still hard because of loss aversion. Most investors face institutional and psychological constraints in applying a Kelly-type system.”


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1968 & 1969


During 1969, the Partnership transitioned into Berkshire Hathaway. Therefore this concludes our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters. Please see our previous articles in this series. Control, Hurdle Rate, Compounding, When To Sell

“…controlled companies (which represent slightly over one-third of net assets at the beginning of the year)…we cannot make the same sort of money out of permanent ownership of controlled businesses that can be made from buying and re-selling such businesses, or from skilled investment in marketable securities. Nevertheless, they offer a pleasant long term form of activity (when conducted in conjunction with high grade, able people) at satisfactory rates of return.”

“Particularly outstanding performances were turned in by Associated Cotton Shops, a subsidiary of DRC run by Ben Rosner, and National Indemnity Company, a subsidiary of B-H run by jack Ringwalt. Both of these companies earned about 20% on capital employed in their businesses.”

We’ve previously written that portfolio capital compounding can be achieved in multiple ways:

  • “Compounding can be achieved by the portfolio manager / investor when making investments, which then (hopefully) appreciates in value, and the repetition of this cycle through the reinvestment of principal and gains. However, this process is limited by time, resources, availability of new ideas to reinvest capital, etc.”
  • Compounding can be achieved by operating entities owned in the portfolio by “reinvesting past earnings back into the same business (or perhaps new business lines). In this respect, the operating business has an advantage over the financial investor, who must constantly search for new opportunities.”

In the quotes above, Buffett was referring to the latter method.

Toward the end of the Partnership, Buffett struggled with the continuous churn & reinvestment process as prices in the marketplace rose and rendered good capital reinvestment opportunities difficult to find. Enter the attractiveness of leaving capital with operating entities (in which he had a controlling stake) that can generate profits (compound) & reinvestment capital, at “satisfactory rates of return,” without Buffett having to watch too closely (provided he found “high grade, able people” to oversee these control investments).

Buffett seemed agnostic between the two as long as the control situations produced “satisfactory rates of return.” As always, the devil lies in the details: what is a “satisfactory rate of return”? Was this figure Buffett’s mental hurdle rate?

Nevertheless, this serves as an useful reminder to investors today that the process of buying and selling assets is not the only way to compound and generate portfolio returns. In fact, sometimes it’s better to hold on to an asset, especially when good reinvestment opportunities are rare.

Process Over Outcome

“It is possible for an old, over-weight ball player, whose legs and batting eye are gone, to tag a fast ball on the nose for a pinch-hit home run, but you don’t change your line-up because of it.”

AUM, Sizing

“…our $100 million of assets further eliminates a large portion of this seemingly barren investment world, since commitments of less than about $3 million cannot have a real impact on our overall performance, and this virtually rules out companies with less than about $100 million of common stock at market value…”

Returning Capital

For those searching for language related to returning capital, the letter dated May 29th, 1969 is a must read.



The Inner vs. Outer Scorecard


We all have egos in the psychological sense – defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” It’s the degree that denotes the positive or negative association that’s often attached to the term “ego.” There are two passages below, one from Howard Marks and the other from Warren Buffett, that share a common denominator: the role of ego upon an individual’s investment philosophy & decisions.

Howard Marks (The Most Important Thing, Chapter 10):

“…thoughtful investors can toil in obscurity, achieving solid gains in the good years and losing less than others in the bad. They avoid sharing in the riskiest behavior because they’re so aware of how much they don’t know and because they have their egos in check. This, in my opinion, is the greatest formula for long-term wealth creation – but it doesn’t provide much ego gratification in the short-term. It’s just not that glamorous to follow a path that emphasizes humility, prudence, and risk control. Of course, investing shouldn’t be about glamour, but often it is.”

Warren Buffett (The Snowball, Chapter 3):

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. I always posed it this way. I say: ‘Lookit. Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?’ Now that’s an interesting question.

Here’s another one. If the world couldn’t see your results, would you rather be thought of as the world’s greatest investor but in reality have the world’s worst record? Or be thought of as the world’s worst investor when you were actually the best?

In teaching your kids, I think the lesson they’re learning at a very, very early age is what their parents put the emphasis on. If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll end up with an Outer Scorecard. Now, my dad: He was a hundred percent Inner Scorecard guy.

He was really a maverick. But he wasn’t a maverick for the sake of being a maverick. He just didn’t care what other people thought. My dad taught me how life should be lived…”

Also, notice Marks’ statement that the best method of wealth creation is capturing portfolio return (volatility) asymmetry: “solid gains in the good years [compounding] and losing less than others [capital preservation] in the bad.” I think Buffett would agree with this approach - see Buffett 1966 Part 1 article. 


