Team Management

BlueCrest’s Michael Platt


Michael Platt and BlueCrest Capital have been in the headlines recently as the latest hedge fund billionaire to return external capital and morph into a private partnership / family office. Below are portfolio management tidbits from Platt's interview with Jack Schwager in Hedge Fund Market Wizards. Capital Preservation, Risk, Team Management

“I have no appetite for losses. Our discretionary strategy’s worst peak-to-trough drawdown in over 10 years was less than 5 percent, and this strategy lost approximately 5 percent in one month. One thing that brings my blood to a boiling point is when an absolute return guy starts talking about his return relative to anything. My response was, ‘You are not relative to anything, my friend. You can’t be in the relative game just when it suits you and in the absolute game just when it suits you. You are in the absolute return game, and the fact that you use the word relative means that I don’t want you anymore.’”

“The risk control is all bottom-up. I structured the business right from the get-go so that we would have lots of diversification. For example, on the fixed income side, I hire specialists. I have a specialist in Scandinavian rates, a specialist in the short end, a specialist in volatility surface arbitrage, a specialist in euro long-dated trading, an inflation specialist, and so on. They all get a capital allocation. Typically, I will hand out about $1.5 billion for every $1 billion we manage because people don’t use their entire risk allocation all the time. I assume, on average, they will use about two thirds. The deal is that if a trader loses 3 percent, he has to give me back half of his trading line. If he loses another 3 percent of the remaining half, that’s it. His book is auctioned. All the traders are shown his book and take what they want into their own books, and anything that is left is liquidated.”

“Q: What happens to the trader at that point? Is he out on the street? A: It depends on how he reached his limit. I’m not a hard-nosed person. I don’t say, you lost money, get out. It’s possible someone gets caught in a storm. A trader might have some very reasonable Japanese positions on, and then there is a nuclear accident, and he loses a lot of money. We might recapitalize him, but it depends. It is also a matter of gut feel. How do I feel about the guy?

Q: Is the 3 percent loss measured from the allocation starting level? A: Yes, it is definitely not a trailing stop. We want people to scale down if they are getting it wrong and scale up if they are getting it right. If a guy has a $100 million allocation and makes $20 million, he then has $23 million to his stop point.

Q: Do you move that stop up at any point? A: No, it rebases annually.

Q: So every January 1, traders start off with the same 3 percent stop point? A: Yes, unless they carry over some of their P&L. One year, one of my guys made about $500 million of profits. He was going to get a huge incentive check. I said to him, ‘Do you really want to be paid out on the entire $500 million? How about I pay you on $400 million, and you carry over $100 million, so you still have a big line.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll do that.’ So he would have to lose that $100 million plus 3 percent of the new allocation before the first stop would kick in.”

“I don’t interfere with traders. A trader is either a stand-alone producer or gone. If I start micromanaging a trader’s position, it then becomes my position. Why then am I paying him such a large percentage of the incentive fee?”

“We have a seven-person risk management team…The key thing they are monitoring for is a breakdown in correlation…because most of our positions are spreads. So lower correlations would increase the risk of the position. The most dangerous risks are spread risks. If I assume that IBM and Dell have a 0.95 correlation, I can put on a large spread position with relatively small risk. But if the correlation drops to 0.50, I could be wiped out in 10 minutes. It is when the spread risks blow up that you find out that you have much more risk than you thought.

Controlling correlations is the key to managing risk. We look at risk in a whole range of different ways…They stress test the positions for all sorts of historical scenarios. They also scan portfolios to search for any vulnerabilities in positions that could impact performance. They literally ask the traders, ‘If you were going to drop $10 million, where would it come from?’ And the traders will know. A trader will often have some position in his book that is a bit spicy, and he will know what it is. So you just ask him to tell you. Most of what we get in the vulnerabilities in positions reports, we already know anyway. We would hope that our risk monitoring systems would have caught 95 percent of it. It is just a last check.”

