Elementary Worldly Wisdom – Part 2


The following is Part 2 of portfolio management highlights extracted from a gem of a Munger speech given at USC 20 years ago in 1994. It’s long, but contains insights collected over many years by one of the world’s greatest investment minds. Caustically humorous, purely Munger, it is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your day between browsing ESPN and TMZ. Expected Return, Selectivity, Sizing, When To Buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax, Compounding, When To Sell

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

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

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

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

Diversification, Hedging

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

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


Michael Price & Portfolio Management


Summaries below are extracted from a speech Michael Price gave at the 2013 (June) London Value Investor Conference. If you have read our previous article based on an interview Peter J. Tanous conducted with Michael Price many years ago, you’ll find that Price’s portfolio management philosophy has not changed much since then. Many thanks to my friend John Huber of BaseHitInvesting for sharing this me with me. The complete video can be found here (Market Folly). Cash, Volatility, Patience, Hurdle Rate

2/3 of his portfolio consists of “value” securities (those trading at a discount to intrinsic value), and remaining 1/3 are special situations (activism, liquidation, etc). When he can’t find opportunities for either category, he holds cash.

The expected downside volatility of this type of portfolio in a bear market (excluding extreme events like 2008) is benign because when the overall market declines, cash won’t move at all and securities trading at 60% of intrinsic value won’t move down very much.

The key to constructing a portfolio like this is patience, because you must be willing to wait for assets to trade to 1/2 or 1/3 discount to intrinsic value, or sit with cash and wait when you can’t find them right away.

Price says he does not have any preconceived notions of what amount of cash to hold within the portfolio (aside from a 3-5% minimum because he likes “having the ammunition”). Instead, the portfolio cash balance is a function of what he is buying or selling. Cash increases when markets go up because he is selling securities/assets, and cash decreases when markets go down because he is buying securities/assets. He also mentions that he doesn’t care what he’s earning on cash, which is interesting because does this imply that Price’s hurdle rate for investments is likely always higher than what he can earn on cash?

Sizing, Diversification

Price prefers to hold a more diversified portfolio of cheap names, spreading his risk across 30-70 positions, “not 13 holdings.” Over time, as he does more work, good ideas float to the top, and he sizes up the good ideas as he builds more conviction, whereas names that are merely “interesting” stay at 1% of NAV.

The resulting portfolio may have 40 securities, with the top 5 names @ 5% NAV each, the next 5-10 names @ 3% NAV each, and the next 20-30 names @ 1% NAV each.

Price likes constructing his portfolio this way because he is then able to compare and contrast across more companies/securities, to help drive conviction, making him smarter over time. It’s a style decision, and may not work for everyone, but it works for him.

When To Sell, Mistakes, Tax

Price calls it the “art of when to sell things” because it’s not always straightforward, and especially tricky when a security you purchased at a discount to intrinsic value appreciates to 90-100% of intrinsic value. For example, he bought into the Ruth's Chris rights offering at $2.50/share, and the stock is now trading at $11/share. He sold a quarter of his stake because “it’s getting there” and “you don’t know when to unwind the whole thing so you dribble it out.”

Other rules for selling: when you make a mistake, or lose conviction. Especially important before it becomes long-term gains because it will then offset other short-term gains dollar-for-dollar (anyone investing in special situations / event-driven equities will likely generate a good portion of short-term gains).



Buffett Partnership Letters: 1964 Part 1


Continuation of our series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Given the recent discussions/debates around taxes and potentially shifting tax rates, we thought it appropriate to share some historical Buffett wisdom on the topic.


“We do not play any games to either accelerated or defer taxes. We make investment decisions based on our evaluation of the most profitable combination of probabilities. If this means paying taxes – fine…”

“More investment sins are probably committed by otherwise quite intelligent people because of ‘tax considerations’ than from any other cause. One of my friends – a noted West Coast philosopher [Charlie Munger] – maintains that a majority of life’s errors are caused by forgetting what one is really trying to do…

What is one really trying to do in the investment world? Not pay the least taxes, although that may be a factor to be considered in achieving the end. Means and end should not be confused, however, and the end is to come away with the largest after-tax rate of compound…

If gains are involved, changing portfolios involves paying taxes. Except in very unusual cases…the amount of the tax is of minor importance if the difference in expectable performance is significant…

There are only three ways to avoid ultimately paying the tax: (1) die with the asset – and that’s a little too ultimate for me – even the zealots would have to view this ‘cure’ with mixed emotions; (2) give the asset away – you certainly don’t pay any taxes this way, but of course you don’t pay for any groceries, rent, etc., either; and (3) lose back the gain – if your mouth waters at this tax-saver, I have to admire you – you certainly have the courage of your convictions.

