Cross-Pollination: Volatility & Options


In our continual search for differentiation in this fiercely competitive investment biosphere, we remain intrigued by the idea of cross-pollination between investment strategies. After all, regardless of strategy, all investors share a common goal: capital compounding through the creation of return asymmetry over time. Fundamental investors often shy away from options and volatility, labeling them as too complicated and esoteric. Are they truly that complicated, or merely made to seem so by industry participants enamored with jargon and befuddlement?

In this brief video (8:30-8:35am time slot), Richard “Jerry” Haworth of 36South shares a few thoughts & observations on options and volatility that all investors can incorporate into their portfolios.

Summary Highlights:

Options (a type of “volatility assets”) are a potentially rich source of alpha since pricing in options market are mainly based on models, not fundamental analysis. Occasionally massive mispricings occur, especially in long-dated options.

Most wealth is generated by luck or asymmetry of risk & return. Most options have asymmetry. Long options positions (especially long-dated) behave like “perfect traders” – they always obey stop loss (downside is limited by premium outlay) and positions are allowed to run when working in your favor (especially as delta improves for out-of-the-money options).

Options also have natural embedded leverage (especially out-of-the-money), providing cheap convexity. Better than debt, because it’s non-recourse – max loss is limited to premium outlay.

Volatility (a $65 trillion notional market) is counter intuitive – people tend to sell vol when low, and buy when high – great for contraians who like to buy low and sell high. Natural human behavioral bias makes it so this phenomenon will never go away.

Portfolio managers are in the “business of future-proofing people’s portfolios” – seeking to maximize return while minimizing risk and correlation. The “further you get away from $0 the more you are future-proofing a portfolio…” But this is extremely difficult to implement well, especially in low interest rate environment where future expected returns are difficult to find.

Short-term downside volatility is noise. But long-term volatility on the downside is permanent loss of capital – counter to goal of “future-proofing” portfolios. When people think about risk, they tend to use volatility as proxy for risk, but this is a very limiting definition. Volatility has been minimized by low rates, which has lead people to mistakenly think that we’ve minimized risk since we’ve minimized volatility. Classic mistake: people are now taking on “risk and correlation that they don’t see…for returns that they do see.”

Correlation – only important in crisis, no one cares about correlation when asset prices going up. Perceived vs. Actual Correlation: dangerous when you think you have a “diversified” portfolio (with low correlation between assets) when in reality correlation of assets in portfolio actually very high. People focus on minimizing correlation, but often fail when truly need minimized correlation (example: during a systemic crisis).

Writing / shorting volatility (such as selling options) in a portfolio increases yield & adds to expected return, but makes correlation and risk more concave, with a tendency to snowballs to downside. Whereas long volatility assets are convex, it takes slightly from return (cuz premium outlay) but offers uncapped expected return on the upside.

Howard Marks’ Book: Chapter 17


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 17 “The Most Important Thing Is…Investing Defensively” -- a rather apt topic given today's market environment. Psychology, Capital Preservation, Expected Return, Risk, Opportunity Cost

“What’s more important to you: scoring points or keeping your opponent from doing so? In investing, will you go for winners or try to avoid losers? (Or, perhaps more appropriately, how will you balance the two?) Great danger lies in acting without having considered these questions.

And by the way, there’s no right choice between offense and defense. Lots of possible routes can bring you to success, and your decision should be a function of your personality and leanings, the extent of your belief in your ability, and the peculiarities of the markets you work in and the clients you work for.”

“Like everything in investing, this isn’t a matter of black and white. The amount of risk you’ll bear is a function of the extent to which you choose to pursue return. The amount of safety you build into your portfolio should be based on how much potential return you’re willing to forego. There’s no right answer, just trade-offs…Because ensuring the ability to survive under adverse circumstances is incompatible with maximizing returns in the good times, investors must choose between the two.” 

Are capital preservation (defense, avoiding losers, etc.) & expected return (offense, going for winners, etc.) mutually exclusive concepts? Perhaps in the short-run, but in the long-run, they are two side of the same coin. Avoiding loss is essential to capital compounding over time. This is because the effects of compounding math are not symmetrical. A 50% loss in one period requires a 100% in a subsequent period just to break even! See our previous article titled: “Asymmetry Revisited” for more on the interplay between capital preservation and compounding.

Capital Preservation, Volatility, Diversification, Leverage

“But what’s defense? Rather than doing the right thing, the defensive investor’s main emphasis is on not doing the wrong thing.

Is there a difference between doing the right thing and avoiding doing the wrong thing? On the surface, they sound quite alike. But when you look deeper, there’s a big difference between the mind-set needed for one and the mind-set needed for the other, and a big difference in the tactics to which the two lead.

While defense may sound like little more than trying to avoid bad outcomes, it’s not as negative or non-aspirational as that. Defense actually can be seen as an attempt at higher returns, but more through the avoidance of minuses than through the inclusion of pluses, and more through consistent but perhaps moderate progress than through occasional flashes of brilliance.

There are two principal elements in investment defense. The first is the exclusion of losers from portfolios…and being less willing to bet on continued prosperity, and rosy forecasts and developments that may be uncertain. The second element is the avoidance of poor years and, especially, exposure to meltdown in crashes…this aspect of investment defense requires thoughtful portfolio diversification, limits on the overall riskiness borne, and a general tilt toward safety.