Baupost Letters: 1997


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.

Mandate, Trackrecord, Expected Return

For the past several years, Klarman had invested heavily into Baupost’s international efforts/infrastructure because he believed that opportunities in the U.S. marketplace were less attractive than those found abroad, due to increased competition and higher market valuations.

Did Baupost’s flexible investment mandate give it an advantage in trackrecord creation and return generation?

For example, a healthcare fund cannot start investing in utilities because the latter provides better risk-reward, whereas Baupost can invest wherever risk-reward is most attractive.

The trackrecord creation and return generation possibilities for those with more restrictive mandates are bound by the opportunities available within the mandate scope. Baupost, on the other hand, has the freedom to roam to wherever pastures are greenest.

Cash, Expected Return, Risk Free Rate

In the category of largest gains, there was a $2.2MM gain for “Yield on Cash and Cash Equivalents” which at the end of Fiscal Year 1997 (October 31, 1997) consisted of $39MM or 25.5% of NAV.

In 1997, cash earned 5-6% ($2.2MM divided by $39MM) annually, in drastic contrast to virtually nothing today. I point this out as a reminder that historically, and perhaps one day in the future, cash does not always yield zero. In fact, cash interest rates are often highest during bull markets when it’s most prudent to keep a higher cash balance as asset values increase.

For those who fear the performance drag from portfolio cash balances, or those who feel the pressure to “chase” yield in order to boost portfolio returns, this serves as a reminder that cash returns are not static throughout the course of a market cycle.

Hedging, Cash

At 10/31/97, value of “Market Hedges” was $2.0MM, or 1.4% of NAV. Hedges were also the source of his second largest loss that year, declining $2.1MM in value.

That’s a whole lot of premium bleed worth $2.0MM or ~1.5% of NAV! Interestingly, this is almost the exact gain from portfolio cash yields (see above). Coincidence?

If you believe that the phenomenon of the last 20 years will continue to hold – that interest rates will increase as the underlying economy recovers and equity markets move higher, then one can roughly use interest rates (and consequently portfolio cash yields) as a proxy to determine how much hedging premium to spend.

Theoretically, this should be a self-rebalancing process: higher cash yields in bull equity markets = more hedging premium to spend (when you need it most) vs. lower cash yields in bear equity markets = less hedging premium to spend (when you need it least).

Cash, Opportunity Cost

Klarman comments that cash provides protection in turbulent times and ammunition to take advantage of newly created opportunities, but the act of holding cash involves considerable opportunity cost in the form of foregoing attractive investments in the interim – but investors must keep in mind they cannot earn investment returns without actually investing.

After a temporary hiccup in the markets, Klarman discusses portfolio repositioning: adding to some positions while reducing or deleting others, to take advantage of the shifts in the market landscape.

It’s a delicate balance determining when to deploy capital, and when to hold it in the form of cash. You can’t run an investment management business holding cash forever – that would make you a checking account with extremely high fees.

The second point serves as an excellent reminder that the “opportunity cost” calculation involves not only the comparison between cash and a potential investment, but also between a potential investment and current portfolio holdings.

Derivatives, Leverage

Klarman held a wide variety of options and swaps in his portfolio, such as SK Telecom equity & swaps, Kookmin Bank equity and swaps, etc.

In Klarman’s writings, you’ll generally find warnings against using leverage, and equity swaps definitely constitute leverage. I wonder if the derivative swaps were a product of his interest in emerging markets. For example, perhaps Baupost was not able to trade directly in certain markets, and therefore utilized swaps to gain exposure through a counterparty authorized to trade in those countries.

When To Buy

In a market downturn, momentum investors cannot find momentum, growth investors worry about a slowdown, and technical analysts don’t like their charts.

In extreme market downside events, patterns & trends in liquidity, trading volume, sales growth, etc. – that may have existed for years – disintegrate. Therefore, investors who rely on those patterns and trends become disoriented, which then fuels and reinforces more market chaos. This is what we witnessed in 2008-2009, and the time for fundamental investors, and those with intuition and foresight, to shine.

Capital Preservation, Compounding,

Over time, by again and again avoiding loss, you have taken the first step toward achieving healthy gains.


Toward the end of the December 1997 letter, Klarman praises his team of analysts and traders who, like himself, hate to lose money, even temporarily, for any reason at any time.

So let it be written! Klarman acknowledges that he doesn’t like to lose money, even temporarily in the form of volatility. 


A Little Bit of History Repeating


In 1977, Warren Buffett wrote an article for Fortune Magazine titled “How Inflation Swindles the Equity Investor.” In the article, Buffett outlines the parallels between equities and bonds, and the impact of interest rates & inflation movements on both asset classes.