Creativity, Psychology

“The type of guy I don’t want is an analyst who has never traded—the type of person who does a calculation on a computer, figures out where a market should be, puts on a big trade, gets caught up in it, and doesn’t stop out. And the market is always wrong; he’s not…

I look for the type of guy in London who gets up at seven o’clock on Sunday morning when his kids are still in bed, and logs onto a poker site so that he can pick off the U.S. drunks coming home on Saturday night. I hired a guy like that. He usually clears 5 or 10 grand every Sunday morning before breakfast taking out the drunks playing poker because they’re not very good at it, but their confidence has gone up a lot. That’s the type of guy you want —someone who understands an edge. Analysts, on the other hand, don’t think about anything else other than how smart they are.”

“I want guys who when they put on a good trade immediately start thinking about what they could put on against it. They just have the paranoia. Market makers get derailed in crises far less often than analysts. I hired an analyst one time who was a very smart guy. I probably made 50 times more money on his ideas than he did. I hired an economist once, which was the biggest mistake ever. He lasted only a few months. He was very dogmatic. He thought he was always right. The problem always comes down to ego. You find that analysts and economists have big egos, which just gets in the way of making money because they can never admit that they are wrong.”

“Both the ex-market makers who blew up became way too invested in their positions. Their ego got in the way. They just didn’t want to be wrong, and they stayed in their positions.”

Psychology, Opportunity Cost, Mistake

“I don’t have any tolerance for trading losses. I hate losing money more than anything. Losing money is what kills you. It is not the actual loss. It’s the fact that it messes up your psychology. You lose the bullets in your gun. What happens is you put on a stupid trade, lose $20 million in 10 minutes, and take the trade off. You feel like an idiot, and you’re not in the mood to put on anything else. Then the elephant walks past you while your gun’s not loaded. It’s amazing how annoyingly often that happens. In this game, you want to be there when the great trade comes along. It’s the 80/20 rule of life. In trading, 80 percent of your profits come from 20 percent of your ideas.”

“…I look at each trade in my book every day and ask myself the question, 'Would I enter this trade today at this price?' If the answer is 'no,' then the trade is gone.”

“When I am wrong, the only instinct I have is to get out. If I was thinking one way, and now I can see that it was a real mistake, then I am probably not the only person in shock, so I better be the first one to sell. I don’t care what the price is. In this game, you have an option to keep 20 percent of your P&L this year, but you also want to own the serial option of being able to do that every year. You can’t be blowing up.”

How many of us have been in a situation when we were busy putting out fire(s) on existing position(s) when we should have been focused on new/better ideas?


“I like buying stuff cheap and selling it at fair value. How you implement a trade is critical. I develop a macro view about something, but then there are 20 different ways I can play it. The key question is: which way gives me the best risk/return ratio? My final trade is rarely going to be a straight long or short position.”

His core goal is not all that different from what fundamental investors are try to achieve: buy cheap, sell a fair or higher value. The main difference stems from how the bets are structured and the exposures created.

Creativity, Diversification, Correlation 

“I have always liked puzzles…I always regarded financial markets as the ultimate puzzle because everyone is trying to solve it, and infinite wealth lies at the end of solving it."

“Currently, because of the whole risk-on/risk-off culture that has developed, diversification is quite hard to get. When I first started trading about 20 years ago, U.S. and European bond markets weren’t really that correlated. Now, these markets move together tick by tick.”

“The strategy is always changing. It is a research war. Leda has built a phenomenal, talented team that is constantly seeking to improve our strategy.”

Markets are a zero sum game less transaction costs. Participants / competitors are constantly shifting and changing their approach to one-up each other because there is infinite wealth involved. What worked yesterday may not work today or tomorrow. Historical performance is not indicative of future result. This is also why so many quantitative frameworks for diversification and correlation that use historical statistics are so flawed. Investors must constantly improve and adapt to current and future conditions. Otherwise someone else will eat your lunch.