Concentration (the opposite of diversification) and leverage are two examples of offense. They’ll add to returns when they work but prove harmful when they don’t: again the potential for higher highs and lower lows from aggressive tactics. Use enough of them, however, and they can jeopardize your investment survival if things go awry. Defense, on the other hand, can increase your likelihood of being able to get through the tough times and survive long enough to enjoy the eventual payoff from smart investments.”

Psychology, Luck, Process Over Outcome

“The choice between offense and defense investing should be based on how much the investor believes is within his or her control…But investing is full of bad bounces and unanticipated developments…The workings of economies and markets are highly imprecise and variable, and the thinking and behavior of the other players constantly alter the environment…investment results are only partly within the investors’ control…The bottom line is that even highly skilled investors can be guilty of mis-hits, and the overaggressive shot can easily lose them the match.”

“Playing for offense – trying for winners through risk bearing – is a high octane activity. It might bring the gains you seek…or pronounced disappointment. And there’s something else to think about: the more challenging and potentially lucrative the waters you fish in, the more likely they are to have attracted skilled fishermen. Unless your skills render you fully competitive, you’re more likely to be prey than victor. Playing offense, bearing risk and operating in technically challenging fields mustn’t be attempted without the requisite competence.”

Psychology plays an integral role in successful investing. One must learn to distinguish between the impact of process (avoiding the mis-hits) vs. the outcome (sometimes uncontrollable), and to not be deterred by the occasional but inevitable “bad bounce.” Additionally, there’s the self-awareness and honesty requirement so that one can exercise discipline and remove oneself from the game if/when necessary.

Psychology, Trackrecord

“Investing is a testosterone-laden world where too many people think about how good they are and how much they’ll make if the swing for the fences and connect. Ask some investors of the ‘I know’ school to tell you what makes them good, and you’ll hear a lot abut home runs they’ve hit in the past the home runs-in-the-making that reside in their current portfolio. How many talk about consistency, or the fact that their worst year wasn’t too bad.”

“One of the most striking things I’ve noted over the last thirty-five years is how brief most outstanding investment careers are. Not as short as the careers of professional athletes, but shorter than they should be in a physically nondestructive vocation.

Where’d they go? Many disappeared because organizational flaws render their game plans unsustainable. And the rest are gone because they swung for the fences but struck out instead.

That brings up something that I consider a great paradox: I don’t think many investment managers’ careers end because they fail to hit home runs. Rather, they end up out of the game because they strike out too often – not because they don’t have enough winners, but because they have too many losers. And yet, lots of managers keep swinging for the fences.”

“Personally, I like caution in money managers. I believe that in many cases, the avoidance of losses and terrible years is more easily achievable than repeated greatness, and thus risk control is more likely to create a solid foundation for a superior long-term trackrecord.”

Related to the above, please see our previous articles on the concepts of “Toward vs. Away-From Motivationand “Outer vs. Inner Scorecard.”


A Chapter from Swensen's Book


Given his reputation and the title of the book, we would be remiss not to feature excerpts from David Swensen’s Pioneering Portfolio Management. Below are portfolio construction & management highlights from Chapter 6: Portfolio Management. The manager anecdotes in this chapter are fairly interesting too, providing readers a window into how an institution (Yale/Swensen) evaluates its external managers. Portfolio Management, Risk, Expected Return

“In a world where risk correlates with return, investors hold risky assets in pursuit of returns exceeding the risk-free rate. By determining which risky assets are held and in what proportions, the asset allocation decision resides at the center of portfolio management discussions.”

“…the complexities of real-world investing drives a wedge between the easily articulated ideal and the messy reality of implementing an investment program.”

Putting aside whether you agree that risk is correlated with return, it is safe to postulate that markets are (usually) efficient enough to require investors bear some degree of risk, in the pursuit of any rate of return above the risk-free-rate. The portfolio management process involves determining which returns are worthwhile pursuing given the associated risks, and relative to the risk-free rate. However, sh*t happens (“a wedge between the easily articulated ideal and the messy reality”). So how does one navigate through the “complexities” and “messy reality” of implementation? Read on…

“Some investors pursue active management programs by cobbling together a variety of specialist managers, without understanding the sector, size, or style bets created by the more or less random portfolio construction process…Recognizing biases created in the portfolio management process allows managers to accept only those risks with expected rewards.”

“Disciplined implementation of asset allocation policies avoids altering the risk and return profile of an investment portfolio, allowing investors to accept only those active management risks expected to add value.”

“Concern about risk represents an integral part of the portfolio management process, requiring careful monitoring at the overall portfolio, asset class, and manager levels. Understanding investment and implementation risks increases the chances that an investment program will achieve its goals.”

“Unintended portfolio bets often come to light only after being directly implicated as a cause for substandard asset class performance.”

Awareness of what you own (the risks, expected return, how the holdings interact with one another, etc.) is an absolutely necessity. This concept has surfaced many times before on PM Jar, likely indicating that it is an important commonality across different investment styles and strategies.

Leverage, Expected Return, Risk, Volatility

“By magnifying investment outcomes, both good and bad, leverage fundamentally alters the risk and return characteristics of investment portfolios…leverage may expose funds to unanticipated outcomes. Inherent in certain derivatives positions, leverage lurks hidden in many portfolio, coming to the light only when investment disaster strikes.”