Given the interest rate and inflation debate raging today, I thought it worthwhile to revisit and study what had transpired in the past.

Interestingly, if we applied the lessons of this 1977 article to today's environment, contrary to the article’s title, it actually bodes well for future equity prices (see bold below), especially those companies compounding and reinvesting earnings rather than paying dividends.

Inflation, Duration, Compounding, Opportunity Cost

“It is no longer a secret that stocks, like bonds, do poorly in an inflationary environment…When the value of the dollar deteriorates month after month, a security with income and principal payments denominated in those dollars isn’t going to be a big winner…For many years, the conventional wisdom insisted that stocks were a hedge against inflation. The proposition was rooted in the fact that stocks are not claims against dollars, as bonds are, but represent ownership of companies with productive facilities…

…I believe…that stocks, in economic substances, are really very similar to bonds. I know that this belief will seem eccentric to many investors. They will immediately observe that the return on a bond (the coupon) is fixed, while the return on equity investment (the company’s earnings) can vary substantially from one year to another. True enough. But anyone who examines the aggregate returns that have been earned by companies during the postwar years will discover something extraordinary: the returns on equity have in fact no varied much at all…in the aggregate, the return on book value tends to keep coming back to a level around 12 percent. It shows no signs of exceeding that level significantly in inflationary years…

For the moment, let’s think of those companies, not as listed stocks, but as productive enterprises. Let’s also assume that the owners of those enterprises had acquired them at book value. In that case, their own return would have been around 12 percent too. And because the return has been so consistent, it seems reasonable to think of it as an ‘equity coupon’…

Of course, there are some important differences between the bond and stock forms. For openers, bonds eventually come due. It may require a long wait, but eventually the bond investor gets to renegotiate the terms of his contract. If current and prospective rates of inflation make his old coupon look inadequate, the can refuse to play further unless coupons currently being offered rekindle his interest…

Stocks on the other hand, are perpetual. They have a maturity date of infinity. Investors in stocks are stuck with whatever return corporate America happens to earn. If corporate America is destined to earn 12 percent, then that is the level investors must learn to live with. As a group, stock investors can neither opt out nor renegotiate…Individual companies can be sold or liquidated and corporations can repurchase their own shares; on the balance however, new equity flotations and retained earnings that the equity capital locked up in the corporate system will increase.

So, score one for the bond form. Bond coupons eventually will be renegotiated; equity ‘coupons’ won’t…

There is another major difference between the garden variety of bond and or new exotic 12 percent ‘equity bond’ that comes to the Wall Street costume ball dressed in a stock certificate.

In the usual case, a bond investor receives his entire coupon in cash and is left to reinvest it as best he can. Our stock investor’s equity coupon, in contrast, is partially retained by the company and is reinvested at whatever rates the company happens to be earning. In other words, going back to our corporate universe, part of the 12 percent earned annually is paid out in dividends and the balance is put right back into the universe to earn 12 percent also.”

Here is where things get interesting: 

This characteristic of stocks – the reinvestment of part of the coupon – can be good or bad news, depending on the relative attractiveness of that 12 percent. The news was very good indeed in, the 1950’s and early 1960’s. With bonds yielding only 3 or 4 percent, the right to reinvest automatically a portion of the equity coupon at 12 percent was of enormous value. Note that investors could not just invest their own money and get that 12 percent return. Stock prices in this period raged far above book value…You can’t pay far above par for a 12 percent bond and earn 12 percent for yourself.

But on their retained earnings, investors could earn 12 percent. In effect, earnings retention allowed investors to buy at book value part of an enterprise that, in the economic environment then existing, was worth a great deal more than book value.

It was a situation that left very little to be said for cash dividends and a lot to be said for earnings retention. Indeed, the more money that investors thought likely to be reinvested at the 12 percent rate, the more valuable they considered their reinvestment privilege, and the more they were willing to pay for it…

If, during this period, a high-grade, noncallable, long-term bond with a 12 percent coupon had existed, it would have sold far above par. And if it were a bond with a further unusual characteristic – which was that most of the coupon payments could be automatically reinvested at par in similar bonds – the issue would have commanded an even greater premium. In essence, growth stocks retaining most of their earnings represented just such a security. When their reinvestment rate on the added equity capital was 12 percent while interest rates generally were around 4 percent, investors became very happy – and, of course, they paid happy prices.