So it is going to continue to be the policy of BPL to try to maximize investment gains, not minimize taxes. We will do our level best to create the maximum revenue for the Treasury – at the lowest rates the rules will allow.”

Patience, Sourcing, Liquidity

“…I consider the buying end to be about 90% of this business…These stocks have been bought and are continuing to be bought at prices considerably below their value to a private owner. We have been buying one of these situations for approximately 18 months and both of the others for about a year. It would not surprise me if we continued to do nothing but patiently buy these securities week after week for at least another year, and perhaps even two years or more.”

In Buffett's biography The Snowball, I believe there is an anecdote that Buffett and his associates would go knocking on doors in small towns to seek out shares of XYZ stock for purchase. Based on the quote above, it would take years for him to accumulate full positions. How’s that for patience, not to mention liquidity implications?!

Most public market investors, who invest in liquid securities, don't spent a lot of time focused on sourcing. Could there be a hidden advantage for those who focus on obscure or illiquid issuances, and manage to creatively source them at bargain prices?

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.


Compounding Outsourced


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Deed or Good Tax Planning?


A few weeks ago, the WSJ featured an article titled “A Class Move for an Office” about Bank of America donating an office building in Wilmington, Delaware to a local charter school. “Wilmington’s central business district’s fourth-quarter office vacancy rate stood at 20%…The four-quarter national average was 17.3%. Bank of America weighted a number of options before opting to donate the 282,000 square feet of space, including selling it.”

The article seems to hint at this but, does not state it outright, or perhaps I’m just more cynical than the journalist. I believe BAC was greatly incentivized to donate the building for the following reasons:

  • The expected sale price was substantially lower than the mark of the building currently on its balance sheet, and would have resulted in a charge to its ever precious equity capital.
  • Perhaps there is less scrutiny by the IRS than the OCC/FDIC/Fed on mark to market, thus the current unrealistic mark for the building actually becomes a greater than “fair value” tax benefit.
Of course I am by no means an accounting expert, and would welcome Reader commentary on the actual accounting treatment for the sale vs. donation scenarios.

Regardless, this article led me to wonder, could other investors (especially those that hold illiquid/private assets) emulate this tactic employed by BAC and be better off donating certain assets, particularly in situations where:

  • Investors/funds make annual charitable donations anyway
  • The asset is a long-term cash drain (e.g., non/negative-cash flowing real estate with high maintenance expenses in a market a long way from recovery, time share condos, etc.)
  • Sale of that asset would lead to additional (cash) losses, transaction fees, and/or become the source of much aggravation and headache

Fee & Tax Deferral As Free Float


A Reader recently forwarded to me the marketing documents of an open-end investment fund based in London. The fund had an interesting incentive fee arrangement equal to 20% * (Value at Redemption - Value at Subscription), subject to an annual hurdle rate of XYZ Benchmark + 300 basis points. The incentive fee is deferred until the client decides to pull capital from the fund.

This led me to ponder: since the General Partner doesn’t get paid any incentive fees until redemption, are the taxes payable by the General Partner associated with the incentive fee also deferred until redemption?

If so, does this mean that the fee and tax deferral constitutes a form of “free float”? It would seem so since the manager is able to continue to compound the capital that otherwise would have gone to pay incentive fees and associated taxes at the GP level (a la 401Ks or IRAs).

Interestingly, as pointed out by the Reader, perhaps that’s the reason why Berkshire Hathaway has chosen to not sell some of its long-term public holdings. The cost at sale is not only the tax bill (deferred until now), but also the loss of a form of free float, made so much more valuable by the future compounding power of Berkshire.

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).