“Leverage appears in portfolios explicitly and implicitly. Explicit leverage involves use of borrowed funds for pursuit of investment opportunities, magnifying portfolio results, good and bad. When investment returns exceed borrowing costs, portfolios benefit from leverage. If investment returns match borrowing costs, no impact results. In cases where investment returns fail to meet borrowing costs, portfolios suffer.”

“…portfolio returns should exceed leverage costs represented by cash, the lowest expected return asset class.”

“Sensible investors employ leverage with great care, guarding against introducing materials excess risk into portfolio characteristics.”

Traditional academic leverage discussions focuses on the theoretical spread between cost of borrowed capital and what is earned through reinvestment of borrowed capital. While this spread is important to keep in mind, the actual utilization and implementation of leverage in a portfolio context is far messier that this elegant algebraic formula. There are many other articles on PM Jar discussing leverage in a portfolio context.

Leverage, Risk, Volatility, Derivatives

“Simply holding riskier-than-market equity securities leverages the portfolio…the portfolio either becomes leveraged from holding riskier assets or deleveraged from holding less risky assets. For example, the common practice of holding cash in portfolios of common stocks causes the domestic equity portfolio to be less risky than the market, effectively deleveraging returns.”

“Derivatives provide a common source of implicit leverage. Suppose an S&P 500 futures contract requires a margin deposit of 10 percent of the value of the position. If an investor holds a futures position in the domestic equity portfolio, complementing every one dollar of futures with nine dollars of cash creates a position equivalent to holding the underlying equities securities directly. If, however, the investor holds five dollars of futures and five dollars of cash, leverage causes the position to be five times as sensitive to market fluctuations.

Derivatives do not create risk per se, as they can be used to reduce risk, replicate positions, or increase risk. To continue with the S&P 500 futures example, selling futures against a portfolio of equity securities reduces risks associated with equity market exposure. Alternatively, using appropriate combinations of cash and futures creates a risk-neutral replication of the underlying securities. Finally, holding futures without adequate balancing cash positions increases market exposure and risk.”

One must tread carefully when utilizing derivatives not because they are derivatives, but because of the implicit leverage that comes with derivatives.


“Less liquid asset types introduce the likelihood that inability to vary exposure causes actual allocations to deviate from target levels…Since by their very nature private holdings take substantial amounts of time to buy or sell efficiently, actual portfolios usually exhibit some functional misallocation. Dealing with the over- or under-allocation resulting from illiquid positions creates a tough challenge for the thoughtful investor.”

“…rebalancing requires sale of assets experiencing relative price strength and purchase of assets experiencing relative price weakness, the immediacy of continuous rebalancing causes managers to provide liquidity to the market.”

Expected Return, Risk

“Returns from security lending activity exhibit patterns characteristic of negatively skewed distributions, along with their undesirable investment attributes. Like other types of lending activity, upside represents a fixed rate of return and repayment of principal, while downside represents a substantial or total loss. Unless offset by handsome expected rates of return, sensible investors avoid return distributions with a negative skew…negatively skewed return pattern exhibits limited upside (make a little) with substantial downside (lose a lot), representing an unattractive distribution of outcomes for investors.”


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.”


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 14


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 14 “The Most Important Thing Is…Knowing What You Don't Know” Mistakes, Sizing, Diversification, Leverage, Opportunity Cost

“…the biggest problems tend to arise when investors forget about the difference between probability and outcome – that is, when they forget about the limits on foreknowledge:

  • when they believe the shape of the probability distribution is knowable with certainty (and that they know it),
  • when they assume the most likely outcome is the one that will happen,
  • when they assume the expected result accurately represents the actual result, or
  • perhaps most important, when they ignore the possibility of improbable outcomes.”

“Investors who feel they know what the future holds will act assertively: making directional bets, concentrating positions, levering holdings, and counting on future growth – in other words, doing things that in the absence of foreknowledge would increase risk. On the other hand, those who feel they don’t know what the future holds will act quite differently: diversifying, hedging, levering less (or not at all), emphasizing value today over growth tomorrow, staying high in the capital structure, and generally girding for a variety of possible outcomes.”

“If you know the future, it’s silly to play defense. You should behave aggressively and target the greatest winners; there can be no loss to fear. Diversification is unnecessary, and maximum leverage can be employed. In fact, being unduly modest about what you know can result in opportunity costs (foregone profits). On the other hand…Mark Twain put it best: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’”

A few months ago, we wrote about Michael Mauboussin’s discussion on utilizing the Kelly Formula for portfolio sizing decisions. The Kelly Formula is based upon an investor’s estimation of the probability and amount of payoff. However, if the estimation of probability and payoff amount is incorrect, the mistake will impact portfolio performance through position sizing. It’s a symmetrical relationship: if you are right, the larger position size will help performance; if you are wrong, the larger position size will hurt performance.

Marks’ words echo a similar message. They remind us that an investor’s perception of future risk/reward drives sizing, leverage, and a variety of other portfolio construction and management decisions. If that perception of future risk/reward is correct/incorrect, it will lead to a positive/negative impact on performance, because “tactical decisions like concentration, diversification, and leverage are symmetrical two-way swords.” In order to add value, or generate alpha, an investor must create asymmetry which comes from “superior personal skill.” One interpretation of superior personal skill is correct perception of future risk/reward (and structuring the portfolio accordingly).