Looking back, stock investors can think of themselves in the 1946-1956 period as having been ladled a truly bountiful triple dip. First, they were the beneficiaries of an underlying corporate return on equity that was far above prevailing interest rates. Second, a significant portion of that return was reinvested for them at rates that were otherwise unattainable. And third, they were afforded an escalating appraisal of underlying equity capital as the first two benefits became widely recognized. This third dip meant that, on top of the basic 12 percent or so earned by corporations on their equity capital, investors were receiving a bonus as the Dow Jones Industrials increased in price from 138 percent book value in 1946 to 220 percent in 1966…

This heaven-on-earth situation finally was ‘discovered’ in the mid-1960’s by many major investing institutions. But just as these financial elephants began trampling on one another in their rush to equities, we entered an era of accelerating inflation and higher interest rates. Quite logically, the marking-up process began to reverse itself. Rising interest rates ruthlessly reduced the value of all existing fixed coupon investments. And as long-term corporate bond rates began moving up (eventually reaching the 10 percent area), both the equity return of 12 percent and the reinvestment ‘privilege’ began to look different.

Stocks are quite properly though of as riskier than bonds…they come equipped with infinite maturities. (Even your friendly broker wouldn’t have the nerve to peddle a 100-year bond, if he had any available, as ‘safe.’) Because of the additional risk, the natural reaction of investors is to expect an equity return that is comfortably above the bond return – and 12 percent on equity versus, say 10 percent on bonds issued by the same corporate universe does not seem to qualify as comfortable. As the spread narrows, equity investors start looking for the exits.”

As Mark Twain said, “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Food for thought. 


An Interview with Bruce Berkowitz - Part 2


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

AUM, Compounding, Subscription, Redemptions

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

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

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

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

AUM, Sourcing

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

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

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

Diversification, Correlation, Risk

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

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

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

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

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

Making Mistakes, Sizing

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

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

Creativity, Team Management, Time Management

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

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

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

When To Sell, Expected Return, Intrinsic Value, Exposure

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cash, Redemptions, Liquidity, When To Sell

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

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

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

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



The Math of Compounding


Here is an interesting piece from Ted Lucas of Lattice Strategies (2010 Q4 The Oracle of...Risk Management) on the complementary relationship between compounding and capital preservation, plus a few other insightful topics of discussion. Compounding, Capital Preservation

“Losses are linear, but the appreciation required to recover from losses scales exponentially as they deepen.

Thought experiment: Imagine a portfolio that was down 20% during the 2008 implosion, versus a portfolio that was down 40%. In the 2009 rebound, assume the first portfolio recovered by 25%, while the second rebounded by 40%. At the end of the two periods, the first portfolio would be back to its starting point, while the second – after knocking the lights out in 2009 – would still be down 16%, requiring another 19% gain to get back to even (i.e., a 40% gain on 60 cents on the dollar yields 84 cents; to get 84 cents back to a full dollar requires a 19% gain).

The key takeaway? Avoiding big drawdowns – and thereby limiting the destructive force of negative compounding and unleashing the power of positive compounding – is the critical driver of long-term returns.”

Simple concept, yet often ignored by investors. This is something that those with trading backgrounds do better than traditional value investors. For additional mindblowingly good commentary on this topic, be sure to read Stanley Druckenmiller’s (protégé of George Soros) thoughts on capital preservation and compounding.



Using Warren Buffett andBerkshire’s historical price performance, Lucas also discusses volatility, and the concepts of upside and downside capture. (I should highlight that the concept of volatility or beta only makes sense when there is an underlying benchmark or index for comparison.)

As you well know, the world has been taught to avoid “volatility.” What terrible advice! One should only avoid downside volatility, and wholeheartedly embrace upside volatility. After all, the holy grail of all portfolios would provide super efficient upside capture and little or no downside capture.


Additionally, Lucas warns about the dangers of certain industry benchmarking practices which are not conducive to maximum return compounding because fan portfolio managers’ need to keep inline with the benchmark (or a particular index), and therefore exacerbate the likelihood of loss.

“It is the ‘shape’ of returns through a market cycle that is of infinitely greater importance than relative benchmark outperformance over a short time window. How does this factor into building resilient, long-term investment strategies? When constructing portfolios, investors would be well served by a willingness to trade off some upside during positive markets in order to disproportionately mitigate the downside experienced during negative periods. While this may not sound like a blinding insight, it is hard to reconcile this idea with an industry where strategies are promoted – and often chosen – based on relative benchmark outperformance over short time windows, typically when conditions are conducive to a particular strategy.”


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 7


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 7 “The Most Important Thing Is…Recognizing Risk” Risk, Capital Preservation, Compounding

“…Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Bill Miller and Julian Robertson. In general their records are remarkable because of their decades of consistency and absence of disasters, not just their high returns.”