The Illusion That Returns Are Enough


"I believed if we delivered high double-digit returns at relatively low volatility, the rest of the business would take care of itself. I have been cured of that illusion." --Andy Redleaf, Whitebox Anyone who believes that investment acumen alone is enough to build a successful investment management business should read the article below. Excerpts are derived from Andy Redleaf's April 2014 Commentary.

“Back in 1999 when I launched Whitebox, I was determined to build an investment organization full of intellectually passionate, creative money managers who by working together would perform better than as individuals—with the side benefit of an enormously fun and stimulating place to work. We would be organized around a shared investment philosophy, driven by unconventional investment ideas, and settle disagreements by reasoned argument and persuasion, not reversion to status and testosterone wars. If we had a cult it would be a cult of ideas, not of personality.

When I left Deephaven Capital Management I was in a position financially to do pretty much what I liked, including going back to what I had done for most of my career: make a nice living trading on my own account. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I liked coming up with investment ideas; figuring out what the market was thinking and how to respond, but I didn’t like doing those things alone. I wanted camaraderie. I wanted the stimulation of debate and discussion with other smart people who shared my interests but who knew things I didn’t or had skills I lacked.

So I launched Whitebox as a collaborative, intellectually dynamic organization. It was always intended not as a fund but as a fund family. And it was never my intention to manage any Whitebox fund directly…I wanted to work with people who would be better fund managers than I. My job would be to articulate our investment philosophy, foster collaboration, and propose or critique investment ideas and strategies in a way that would not discourage the flow of ideas but promote it."

"That was always the Whitebox idea. Gather together outstanding managers like Rob, Jason, Paul and our about three dozen investment professionals and talk to each other for fun and business. Twenty of those professionals—myself, the three Global Strategy Heads, and 16 “Senior Portfolio Managers”—are authorized, at need, to trade on their own authority without asking anyone’s permission. Of course they rarely do except in routine matters, because discussion and collaboration is at the core of what we do...I have no data, but I’d guess the average age of senior investment people at Whitebox is on the high side for any hedge fund that has more than a handful. People stay here.

Of those 16 Senior Portfolio Managers, by the way, none of them has an independent P&L. There are firms, even successful firms, that handle talent by giving the talent a little capital, waiting a quarter to see if they lose money or make money and then firing them or giving them more capital accordingly. It’s supposed to be a ruthlessly rational way of evaluating talent, just as the market is supposed to be ruthlessly efficient. I think it is a great way to court disaster. The Hedge Fund as Band of Quasi-Independent Gun Slingers goes against everything we set out to accomplish at Whitebox. It encourages secrecy and all the bad things that come with that. It also wastes people’s brains.

Maybe Einstein orNewton needed to work in splendid solitude, but most pretty-smart people benefit from some intellectual back and forth and the mutual support of a team. Solitude especially makes no sense for an organization focused primarily on arbitraging relative value relationships often across markets or even geographies. Metcalfe’s Law says the value of the network is the square of the nodes. Whitebox is a network of professionals. Their outbound focus may be on a particular strategy or asset class—in that sense we get the benefits of specialization. But looking in or across the network, their job is to share information so that collectively the organization has a broad view of multiple market relationships.

In any case, the fact that 16 SPMs have independent trading authority gives some sense of their stature in the firm and to what extent we have succeeded in building the collaborative, non-hierarchical, principle-based and idea-driven organization we set out to build almost 15 years ago. Our approach to the Investment Committee is another example. Ninety percent of our work is done outside of our weekly meeting in daily ongoing discussion. Even in meetings we don’t vote and no one has a veto—we discuss until we reach consensus."

"When I launched Whitebox I believed if we delivered high double-digit returns at relatively low volatility, the rest of the business would take care of itself. I have been cured of that illusion.

Over the past year or so we’ve been engaged in a monumental effort—still ongoing—to strengthen everything else about the business. Doubling the size of the Marketing Group to improve the customer experience has been part of that. I think it is beginning to show. Certainly we know many of our investors better than we did a year ago, and have more frequent contact. More recently we have expanded the responsibilities of our Communication Group to work more closely with Marketing in refining the tools we use to communicate with investors and prospective investors so that they begin to know us better as well….