“Awareness of the limited extent of our foreknowledge is an essential component of my approach to investing.”

“Acknowledging the boundaries of what you can know – and working within those limits rather than venturing beyond – can give you a great advantage.”

“No one likes having to invest for the future under the assumption that the future is largely unknowable. On the other hand, if it is, we’d better face up to it and find other ways to cope…Whatever limitations are imposed on us in the investment world, it’s a heck of a lot better to acknowledge them and accommodate them than to deny them and forge ahead.”

Investors must embrace uncertainty and the possibility of unpredictable events. Acknowledgement of “the boundaries of what you can know” won’t make you immune from the possible dangers lurking in the unknown future, but at least you won’t be shocked psychologically if/when they occur.

Macro, Luck, Process Over Outcome

“…the future is unknowable. You can’t prove a negative, and that certainly includes this one. However, I have yet to meet anyone who consistently knows what lies ahead macro-wise. Of all the economists and strategists you follow, are any correct most of the time?”

“…if the forecasters were sometimes right – and right so dramatically – then why do I remain so negative on forecasts? Because the important thing in forecasting isn’t getting it right once. The important thing is getting it right consistently.”

“One way to get to be right sometimes is to always be bullish or always be bearish; if you hold a fixed view long enough, you may be right sooner or later. And if you’re always an outlier, you’re likely to eventually be applauded for an extremely unconventional forecast that correctly foresaw what no one else did. But that doesn’t mean your forecasts are regularly of any value…It’s possible to be right about the macro-future once in a while, but not on a regular basis. It doesn’t do any good to possess a survey of sixty-four forecasts that includes a few that are accurate; you have to know which ones they are. And if the accurate forecasts each six months are made by different economists, it’s hard to believe there’s much value in the collective forecasts.”

“Those who got 2007-2008 right probably did so at least in part because of a tendency toward negative views. As such, they probably stayed negative for 2009.”


PM Jar Exclusive Interview With Howard Marks - Part 4 of 5


Below is Part 4 of PM Jar’s interview with Howard Marks, the co-founder and chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, on portfolio management. Part 4: The Art of Transforming Symmetry into Asymmetry

“If tactical decisions like concentration, diversification, and leverage are symmetrical two-way swords, then where does asymmetry come from? Asymmetry comes from alpha, from superior personal skill.”

Marks: Everything in investing is a two-way sword – a symmetrical two-way sword. If you turn cautious and raise cash, it will help you if you are right, and hurt you if you are wrong. If tactical decisions like concentration, diversification, and leverage are symmetrical two-way swords, then where does asymmetry come from? Asymmetry comes from alpha, from superior personal skill.

Superior investors add value in a number of ways, such as security selection, knowing when to drop down in quality and when to raise quality, when to concentrate and when to diversify, when to lever and when to delever, etc. Most of those things come under the big heading of knowing when to be aggressive and when to be defensive. The single biggest question is when to be aggressive and when to be defensive.

I believe very strongly that investors have to balance two risks: the risk of losing money and the risk of missing opportunity. The superior investor knows when to emphasize the first and when to emphasize the second – when to be defensive (i.e., to worry primarily about the risk of losing money) and when to be aggressive (i.e., to worry primarily about the risk of missing opportunity). In the first half of 2007, you should have worried about losing money (there was not much opportunity to miss). And in the last half of 2008, you should have worried about missing opportunity (there wasn’t much chance of losing money). Knowing the difference is probably the most important of all the important things.

PM Jar: How do you think about the opportunity cost when balancing these two risks? Is it historical or forward looking?

Marks: If you bought A, your opportunity cost is what you missed by not holding B. That’s historical. Similarly, when you look forward, you can take an infinite number of different actions in putting together your portfolio.Opportunity cost is what you could lose by doing what you’re doing, as opposed to other things that you could have done.

Opportunity cost is a sophisticated sounding way to address the risk of doing something versus the risk of not doing it. This is how we decide whether and how to invest: If I buy it, could I lose money? If I don’t buy it, could I miss out on something? If I buy a little, should I have bought a lot? If I bought a lot, should I have bought a little?

Investing is an art form in the sense that it can’t be mechanized. There is no formula or rule that works – it’s all feel. You get the inputs, analyze them, turn the crank, get numbers out – but they are only guesswork. Anything about the future is only a guess. The best investing is done by people who make the best subjective judgments.

Anyone who thinks they are going to make all decisions correctly is crazy. But if you make mistakes, you have to learn from them. Otherwise you’re making another huge mistake if you ignore the learning opportunity. One of my favorite sayings is, “Experience is what you got when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

Continue Reading — Part 5 of 5: Creating Your Own Art


Low Net Exposure Won’t Save You


I’ve been noticing quite a few 2009-vintage long/short equity hedge funds (the 137% gross, 42% net exposure variety) with steadily expanding capital bases, via both portfolio compounding and capital inflows. The latter is understandable given the spectacular return trackrecords of these funds. Yet, ever the skeptic anytime I observe capital chasing performance, I’d like to share an anecdote with my Readers. A few weeks ago, I met someone who relayed the following Stanley Druckenmiller story (for more on Stanley Druckenmiller, be sure to check out these articles):

In 2007, a list of hedge funds was shown to Stanley Druckenmiller and his opinion of those managers requested. Glancing at the list, Druckenmiller pointed to a few and said, “These guys will blow up. They don’t understand that when things get bad, they need to take down gross, not just net.” Lo and behold, the predictions of Druckenmiller once again proved true – those funds blew up in 2008.