“How do you enjoy the full gain in up markets while simultaneously being positioned to achieve superior performance in down markets? By capturing the up-market gain while bearing below-market risk…no mean feat.”

“The road to long-term investment success runs through risk control more than through aggressiveness. Over a full career, most investors’ results will be determined more by how many losers they have, and how bad they are, than by the greatness of their winners.”

The resilient yet participatory portfolio (this term was stolen from a very smart man named Ted Lucas at Lattice Strategies in San Francisco) – a rare creature not easily found. We know it exists because a legendary few, such as those listed above, have found it before. How to find it for ourselves remains the ever perplexing question.

Our regular Readers know that we’re obsessed with the complementary relationship between capital preservation and compounding. For more on this, be sure to check out commentary from Stanley Druckenmiller and Warren Buffett – yes, two very different investors.

Conservatism, Hedging

“Since usually there are more good years in the markets than bad years, and since it takes bad years for the value of risk control to become evident in reduced losses, the cost of risk control – in the form of return foregone – can seem excessive. In good years in the market, risk-conscious investors must content themselves with the knowledge that they benefited from its presence in the portfolio, even though it wasn’t needed…the fruits…come only in the form of losses that don’t happen.”

People talk a lot about mitigating risk in the form of hedging. But what about remaining conservatively positioned (such as having more cash) and incurring the cost of lower portfolio returns? Isn’t the “return foregone” in this case akin to hedging premium?

Conservatism, Fat Tail

“It’s easy to say that they should have made more conservative assumptions. But how conservative? You can’t run a business on the basis of worst-case assumptions. You won’t be able to do anything. And anyway, a ‘worst-case assumption’ is really a misnomer; there’s no such thing, short of a total loss…once you grant that such a decline can happen – for the first time – what extent should you prepare for? Two percent? Ten? Fifty?”

“Even if we realize that unusual, unlikely things can happen, in order to act we make reasoned decisions and knowingly accept that risk when well paid to do so. Once in a while, a ‘black swan’ will materialize. But if in the future we always said, ‘We can’t do such-and-such, because the outcome could be worse than we’ve ever seen before,” we’d be frozen in inaction.

So in most things, you can’t prepare for the worst case. It should suffice to be prepared for once-in-a-generation events. But a generation isn’t forever, and there will be times when that standard is exceeded. What do you do about that? I’ve mused in the past about how much one should devote to preparing for the unlikely disaster. Among other things, the events of 2007-2008 prove there’s no easy answer.”

Risk, Making Mistakes, Process Over Outcome

“High absolute return is much more recognizable and titillating than superior risk-adjusted performance. That’s why it’s high-returning investors who get their pictures in the papers. Since it’s hard to gauge risk and risk-adjusted performance (even after the fact), and since the importance of managing risk is widely underappreciated, investors rarely gain recognition for having done a great job in this regard. That’s especially true in good times.”

“Risk – the possibility of loss – is not observable. What is observable is loss, and generally happens only when risk collides with negative events…loss is what happens when risk meets adversity. Risk is the potential for loss if things go wrong. As long as things go well, loss does not arise. Risk gives rise to loss only when negative events occur in the environment.”

“…the absence of loss does not necessarily mean the portfolio was safely constructed…A good builder is able to avoid construction flaws, while a poor builder incorporates construction flaws. When there are no earthquakes, you can’t tell the difference…That’s what’s behind Warren Buffett’s observation that other than when the tide goes out, we can’t tell which swimmers are clothed and which are naked.”

Good risk management = implementing prevention measures.

Once planted, the seeds of risk can remain dormant for years. Whether or not they sprout into loss depends on the environment and its conditions.

In other words, mistakes that result in losses are often made long before losses occur. Although loss was not the ultimate outcome does not mean mistakes were not made.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1965 Part 2


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Trackrecord, Compounding, Duration, Special Situations, Time Management

“A disadvantage of this business is that it does not possess momentum to any significant degree. If General Motors accounts for 54% of domestic new car registrations in 1965, it is a pretty safe bet that they are going to come fairly close to that figure in 1966 due to owner loyalties, deal capabilities, productivity capacity, consumer image, etc. Not so for BPL. We start from scratch each year with everything valued at market when the gun goes off…The success of past methods and ideas does not transfer forward to future ones.”

Investing, compounding, and trackrecord creation is a perpetual intellectual treadmill – “We start from scratch each year with everything valued at market when the gun goes off,” and the “success of past methods and ideas” contribute only slightly to future returns.

In 1965-1966, a large portion of Buffett’s portfolio still consisted of generally undervalued minority stakes and special situation workouts.

Though not often highlighted, 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.