Since launching Whitebox nearly 15 years ago, I believe we have built a durable organization, rooted in a set of beliefs, even an ethic, that is the real source of our ongoing success. Whitebox is not just an investment company, it is an investment culture. Helping to build that is what I’d like to be known for."


Elementary Worldly Wisdom - Part 3


The following is Part 3 of portfolio management highlighted extracted from a gem of a Munger speech given at USC nearly a decade ago. It’s long, but contains insights collected over many years by one of the greatest investment minds in this century. Caustically humorous (purely Munger), it is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your day between browsing ESPN and TMZ. Psychology

“…the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does…‘To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’”

“…the great useful model, after compound interest, is the elementary math of permutations and combinations…people can't naturally and automatically do this. If you understand elementary psychology, the reason they can't is really quite simple: The basic neural network of the brain is there through broad genetic and cultural evolution. And it's not Fermat/Pascal. It uses a very crude, shortcut-type of approximation. It's got elements of Fermat/Pascal in it. However, it's not good.

So you have to learn in a very usable way this very elementary math and use it routinely in life—just the way if you want to become a golfer, you can't use the natural swing that broad evolution gave you. You have to learn—to have a certain grip and swing in a different way to realize your full potential as a golfer.

If you don't get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an asskicking contest. You're giving a huge advantage to everybody else.

One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett, whom I've worked with all these years, is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations...”

“There's not a person in this room viewing the work of a very ordinary professional magician who doesn't see a lot of things happening that aren't happening and not see a lot of things happening that are happening. And the reason why is that the perceptual apparatus of man has shortcuts in it.

The brain cannot have unlimited circuitry. So someone who knows how to take advantage of those shortcuts and cause the brain to miscalculate in certain ways can cause you to see things that aren't there…your brain has a shortage of circuitry and so forth—and it's taking all kinds of little automatic shortcuts… just as a man working with a tool has to know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus has to know its limitations.”

“We are all influenced—subconsciously and to some extent consciously—by what we see others do and approve. Therefore, if everybody's buying something, we think it's better. We don't like to be the one guy who's out of step. Again, some of this is at a subconscious level and some of it isn't. Sometimes, we consciously and rationally think, "Gee, I don't know much about this. They know more than I do. Therefore, why shouldn't I follow them?"

Team Management, Psychology

“…this knowledge, by the way, can be used to control and motivate other people...”

“Personally, I've gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things—which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.

One approach is rationality—the way you'd work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions—many of which are wrong.”

“If people tell you what you really don't want to hear what's unpleasant—there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn't foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don't think about it.

Television was dominated by one network—CBS in its early days. And Paley was a god. But he didn't like to hear what he didn't like to hear. And people soon learned that. So they told Paley only what he liked to hear. Therefore, he was soon living in a little cocoon of unreality and everything else was corrupt…You get a lot of dysfunction in a big fat, powerful place where no one will bring unwelcome reality to the boss.”

Team Management

“Carl Braun…His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five W's—you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.

You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that's a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they'll understand it better, they'll consider it more important, and they'll be more likely to comply. Even if they don't understand your reason, they'll be more likely to comply.

So there's an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it's obvious, it's wise to stick in the why.”

“The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting—so that the big people don't always win—is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality—which is again grounded in human nature.

And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else's in-basket. But, of course, it isn't. It's not done until AT&T delivers what it's supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.

They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I've got a department and you've got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there's sort of an unwritten rule: ‘If you won't bother me, I won't bother you and we're both happy.’ So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They're too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.

The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy—which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn't mean we don't need governments—because we do. But it's a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave. So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs…But bureaucracy is terrible.... And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior.”