Regardless of whether the story is actually true or false, I think it still conveys a valuable point. In extreme environments, the leverage associated with high gross exposure is dangerous, even if you carry a low level of net exposure, because the underlying assets will behave erratically as historical correlations breakdown.

How many of these newly minted 2009-vintage long/short, high gross low net, equity funds, with swollen egos after years of outperformance, will know/remember this when the storms approach? Only time will tell.


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.



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. 


More Baupost Wisdom


Before my November vacation, I will leave you with a juicy Baupost piece compiled through various sources that shall remain confidential. Instead of the usual excerpts or quotes, below are summaries of ideas and concepts. Creativity, Making Mistakes

  • False precision is dangerous. Klarman doesn’t believe that a computer can be programmed to invest the way Baupost does. (Does this mean their research, portfolio monitoring, and risk management process does not involve computers? Come to think of it, that would be pretty cool. Although it would make some administrative tasks more difficult, are computers truly necessary for the value-oriented fundamental investor?)
  • Investing is a highly creative process, that’s constantly changing and requiring adaptations
  • One must maintain flexibility and intellectual honesty in order to realize when a mistake has been made, and calibrate accordingly
  • Mistakes are also when you’re not aware of possible investment opportunities because this means the sourcing/prioritization process is not optimal

When To Buy, Conservatism, Barbell

  • Crisis reflection – they invested too conservatively, mainly safer lower return assets (that would have been money good in extremely draconian scenarios). Instead, should have taken a barbell approach and invested at least a small portion of the portfolio into assets with extremely asymmetric payoffs (zero vs. many multiples)

When To Buy, Portfolio Review

  • They are re-buying the portfolio each day – an expression that you’ve undoubtedly heard from others as well. It’s a helpful concept that is sometimes forgotten. Forces you to objectively re-evaluate the existing portfolio with a fresh perspective, and detachment from any existing biases, etc.


  • They try to figure out how “risk is priced”
  • Risk is always viewed on an absolute basis, never relative basis
  • Best risk control is finding good investments


  • Hedges can be expensive. From previous firm letters, we know that Baupost has historically sought cheap, asymmetric hedges when available. The takeaway from this is that Baupost is price sensitive when it comes to hedging and will only hedge selectively, not perpetually
  • Prefer to own investments that don’t require hedges, there is no such thing as a perfect hedge
  • Bad hedges could make you lose more than notional of original investment

Hedging, Sizing

  • In certain environments, there are no cheap hedges, other solution is just to limit position sizing

Cash, AUM

  • Ability to hold cash is a competitive advantage. Baupost is willing to hold up to 50% cash when attractive opportunities are not available
  • The cash balance is calculated net of future commitments, liabilities, and other claims. This is the most conservative way.
  • Reference to “right-sizing” the business in terms of AUM. They think actively about the relationship between Cash, AUM, and potentially returning capital to investors.

Returning Capital, Sizing

  • Returning capital sounds simplistic enough, but in reality it’s quite a delicate dance. For example, if return cash worth 25% of portfolio, then capital base just shrank and all existing positions inadvertently become larger % of NAV.


  • Will take on leverage for real estate, especially if it is cheap and non-recourse


  • Only 1-2% of deals/ideas looked at ultimately purchased for portfolio (note: not sure if this figure is real estate specific)

Time Management, Sizing

  • Intelligent allocation of time and resources is important. It doesn’t make sense to spend a majority of your (or team’s) time on positions that end up only occupying 30-50bps of the portfolio
  • Negative PR battles impact not only reputation, they also take up a lot of time – better to avoid those types of deals
  • Klarman makes a distinction between marketing operations (on which he spends very little time) and investment operations (on which he spend more time).

Team Management

  • There is a weekly meeting between the public and private group to share intelligence and resources – an asset is an asset, can be accessed via or public or private markets – doesn’t make sense to put up wall between public vs. private.
  • Every investment professional is a generalist and assigned to best opportunity – no specialization or group barriers.
  • Culture! Culture! Culture! Focus on mutual respect, upward promotion available to those who are talented, and alignment of interest
  • Baupost has employees who were there for years before finally making a large investment – key is they don’t mind cost of keeping talented people with long-term payoff focus
  • Succession planning is very important (especially in light of recent Herb Wagner departure announcement)
  • The most conservative avenue is adopted when there is a decision disagreement
  • They have a team of people focused on transaction structuring


  • Baupost invests focusing on superior long-term returns, not the goal of ending each year with a positive return. We have talked about this before, in relation to Bill Miller’s trackrecord – despite having little logical rationale, an investor’s performance aptitude is often measured by calendar year end return periods. Here, Klarman has drawn a line in the sand, effective saying he refuses to play the calendar year game


Lisa Rapuano Interview Highlights - Part 1


Recently, I was lamenting the lack of female representation in investment management. Then in conversation, a friend reminded me of this insightful interview with Lisa Rapuano, who worked with Bill Miller for many years, and currently runs Lane Five Capital Management. The interview touches upon a number of relevant portfolio management topics. Rapuano has obviously spent hours reflecting and contemplating these topics. A worthwhile read!