Special situations investors have to run even harder on the intellectual treadmill since their portfolios contain a natural ladder of duration as the special situations resolve and “workout.”

All this activity is subject to the 24 hours per day time constraint. How does one maximize portfolio compounding given these obstacles?

I suspect it was mental debates like these that drove Buffett, in later years, to seek out the continuous compounding investments such as Coca Cola, Wells Fargo, etc., to which he could outsource the task of compounding portfolio equity.

Here’s the basic rationale behind the term “outsourced compounding” extracted from an article I wrote a few months ago:

"Compounding can be achieved by the portfolio manager / investor when making investments, which then (hopefully) appreciates in value, and the repetition of this cycle through the reinvestment of principal and gains. However, this process is limited by time, resources, availability of new ideas to reinvest capital, etc.

Operating business achieve compounding by reinvesting past earnings back into the same business (or perhaps new business lines). In this respect, the operating business has an advantage over the financial investor, who must constantly search for new opportunities.

Tom Russo of Gardner Russo & Gardner, quoted above in a November 2011 edition of Value Investor Insight (many thanks to Rafael Astruc of Garrison Securities for tipping PMJar on this), highlights an important and useful shortcut for portfolio managers – why not outsource part of the burden of compounding to the operating businesses in one’s portfolio? (Price dependent, of course.)"


Expected Return, Volatility, Historical Performance Analysis, Process Over Outcome

“…our results, relative to the Dow and other common-stock-form media usually will be better in declining markets and may well have a difficult time just matching such media in very strong markets. With the latter point in mind it might be imagined that we struggled during the first four months of the half to stay even with the Dow and then opened up our margin as it declined in May and June. Just the opposite occurred. We actually achieved a wide margin during the upswing and then fell at a rate fully equal to the Dow during the market decline.

I don’t mention this because I am proud of such performance – on the contrary. I would prefer it if we had achieved our gain in the hypothesized manner. Rather, I mention it for two reasons: (1) you are always entitled to know when I am wrong as well as right; and (2) it demonstrates that although we deal with probabilities and expectations, the actual results can deviate substantially from such expectations, particularly on a short-term basis.

Buffett wanted to correctly anticipate not only the expected return, but also the expected volatility of his portfolio. He was not “proud” when the return pattern of the portfolio vs. his index (Dow) did not occur according to his prediction (even though he still beat the index by a wide 9.6% margin during the first 6 months of the year) – “I would prefer it if we had achieved our gain in the hypothesized manner.”

This demonstrates that Buffett was not singularly focused on outcome, but process as well. He wanted to understand why the unexpected (albeit good) outcome occurred despite a process that should have led to something different.

Also, notice that the good outcome did not provide any sense of comfort and lead Buffett to ignore the anomaly in expected volatility. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many investors only dissect downside return anomalies and completely ignore upside return anomalies. Buffett’s actions here show that it’s important to understand both directionally because a rouge variable that causes unexpected upside patterns could just as easily reverse course and lead to unexpected poor results.

Lastly, I want to point out that the key to understanding sources of portfolio return and volatility requires the dissection of historical performance returns. For more on this, check out our discussion on the 1964 letter Part 3.


Stanley Druckenmiller Wisdom - Part 1


Druckenmiller is a legendary investor, and protégé of George Soros, who compounded capital ~30% annualized since 1986 before announcing in 2010 that his Duquesne fund would return all outside investor capital, and morph into a family office. Many of our Readers reside in the House of Value, but I believe that value investors can learn from those with more trading-oriented or macro philosophies – especially in terms of volatility considerations, trade structuring, and capital preservation.

The following portfolio management highlights were extracted from an interview with Stanley Druckenmmiller in Jack D. Schwager’s book The New Market Wizards. Be sure to check out Part 2 & Part 3.

Trackrecord, Capital Preservation, Compounding, Exposure

“Q: Your long-term performance has far surpassed the industry average. To what do you attribute your superior track record?

A: George Soros has a philosophy that I have also adopted: he way to build long-term returns is through preservation of capital and home runs. You can be far more aggressive when you’re making good profits. Many managers, once they’re up 30 or 40 percents, will book their year [i.e., trade very cautiously for the remainder of the year so as not to jeopardize the very good return that has already been realized]. The way to attain truly superior long-term returns is to grind it out until you’re up 30 or 40 percent, and then if you have the convictions, go for a 100 percent year. If you can put together a few near-100 percent years and avoid down years, then you can achieve really outstanding long-term returns.”