How To Motivate Your Analysts


I've always found it curious why talent turns over so frequently at investment firms (at least in hedge fund land). Investing is a judgment-oriented business, and team turnover can be highly disruptive to the investment process. To retain talent, most people throw money at the problem. The video below will show you why that doesn't always work, and some interesting revelations about what truly motivates people. For those of you short on time, skip straight to 4:45



Bill Lipschutz: Dealing With Mistakes


The following excerpts are derived from Jack Schwager’s interview with Bill Lipschutz in The New Market Wizards. Lipschutz helped build and ran Salomon’s currency desk for many years – here is a 2006 EuroMoney Article with additional background on Bill Lipschutz. There are number of worthwhile portfolio management tidbits here, mainly the relationship between making mistakes, portfolio sizing & exposure, and controlling one’s psychological reactions. Mistake, Liquidity, Psychology, Process Over Outcome

“Missing an opportunity is as bad as being on the wrong side of a trade…”

“…the one time since I first started trading that I was really scared…our position size at the time was larger than normal…the dollar started moving up in New York, and there was no liquidity. Very quickly it was up 1 percent, and I knew that I was in trouble [1% of $3 billion = $30 million loss]…It transpired in just eight minutes. All I wanted to do was to make it through to the Tokyo opening at 7pm for the liquidity…By the time Tokyo opened, the dollar was moving down, so I held off covering half the position as I had previously planned to do. The dollar kept collapsing, and I covered the position in Europe…The reason that I didn’t get out on the Tokyo opening was that it was the wrong trading decision...

…That was the first time it hit home that, in regards to trading, I was really very different from most people around me. Although I was frightened at the time, it wasn’t a fear of losing my job or concern about what other people would think of me. It was a fear that I had pushed the envelope too far – to a risk level that was unacceptable. There was never a question in my mind about what steps needed to be taken or how I should go about it. The decision process was not something that was cloudy or murky in my vision. My fear was related to my judgment being so incorrect – not in terms of market direction (you can get that wrong all the time), but in terms of drastically misjudging the liquidity. I had let myself get into a situation in which I had no control. That had never happened before.”

“Q: Let’s say that the dollar started to go up – that is, in favor of the direction of your trade – but the fundamentals that provided your original premise for the trade has changed. Do you still hold the position because the market is moving in your favor, or do you get out because your fundamental analysis has changed?

A: I would definitely get out. If my perception that the fundamentals have changed is not the market’s perception, then there’s something going on that I don’t understand. You don’t want to hold a position when you don’t understand what’s going on. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Liquidity is your friend when it comes to dealing with mistakes.

Mistakes, Psychology, Sizing, When To Buy, When To Sell, Exposure, Expected Return

“When you’re in a losing streak, your ability to properly assimilate and analyze information starts to become distorted because of the impairment of the confidence factor, which is a by-product of a losing streak. You have to work very hard to restore that confidence, and cutting back trading size helps achieve that goal.”

“Q: For argument’s sake, let’s say that the fundamentals ostensibly don’t change but the dollar starts going down. How would you decide that you’re wrong? What would prevent you from taking an open-ended loss?

A: …if the price action fails to confirm my expectations will I be hugely long? No, I’m going to be flat and buying a little bit on the dips. You have to trade at a size such that if you’re not exactly right in your timing, you won’t be blown out of your position. My approach is to build to a larger size as the market is going my way. I don’t put on a trade by saying, “My God, this is the level; the market is taking off right from here.” I am definitely a scale-in type of trader.

Q: Do you believe your scaling type of approach in entering and exiting positions is an essential element in your overall trading success?

A: I think it has enabled me to stay with long-term winners much longer than I’ve seen most traders stay with their positions. I don’t have a problem letting my profits run, which many traders do. You have to be able to let your profits run. I don’t think you can consistently be a winning trader if you’re banking on being right more than 50% of the time. You have to figure out how to make money being right only 20 to 30 percent of the time.

Very interesting way to think about overall expected return of a portfolio – how to make profits if you are right only 20-30% of the time. This highlights the concept that in investing, it doesn’t matter how often you are right or wrong, what ultimately matters is how much you make when you are right and how much you lose when you are wrong.