Portfolio Management

“I think that most investors spend way too much time talking about stocks and way too little talking about portfolio construction.”

Expected Return, Diversification, Sizing

“I’ve learned that you have to have a lot of different risk-reward profiles in your portfolio. You’ll have some things you think can go up 25% but you don’t think can go down very much. You’ll have things that can go up 50% but might go down 30%. Others can go up ten times, but may go down 75%. I try to manage the proper mix of all those. You just can’t have a portfolio where you say everything is priced to have 25% upside with little downside. What’s going to happen is that you’re going to be wrong about two of them and they go down 50% and you’re screwed because nothing else has enough upside to make it up.

“A word on concentration. You can take it too far. I know there are manager out there who get enthralled with the Kelly Formula and start putting out 25% or 50% positions because this one is REALLY the best. That just defies common sense. Anyone can be wrong, and any outcome can happen, even if it seems low probability. Keeping a minimum 20 name portfolio with about 5% as a normal position keeps you from making those kinds of mistakes.”

I thought the idea of maintaining a variety of expected returns in one’s portfolio was particularly interesting. People frequently discuss diversification in types of ideas/assets, but not often diversification in expected return profiles.

Also, there is wisdom in her caution against blindly using the Kelly Formula (even if you don’t agree with her advice for a 20 position portfolio). Blindly following any rule is simply a bad idea. Putting 25-50% of your portfolio into one security can be pretty painful if/when you are wrong (which happens occasionally even to the best investors).

However, that doesn’t mean one should never put 25-50% of the portfolio into one position. The important takeaway here is maintaining flexibility, being prepared (especially mentally) for the possibility that you could be wrong, and having a “break the glass” contingency plan just in case the worst materializes.

Correlation, Leverage

“We tend to run about 70-100% net long, with a maximum of 100% gross long. Since we run a very concentrated long-term fund on the long side, we believe that going over 100% gross long isn’t prudent.”

Concentration (and thus high portfolio asset correlation) and leverage is a potent combination – the result is likely in the extremes of (1) homerun good or (2) disastrously bad.

Time Management, Sizing

“A new position has to be compelling enough to put at least 3% of the fund in, or it’s not worth dabbling in.”


Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 4


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 4 “The Most Important Thing Is…The Relationship Between Price and Value.” Topics covered: Volatility, Leverage, When To Buy, When To Sell  


“…most of the time a security’s price will be affected at least as much – and its short-term fluctuations determined primarily – by two other factors: psychology and technicals…These are nonfundamental factors – that is, things unrelated to value – that affect the supply and demand for securities.”

“Investor psychology can cause a security to be priced just about anywhere in the short run, regardless of its fundamentals…The key is who likes the investment now and who doesn’t. Future price change will be determined by whether it comes to be liked by more people or fewer people in the future.”

“For self-protection, then, you must invest the time and energy to understand market psychology. It’s essential to understand that fundamental value will be only one of the factors determining a security’s price on the day you buy it. Try to have psychology and technicals on your side as well.”

Many investors suffer the vicissitude of volatility and deny they are suffering by clinging to the excuse that short-term price fluctuations are merely temporary impairments of capital.

The movements may be temporary, but temporary movements downward still impact your performance trackrecord, capital reinvestment options, etc., and therefore should not be completely ignored.

Howard Marks is undoubtedly a long-term investor, yet he considers the causes and ramifications of volatility “for self-protection.” Afterall, investing is difficult enough, wouldn’t you rather (attempt to) avoid the headwind of downside volatility if and when possible?



“Here the problem is that using leverage – buying with borrowed money – doesn’t make anything a better investment or increase the probability of gains. It merely magnifies whatever gains or losses may materialize. And it introduces the risk of ruin if a portfolio fails to satisfy a contractual value test and lenders can demand their money back at a time when prices and illiquidity are depressed. Over the years leverage has been associated with high returns, but also with the most spectacular meltdowns and crashes.”

What about non-recourse debt? (Ethics aside, of course.) Could non-recourse debt make an investment “better” by skewing the ratio of potential loss (your equity cost basis) vs. potential gain?


When To Buy

“No asset class or investment has the birthright of a high return. It’s only attractive if it’s priced right.”

“Believe me, there is nothing better than buying from someone who has to sell regardless of price during a crash. Many of the best buys we’ve ever made occurred for that reason.”

“The safest and most potentially profitable thing is to buy something when no one likes it.”

Before buying a security, consider who is selling and reasons why the seller dislikes it enough to sell. The best buying situations involve discoveries of forced/indiscriminate sellers for XYZ reason(s).


When To Sell, When To Buy

“Since buying from a forced seller is the best thing in our world, being a forced seller is the worst. That means it’s essential to arrange your affairs so you’ll be able to hold on – and not sell – at the worst of times. This requires both long-term capital and strong psychological resources.”

“A ‘top’ in a stock, group or market occurs when the last holdout who will become a buyer does so. The timing is often unrelated to fundamental developments.”

“Well bought is half sold.”

There’s an inherent, inseparable relationship between the act of buying and selling a security.

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.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1961 Part 3


This post is a continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters. Please refer to the initial post in this series for more details. For those interested in Warren Buffett’s portfolio management style, I highly recommend the reading of the second 1961 letter in its entirety, and to check out our previous posts on 1961.