“Many managers will book their profits when they’re up a lot early in the year. It’s my philosophy, which has been reinforced by Mr. Soros, that when you earn the right to be aggressive, you should be aggressive. The years that you start off with a large gain are the times that you should go for it. Since I was well ahead for the year, I felt that I could afford to fight the market for a while. I knew the bull market had to end, I just didn’t know when. Also, because of the market’s severe overvaluation, I thought that when the bull market did end, it was going to be dramatic.”

We’ve discussed the importance of capital preservation, and its complementary relationship to long-term compounding. Here is Drunkenmiller’s well-articulated version of the same concept…plus a fascinating twist.

As dictated by the Rules of the Game, the scorecard in the investment management world is your trackrecord in the form of calendar year returns. The concept of earning the “right to be aggressive” in certain calendar years echoes in my mind like a siren song, so dangerous yet utterly irresistible.

Most traditional value investors would not dare dream of enacting such a brazen act. But, if you keep an open mind to ponder and digest, it makes a lot of sense.

UPDATE: One Reader (and friend who is very very bright) suggested that the genius behind the "right to be aggressive" derives from its utter contradiction of traditional value doctrine.  Buffett and Munger would say wait for an opportunity and then be aggressive.  Druckenmiller's effectively saying that he doesn't think you can ever truly know when it's a great you wait until you know something for a fact: that you are having a good year.

Expected Return, Opportunity Cost

“…an attractive yield should be the last reason for buying bonds. In 1981 the public sold bonds heavily giving up a 15 percent return for thirty years because they couldn’t resist 21 percent short-term yields. They weren’t thinking about the long term. Now, because money market rates are only 4.5 percent, the same poor public is back buying bonds, effectively lending money at 7.5 percent for thirty years…”

Sadly the situation has deteriorated further. Today, money markets yield ~0% and thirty year bonds pay ~3%.

It’s important to remember that portfolio expected return should not be determined solely based upon returns available today, but also opportunities around the corner, not yet visible. This is what makes opportunity cost so difficult to determine – it's often a gut judgment call that involves predicting the availability of future expected returns.

Team Management

On working with George Soros:

“The first six months of the relationship were fairly rocky. While we had similar trading philosophies, our strategies never meshed. When I started out, he was going to be the coach – and he was an aggressive coach. In my opinion, Gorge Soros is the greatest investor that ever lived. But even being coached by the worlds greatest investor is a hindrance rather than help if he’s engaging you actively enough to break your trading rhythm. You just can’t have two cooks in the kitchen; it doesn’t work. Part of it was my fault because he would make recommendations and I would be intimidated. After all, how do you disagree with a man with a track record like his?

Events came to a head in August 1989 when Soros old out a bond position that I had put on. He had never done that before. To make matters worse, I really had a strong conviction on the trade. Needless to say, I was fairly upset. At that point, we had our first let-it-all-out discussion…Basically, Soros decided that he was going to stay out of m hair for six months.”


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1963 Part 4


Continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Compounding, Capital Preservation

“Since the whole subject of compounding has such as crass ring to it, I will attempt to introduce a little class into this discussion by turning to the art world. Francis I of France paid 4,000 ecus in 1540 for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. On the off chance that a few of you have not kept track of the fluctuations of the ecu, 4,000 converted out to abut $20,000.

If Francis had kept his feet on the ground and he (and his trustees) had been able to find a 6% after-tax investment, the estate now would be worth something over $1,000,000,000,000,000.00. That’s $1 quadrillion…all from 6%.

…there are other morals to be drawn here. One is the wisdom of living a long time. The other impressive factor is the swing produced by relatively small changes in the rate of compound.”

“If, over a meaningful period of time, Buffett Partnership can achieve an edge of even a modest number of percentage points over the major investment media, its function will be fulfilled.”

Starting around the early 1960s, Buffett discusses the concept of compounding more frequently – perhaps because he’s become increasingly interested in its power. After all, an author’s words often reflect the subject most prevalent in his/her mind.

We likewise believe that compounding is an important, yet under-discussed, area of investment management. The entire investment management industry stems from the belief in (oneself or others) the ability to compound capital at a higher rate than “average” (however you define “average”).

Our industry often profiles the “flavors of the week,” putting those with spectacular short-term returns on display. Unfortunately, investor prone to spectacular upside returns, are sometimes also prone to disastrous drawdowns.

Which brings to my mind the trackrecord of a well-known oil and gas investor. His long-term trackrecord was spectacular (something in the range of 20-30%+ annually for 20+ years) until he became enamored with natural gas (in all fairness, he may yet be proven correct in the “long-run”). In either 2009 or 2010 (when the price of natural gas plummeted) he produced a -97% year. Yep, minus ninety-seven percent.