Volatility, Exposure, Correlation

“…playing out scenarios is something that I do all the time. That is a process a fundamental trader goes through constantly. What if this happens? What if this doesn’t happen? How will the market respond? What level will the market move to…

…Generally speaking, I don’t think good traders make gut or snap decisions – certainly not traders who last very long. For myself, any trade idea must be well thought out and grounded in reason before I take the position. There are a host of reasons that preclude a trader from making a trade on a gut decision. For example, before I put on a trade, I always ask myself, ‘If this trade does wrong, how do I get out?’ That type of question becomes much more germane when you’re trading large position sizes. Another important consideration is the evaluation of the best way to express a trade idea. Since I usually tend not to put on a straight long or short position, I have to give a lot of thought as to what particular option combination will provide the most attractive return/risk profile, given my market expectations. All of these considerations, by definition, preclude gut decisions.”

Is not “playing out scenarios” within one’s mind a form of attempting to anticipate possible scenarios of expected volatility?

Trade structuring is an under-discussed topic. Many people buy or short things without understanding/considering the true exposure – standalone and/or when interacting with existing portfolio positions. In the words of Andy Redleaf of Whitebox, “The really bad place to be is where all too many investors find themselves much of the time, owning the wrong things by accident. They do want to own something in particular; often they want to own something quite sensible. They end up owning something else instead.”

Sizing, Psychology

“Q: Beside intelligence and extreme commitment, are there any other qualities that you believe are important to excel as a trader?”

A: Courage. It’s not enough to simply have the insight to see something apart from the rest of the crowd, you also need to have the courage to act on it and to stay with it. It’s very difficult to be different from the rest of the crowd the majority of the time, which by definition is what you’re doing if you’re a successful trader.”

Also true for fundamental investors.

Risk, Diversification, Exposure

“Q: How did the sudden demise of your personal account change you as a trader?

A: I probably became more risk-control oriented. I was never particularly risk averse…There are a lot of elements to risk control: Always know exactly where you stand. Don’t concentrate too much of your money on one big trade or group of highly correlated trades. Always understand the risk/reward of the trade as it now stands, not as it existed when you put the position on. Some people say, ‘I was only playing with the market’s money.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.”

Team Management

“…John [Gutfreund of Salomon Brothers] could smell death at a hundred paces. He didn’t need to know what your position was to know…how it was going. He could tell the state of your equity by the amount of anxiety he saw in your face.”

Time Management

“By the way, when I talk about working hard, I meant commitment and focus; it has nothing to do with how many hours you spend in the office.”



More Than You Know: Chapter 1


Below are numerous psychological gems extracted from Chapter 1 of More Than You Know by Michael Mauboussin. Also be sure to check out his thoughts on Process Over Outcome. Psychology, Sizing

“The behavioral issue of overconfidence comes into play here. Research suggests that people are too confident in their own abilities and predictions. As a result, they tend to project outcome ranges that are too narrow. Numerous crash-and-burn hedge fund stories boil down to committing too much capital to an investment that the manager overconfidently assessed. When allocating capital, portfolio managers need to consider that unexpected events do occur.”

“…we often believe more information provides a clearer picture of the future and improves our decision making. But in reality, additional information often only confuses the decision-making process. Researchers illustrated this point with a study of horse-race handicappers. They first asked the handicappers to make race predictions with five pieces of information. The researchers then asked the handicappers to make the same predictions with ten, twenty, and forty pieces of information for each horse in the race…even though the handicappers gained little accuracy by using the additional information, their confidence in their predictive ability rose with the supplementary data.”

Too much incremental information can lead to a false sense of comfort, overconfidence bias, and too narrow outcome ranges.

Given our psychological propensity for overconfidence and too narrow outcome predictions, does this mean portfolio sizing decisions should be based not only on what we know, but also on what we don’t know? As if investing wasn’t hard enough already…

Psychology, Expected Return

“Probabilities alone are insufficient when payoffs are skewed…another concept from behavioral finance: loss aversion. For good evolutionary reasons, humans are averse to loss when they make choices between risky outcomes. More specifically, a loss has about two and a half times the impact of a gain of the same size. So we like to be right and hence often seek high-probability events. A focus on probability is sound when outcomes are symmetrical, but completely inappropriate when payoffs are skewed…So some high-probability propositions are unattractive, and some low-probability propositions are very attractive on an expected-value basis.”