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

“…and probably 40 or so securities.”

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

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

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

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


Catalyst, Diversification, Expected Return

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Intrinsic Value, When to Sell

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

Don’t be too greedy.


Invisible Hands Encore


Many thanks to Adam Bain of CommonWealth Opportunity Capital for tipping PM Jar about this chapter in Steve Drobny’s Invisible Hands. “The Pensioner” interviewed “runs a major portfolio for one of the largest pension funds in the world.” He seems to define risk (for the most part) as volatility. Regardless of whether you agree with this definition, the chapter is a worthwhile read because he brings the “risk” discussion to the forefront of the portfolio construction and management process – whereas many currently approach and manage risk as a byproduct and afterthought.

Oh, and he also provides some very unique thoughts on liquidity and illiquidity.

Risk, Expected Return, Diversification

While focusing too much on the (desired) expected return, say 8% per annum, investors lose sight of the actual level of “risk” assumed in the portfolio. The Pensioner believes that “investors on average, are led astray at the beginning of the portfolio construction process by focusing on a return target…the level of risk assumed to achieve that target becomes secondary.”

Currently, it is “common practice” to allocate capital “based on dollar value as opposed to allocating based on a risk budget. Oftentimes, this can lead to asset allocations that appear diversified but really are not…The goal is to build a portfolio that produces the maximum return per unit of risk.” Some may refer to this as maximizing risk-adjusted return.

A good risk management process should incentivize employees to be “cognizant” of risk, and to focus on “risk-adjusted returns, as opposed to just nominal returns…” and “…trade off between the marginal risk consumed by an investment and the investment’s expected return.” This concept is akin to a business’ focus on net income or cash flow, rather than top line revenues.

“Portfolio managers get themselves into trouble when they look at opportunities as standalone risks. The marginal contribution to overall risk is what is most important.”

In essence, “risk needs to be treated as an input, not an output, to the investment process.”

Risk identification is not always straightforward or all that obvious. For example, certain asset classes traditionally considered “nonequity” (such as private equity, real estate, infrastructure, etc.) actually have very equity-like qualities. Fixed income and credit is “really just a slice of the equity risk premium.”


For those interested in the topic of liquidity and illiquidity, I highly recommend the reading of the Pensioner chapter in its entirety. He presents some very interesting and unique perspectives on how to think about both liquidity and illiquidity in a portfolio context.

Perceptions as well as actual liquidity profiles of assets can change depending on the market environment. For example, in 2008, people learned the hard way when “assets that were liquid in good times…became very illiquid in periods of stress, including external managers who threw up gates, credit derivatives whereby whole tranches became toxic, and even crowded trades such as single stocks chosen according to well-known quantitative screens.”

“Illiquidity risk needs to be recognized for what it is, which is just another risk premium amongst many.” But how do you value this risk? That’s the tricky part, with no exact answer, but fun to think about nonetheless…

“By entering into an illiquid investment, you give up the option to sell at the time of your choosing, and as a result, an opportunity cost is incurred. Illiquidity is essentially a short-put option on opportunity cost and, if you were able to estimate the likelihood and value of all future opportunities, then you could estimate the illiquidity risk premium using standard option pricing theory. Of course, this is almost impossible in practice.” So in order to think about the cost of illiquidity, we must consider opportunity cost. Sound familiar? That’s because opportunity cost is also the essential input for the theoretical valuation of cash. For that, see our post on Jim Leitner, who has some wonderfully insightful thoughts on that subject.

Illiquidity is a “negative externality.” The evidence for this claim lies in 2008, when “many liquid managers were shut down, despite excellent future prospects. This was because clients, desperate to raise capital or cut risk and unable to sell their illiquid assets, sold whatever they were able to.” Therefore, illiquidity impacted not only those assets that were illiquid, but spread to negatively impact other asset classes.

Liquidity, Trackrecord, Volatility

Ironically, the illiquid nature and lack of pricing availability of some assets actually improved the volatility profile and trackrecords of some managers due to the “artificial” smoothing provided by the delay in mark to market. So there you have it: illiquid assets can sometimes be used to game the system for both returns and volatility. Disclaimer: PM Jar is not recommending that our Readers try this at home.


PM Jar usually does not highlight mathematical or formulaic concepts. But the unique nature of this concept merits a quick paragraph or two.

Many have characterized the events of 2008 as “nonnormal.” But the Pensioner claims that 2008 events were not “exceedingly ‘fat’ or nonnormal…rather, they exhibited nonconstant volatility…A risk system capable of capturing short-term changes in risk would have gone a long way to reduce losses in 2008.”

The book provides the following explanation for stochastic volatility:

“Stochastic volatility models are used to evaluate various derivatives securities, whereby – as their name implied – they treat the volatility of the underlying securities as a random process. Stochastic volatility models attempt to capture the changing nature of volatility over the life of the derivative contract, something that the traditional Black-Scholes model and other constant volatility models fail to address.”


All assets respond to inflation over the long-term – for better or for worse. However, in the near-term, some assets we commonly believe to be hedges to inflation often don’t work out as expected. For example, “Real estate and equities...get hit hard by unexpected inflation because even though they have real cash flow, they are still businesses, and the central bank response to inflation is to raise rates to slow demand.”


