Special Situations

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1965 Part 4


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

“…I believe that we have done somewhat better during the past few years with the capital we have had in the Partnership than we would have done if we had been working with a substantially smaller amount. This was due to the partly fortuitous development of several investments that were just the right size for us – big enough to be significant and small enough to handle.

I now feel that we are much closer to the point where increase sized may prove disadvantageous…What may be the optimum size under some market and business circumstances can be substantially more or less than optimum under other circumstances…as circumstances presently appear, I feel substantially greater size is more likely to harm future results than to help them.”

Asset under management (“AUM”) should not be a stagnant or passive consideration. The AUM is essentially the denominator in the return on equity calculation. The adjustment of AUM relative to portfolio gain and loss will directly impact the trackrecord. The optimal AUM will fluctuate depending on market conditions and/or opportunities available.

However, how to “adjust” AUM is a whole other can of worms.

Historical Performance Analysis, Special Situations, AUM, Expected Return, Hurdle Rate, Sizing, Time Management

“The ‘Workout’ business has become very spasmodic. We were able to employ an average of only $6 million during the year…and this involved only a very limited number of situations. Although we earned about $1,410,000, or about 23 ½% on average capital employed (this is calculated on an all equity basis...), over half of this was earned from one situation. I think it unlikely that a really interesting rate of return can be earned consistently on large sums of money in this business under present conditions.”

Over the previous 10 years, a portion of Buffett’s portfolio was consistently invested in special situations. But we see from that quote above that with AUM increasing, Buffett began to reconsider the allocation to this basket after examining its historical return contribution.

  • Does the expected return available meet my minimum return standards (hurdle rate)?
  • If so, can I deploy enough capital into the basket such that it contributes meaningfully to portfolio performance and absolute profts? (For example, a 1% allocation that returns 100%, while a return high percentage-wise, adds only a little boost to overall portfolio performance)
  • How much of my (or my team’s) time am I will to allocate given the expected return and profits?

Perhaps another interesting lesson is that as AUM shifts, strategies that made sense at one point, may not always be as effective.

Sourcing, Sizing

“I do not have a great flood of good ideas as I go into 1966, although again I believe I have at least several potentially good ideas of substantial size. Much depends on whether market conditions are favorable for obtaining a larger position.”

Good ideas, even just a few, when sized correctly will lead to profits.

Conversely, ideas – no matter how good – if sized too small or impossible to obtain in adequate size for the portfolio, won’t make much of a difference.

Selectivity, Sizing, Expected Return, Opportunity Cost, Hurdle Rate, Correlation, Capital Preservation

“We are obviously only going to go to 40% in very rare situations – this rarity, of course, is what makes it necessary that we concentrate so heavily when we see such an opportunity. W probably have had only five or six situations in the nine-year history of the Partnership where we have exceeded 25%. Any such situations are going to have to promise very significantly superior performance relative to the Dow compared to other opportunities available at the time.

They are also going to have to possess such superior qualitative and/or quantitative factors that the chance of serious permanent loss is minimal (anything can happen on a short-term quotational basis which partially explains the greater risk of widened year-to-year variations in results). In selecting the limit to which I will go in any one investment, I attempt to reduce to a tiny figure the probability that the single investment (or group, if there is intercorrelation) can produce a result for our total portfolio that would be more than ten percentage points poorer than the Dow.”

Buffett’s sizing decisions were selective, and dependent upon a number of conditions, such as:

  • The expected return of the potential investment
  • The expected return of the potential investment compared with the expected return of the Dow, and other potential investments (this is the opportunity cost and hurdle rate consideration)
  • Whether the potential investment is correlated with other current and potential investments
  • The possibility of expected loss of the potential investment (capital preservation consideration)

When To Buy

“Our purchase of Berkshire started at a price of $7.60 per share in 1962…the average cost, however, was $14.86 per share, reflecting very heavy purchases in early 1965…”

Buffett was comfortable buying as prices went up. This is in contrast to many value investors who are most comfortable buying on the way down.



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.


Baupost Letters: 1995


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


When To Buy, Risk

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

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

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


Benchmark, Conservatism, Clients

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

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

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


Selectivity, Cash

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

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

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


Catalyst, Volatility, Special Situations

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

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



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

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

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

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

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1957 Part 2


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. Cash, Special Situations

“…if the market should go considerably higher our policy will be to reduce our general issues as profits present themselves and increase the work-out portfolio.”

His describes the “general issues” basket – mostly undervalued securities with no catalyst – in greater detail in later letters.

Interestingly, the quote implies that Buffett used his “work-out” basket as a quasi-cash equivalent. Theoretically, when a security has little/no downside capture, assuming there’s enough trading volume and liquidity, it can be utilized in a portfolio context as a quasi-cash equivalent with upside potential. This allows the portfolio manager to decrease exposure as underlying markets get expensive, while squeezing out some return potential greater than pure cash yields. Should the underlying market decline, accumulated performance is preserved as the “work-out” basket does not decline, and could be sold to serve as a source of liquidity to purchase other (now cheap) securities that have declined with the market.