Unfortunately, the law of compounding hath no pity. If you invested $1,000 with him at the very beginning, compounded at 25% for 20 years, but stayed around to experience the -97% return, the investment that was worth $86,736 in year 20 was now only worth $2,602 in year 21 (which doesn’t include the fees you paid over the years, so chances are, you’ve actually experienced loss of principal).

Remember, it was the tortoise, not the hare, who won the race. A 1-2% outperformance relative to “average” may seem negligible in the short-term, but over the course of many years, the absolute dollar contribution of that excess margin of return becomes substantial. It never hurts to remind your investors, every once in awhile, as Buffett did.

More from Ted Lucas


In this piece, Ted Lucas of Lattice Strategies discusses the relationship between correlation and diversification, as well as the intricate task of building investment portfolios that remain resilient during market drawdowns, yet retain upside participation during bull markets. To explore some of his other writings, they are all archived on Lattice Strategies’ website.Risk, Capital Preservation, Compounding

“But ‘risk management’ on its own is an abstraction, as is ‘beating the market’ over a short time period, if the end goal is to generate a real capital growth over a longer time window…For an asset manager seeking to generate long-term real growth of capital, the design problem is creating a portfolio structure that can both withstand periods of market turbulence and capture returns when they are available.”

Lucas highlights a very real dilemma for all investors: the tricky task of reconciling the goals of capital growth (compounding) with capital preservation. The frequently mentioned “abstraction” of “risk management” is merely a tool available to each investor to be incorporated, if and when necessary, to assist with this task.

Correlation, Diversification

Prior to the financial crisis in 2008, people believed that correlations between asset classes had “decoupled” given new breakthroughs on how risk was redistributed in the financial and economic markets, etc. Investors paid dearly for this assumption when many asset classes (equity, high yield, real estate, commodities, etc.) originally believed to be uncorrelated, all plummeted in value at the same time.

With investors still licking 2008 wounds, the opposite is now occurring. As Lucas writes, “There is much recent discussion about asset correlations rising to such elevated levels that diversification has been rendered useless.”

Correlation of assets/securities has a meaningful impact on the effects of diversification. Afterall, as Jim Leitner astutely points out, “diversification only works when you have assets which are valued differently…” Therefore, if all the assets/securities in your portfolio are highly correlated, diversification would be rendered useless regardless of how many positions you hold.

Lucas believes that investor fear of high asset correlations are overdone. I don’t have enough evidence to either agree or disagree with this view. However, the investing masses have a tendency to project the near-term past into the long-term future, and today’s assumptions about elevated levels of asset correlation could very well be overdone.

Regardless of whether you believe today’s asset correlations are high or low, the takeaway is that your view on future asset/security correlations will (or at least it should) influence your portfolio allocation decisions, because it directly impacts diversification and the volatility profile of your return stream.

Definition of Investing

“Here is a basic idea: the purpose of investing is to grow whatever capital is invested in real terms.”


Compounding Outsourced


“I’m a value investor, which says I want to buy 50-cent dollars, but given my firm’s predilection for serving the needs of taxable investors, I also want that dollar to tax-efficiently compound in value over long periods of time. That means the businesses must have great capacity to reinvest, which is not all that common...I want our money to work for us – in essence, I am passing through to our portfolio-company management much of my obligation to reinvest.”     –Tom Russo Albert Einstein called The Rule of 72 the “Ninth Wonder of the World” and supposedly said this rule (not E = MC^2) was the greatest mathematical discovery of all time .

Compounding is an integral part of investing, no matter how you define investing, your strategy or approach – similar to how Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all share the commonality of monotheism.

Compounding can be achieved by the portfolio manager / investor when making investments, which then (hopefully) appreciates in value, and the repetition of this cycle through the reinvestment of principal and gains. However, this process is limited by time, resources, availability of new ideas to reinvest capital, etc.

Operating business achieve compounding by reinvesting past earnings back into the same business (or perhaps new business lines). In this respect, the operating business has an advantage over the financial investor, who must constantly search for new opportunities.

Tom Russo of Gardner Russo & Gardner, quoted above in a November 2011 edition of Value Investor Insight (many thanks to Rafael Astruc of Garrison Securities for tipping PM Jar on this), highlights an important and useful shortcut for portfolio managers – why not outsource part of the burden of compounding to the operating businesses in one’s portfolio? (Price dependent, of course.)

For example, Warren Buffett figured this out early and part of Berkshire’s success lies in the entity’s ability to constantly reinvest and compound capital, through a wide variety and extensive network of investment securities and operating companies – a broadened horizon of opportunities versus what is commonly available to the usual financial investor.

Last but not least, outsourced compounding via operating business reinvestment also minimizes tax leakage. Not too shabby: less work AND less taxes.