The term leverage generally has a negative connotation, but in his mind, there are 4 different types of leverage – some good, some bad:

  1. “Using leverage to hedge liabilities” – GOOD
  2. “Using leverage to improve the diversification of a portfolio” – GOOD
  3. “Levering risky positions to generate even high expected returns” – BAD
  4. “Using off-balance sheet hidden leverage to make risky assets even riskier (i.e., private equity)” – BAD

It’s not leverage itself that’s bad, it’s how you use it – similar to how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Accounting Leverage – the type of leverage that “shows up directly on a fund’s balance sheet,” such as margin, repo or derivative transactions.

Economic Leverage – the leverage “born indirectly by the fund through some other entity.” Examples include highly levered public securities owned by the fund, or private equity allocations that have highly leveraged underlying holdings.


When people hedge to put a floor on near-term returns, it entails “costs to the fund over the long-term because I am essentially buying insurance on my job and billing my employer for the premium.”


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.”

Lessons from Jim Leitner - Part 2 of 3


Here is Part 2 on the wonderfully insightful interview in Steve Drobny's book The Invisible Hands with Jim Leitner, who runs Falcon Investment Management, and was previously a member of Yale Endowment's Investment Committee. Leitner is an investor who has spent considerable time contemplating the science and art of investing, making money opportunistically across all asset classes, unconstrained, focused on finding the right price and structure, not losing money...and remaining humble (an increasingly rare quality in our industry).

His very clearly articulated thoughts about hedging, risk management, cash, and a number of other topics are profound. Below is Part 2 of a summary of those thoughts (please also see Part 1 and Part 3). I would highly recommend the reading of the actual chapter in its entirety.

Hedging, Leverage, Creativity

Summarized below is a wonderful example of Jim’s differentiated and creative thought process.

Conventional wisdom cautions investors to avoid leverage because it is considered more “risky.” This is generally true if you’re employing leverage to purchase additional positions that have similar correlation/volatility profiles to existing positions.

But what if you used leverage “to purchase only those assets which, at least historically, have had negative correlations” to the existing portfolio holdings? Theoretically, this additional leverage should not increase the “riskiness” of the total portfolio because in the event of a market drawdown, the asset purchased on leverage will increase in value thus avoiding the margin call and downward spiral generally associated with leveraged portfolios in bear markets.

One example Jim gives is a levered (via the repo market) position long government bonds, an asset class that tends to rally when equity markets hiccup.

Usually, hedges and insurance protection cost money to purchase which in turn causes number of problematic issues (for more on this topic, please see a whitepaper published by AQR). But what if we could find a hedge that pays us instead? Although rare, it’s possible. In the example above, “bonds can be repo’d at the cash rate and have a risk premium over cash, over time the cost of such insurance should actually be a positive to the fund.” In other words, the interest received from the bonds purchased is greater than the interest paid on cash borrowed to purchase those bonds.

PIMCO Wisdom


PIMCO's power brains often generate really interesting and unique analysis to common questions. The summary and thoughts below were derived from a recent presentation on asset allocation. Discount Rate

Post US downgrade, and recent sovereign debt crisis, what are the implications for the actual figure of the risk-free rate?

What about the equity risk premium? Academics prefer to examine historical spreads to determine this risk premium figure, think it’s around 2-6%. This “premium” increases when investors don’t want risky assets (e.g., 2008), and decreases when investors become risk loving (e.g., 2004-2006).

So what exactly is the appropriate equity risk premium? Is a historical figure appropriate? Does it differ depending on the security being analyzed?

Accordingly, if the risk free rate AND equity risk premium is constantly shifting, it would imply that the discount is constantly fluctuating as well. Any slight shift in the variable “k” in discount cash flow models creates huge ripples in the implied value of a security today. Perhaps we should all re-examine our casual use of “discount rates” when attempting to determine the value of a security.


It’s a good time to be a borrower – especially on an after-tax basis. Ohio State had just sold $500MM 100-year “century” bonds at 4.849% coupon.


All risk within a portfolio can be explained by one of the four factors below, with Equity and Duration explaining about 95% of risk in most portfolios

  • Equity
  • Duration
  • Liquidity
  • Foreign Exchange

Lessons from Buffett's Tax Return


The investment management industry has a nasty habit of ignoring the effect of taxes upon returns – mainly because the biggest and most important clients don’t care about pre- vs. after-tax returns (pensions, endowments, foundations, etc.) PM Jar does not agree with this common practice. As a result, our Readers will continue to find posts related to effective and creative tax minimization strategies in a portfolio management context.


On the topic of taxes and leverage/margin in a portfolio context, my thoughts brought me back to an old WSJ article on Buffett’s tax return.

There’s lot of speculation in the article, but one particular section stood out:

“Another large element of the gap could be attributable to investment interest expense, which is deductible to the extent that Buffett had investment income—and he did. According to a person familiar with the matter, in the past he has taken out bank loans rather than liquidate shares from his Berkshire Hathaway holdings, which would be a taxable event. Obviously he qualifies for excellent interest rates. Interest expense could also flow through from investment partnerships such as hedge funds.”

Given today’s low interest rate environment (and since interest is tax deductible), could this be a lesson to all of us? Obviously Buffett is older and can use leverage/margin to defer sale of securities until his death. For the average investor, perhaps we should consider using margin or leverage (selectively and prudently) to manage around tax sensitive date thresholds (for example, short-term vs. long-term capital gain).