A useful tactic for investors who wish to decrease exposure when markets get frothy, but don't want to blatantly lag if the rally continues. Of course, this is all predicated upon one's ability to identify "work-out" securities with 1957 attributes. Please see our 1957: Part 1 discussion for more details.

Sizing, Expected Return, Hurdle Rate

“One of these positions accounts for between 10% and 20% of the portfolio of the various partnerships and the other accounts for about 5%...will probably take in the neighborhood of three to five years of work but they presently appear to have potential for a high average annual rate of return…”

“Earlier I mentioned our largest position which comprised 10% to 20% of the assets of the various partnerships. In time I plan to have this represent 20% of the assets of all partnerships but this cannot be hurried.”

“Over the years, I will be quite satisfied with a performance that is 10% per year better than the Averages…Our performance, relatively, is likely to be better in a bear market than in a bull market…In a year when the general market had a substantial advance I would be well satisfied to match the advance of the Averages.”

Buffett left nothing to hope or chance, and thought very strategically about position sizing, the annualized expected return of these positions, and the estimated hurdle rate required to outperform his benchmarks by a margin of 10% annually.

Too often, investors are anchored to certain return figures (e.g., 8-15%+ for equities, etc.) regardless of current market conditions and entry price. Unpleasant negative surprises would occur less often if investors followed Buffett’s approach in examining portfolio holdings, percentage exposures, and assigning realistic expected returns based on present market conditions.

I do not wish to imply that the expected return of a portfolio can be extracted via a scientific formula involving the calculation of a weighted average return figure – false precision is equally as dangerous as false expectations. However, I do believe that knowing the general direction of potential future portfolio returns can be helpful in setting realistic expectations for portfolio managers, external fund investors, and assist with other portfolio related decisions such as fundraising, headcount expansion, etc.

Separate Accounts

“All three of the 1956 partnerships showed a gain during the year amounting to about 6.2%, 7.8%, and 25% on yearend 1956 net worth. Naturally a question is created as to the vastly superior performance of the last partnership, particularly in the mind of the partners of the first two. This performance emphasizes the importance of luck in the short run, particularly in regard to when funds are received. The third partnership was started in the latest in 1956 when the market was at a lower level and when several securities were particularly attractive. Because of the availability of funds, large positions were taken in these issues. Whereas the two partnerships formed earlier were already substantially invested so that they could only take relatively small positions in these issues.”

For those who manage separate accounts and have received inquiries from clients regarding performance discrepancies related to fund flow / timing differences, feel free to tell them that this would happen even if Buffett managed their account. Perhaps not in those exact words, but I thought to include this quote in case a Reader finds it useful.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1957 Part 1


I have often told people that the Buffett Partnership Letters is my favorite investment book. As a young investor (26 years old when he started in 1956), Buffett was nimble, opportunistic, and far more candid in his discussion of ideas and portfolio management techniques. The Partnership Letters and the early Berkshire letters are a treasure trove of information, revealing the staggering genius behind the simple folksy manner he employs for mass media. Summaries and excerpts related to portfolio management will be posted in series form over the next few months. I hope our Readers will enjoy them. I will certainly enjoy going back through and articulating my thoughts in written form.

It may surprise some Readers that Warren Buffett was not always a “buy and hold” investor. Wait until you read the letter in which he talks about drinking – I hope you’re sitting down – Pepsi!

Special Situations, Volatility

“My view of the general market level is that it is priced above intrinsic value…Even a full-scale bear market, however, should not hurt the market value of our work-outs substantially."

“A work-out is an investment which is dependent upon a specific corporate action for its profit rather than a general advance in the price of the stock as in the case of undervalued situations. Work-outs come about through: sales, mergers, liquidations, tenders, etc. In each case, the risk is that something will upset the applecart and cause the abandonment of the planned action, not that the economic picture will deteriorate and stocks decline in general.”  

Buffett’s “work-out” names muted (improved) the volatility profile of the return stream while providing upside potential – offering upside capture with little or no downside capture – in essence the “holy grail” security of every portfolio manager’s dream.

Fast forward 55 years, our industry now uses the term “special situations” and “event driven” to describe Buffett’s “work-outs.”

I suspect the arbitrage and special situations space back in 1957 was a lot less competitive, and investors could extract decent returns with minimal downside exposure to overall markets.

Today, many investors hold work-out / special situations / event driven securities in their portfolios. As a result of the competitive nature of the investment management industry, these types of securities either (1) no longer shield portfolios from market volatility as effectively as in 1957 or (2) do not provide the upside return potential as they once did.

With all that said, I still believe that Buffett’s technique is valuable today because his general rationale for holding uncorrelated “work-outs” in a portfolio still holds true. Investors just need to think more creatively and seek “work-outs” disguised in different forms – beyond the special situation securities in which event driven investors usually traffic.

And it begins...with Michael F. Price


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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