Certainty and being “right,” does not always equate to profits. Paraphrasing the great Stan Druckenmiller, being right or wrong doesn’t matter, it’s how much you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong that ultimately matters in investing.

Team Management, Psychology

“…the way decisions are evaluated affects the way decisions are made.”

“One of my former students, a very successful hedge fund manager, called to tell me that he is abolishing the use of target prices in his firm for two reasons. First, he wants all of the analysts to express their opinions in expected value terms, an exercise that compels discussion about payoffs and probabilities. Entertaining various outcomes also mitigates the risk of excessive focus on a particular scenario -- a behavioral pitfall called “anchoring.”

Second, expected-value thinking provides the analysts with psychological cover when they are wrong. Say you’re an analyst who recommends purchase of a stock with a target price above today’s price. You’re likely to succumb to the confirmation trap, where you will seek confirming evidence and dismiss or discount disconfirming evidence.

If, in contrast, your recommendation is based on an expected-value analysis, it will include a downside scenario with an associated probability. You will go into the investment knowing that the outcome will be unfavorable some percentage of the time. This prior acknowledgement, if shared by the organization, allows analysts to be wrong periodically without the stigma of failure.”


“The only certainty is that there is no certainty. This principle is especially true for the investment industry, which deals largely with uncertainty…With both uncertainty and risk, outcomes are unknown. But with uncertainty, the underlying distribution of outcomes is undefined, while with risk we know what that distribution looks like. Corporate undulation is uncertain; roulette is risky…"

How interesting, some people associated risk with uncertainty, but Mauboussin highlights an interesting nuance between the two.



Wisdom from Peter Lynch


Previously, we summarized an interview with Michael F. Price & an interview with David E. Shaw from Peter J. Tanous’ book Investment Gurus. Below are highlight from yet another fantastic interview, this time with Peter Lynch, the legendary investor who ran Fidelity's Magellan Fund from 1977-1990, compounding at ~30% annually during that period.

When To Buy, Volatility, Catalyst

On technical buy indicators, expected volatility, and catalysts:

“I have traditionally liked a certain formation. It’s what I call the electrocardiogram of a rock. The goes from, say, 50 to 8. It has an incredible crater. Then it goes sideways for a few years between 8 and 11. That’s why I call it the EKG of a rock. It’s never changing. Now you know if something goes right with this company, the stock is going north. In reality, it’s probably just going to go sideways forever. So if you’re right it goes north and if you’re wrong it goes sideways. These stocks make for a nice research list…stocks that have bottomed out...

...When it’s going from 50 to 8, it looks cheap at 15; it looks cheap at 12. So you want the knife to stick in the wood. When it stops vibrating, then you can pick it up. That’s how I see it on a purely technical basis…why the stock is on your research list, not on your buy list. You investigate and you find that of these ten stories, this one has something going on. They’re getting rid of a losing division, one of their competitors is going under, or something else.”

When To Buy

“You could have bought Wal-Mart ten years after it went public…it was a twenty-year-old company. This was not a startup…You could have bought Wal-Mart and made 30 times your money. If you bought it the day it went public you would have made 500 times your money. But you could have made 30 times your money ten years after it went public.”

Many value investors experience difficulty buying assets when prices are moving upward. At those moments, perhaps it’s important to remember to see the forest (ultimate risk-reward) through the trees (an upward moving price).

Expected Return, Fat Tail

“There may be only a few times a decade when you make a lot of money. How many times in your lifetime are you going to make five times on your money?”

I hear chatter about “lotto ticket” and “asymmetric risk-reward” ideas all the time. A friend recently joked that he would rather buy actual lotto tickets than the lotto-ticket-ideas because with the former he actually stands a chance of hitting the jackpot.

Apparently, Peter Lynch sort of agrees with my friend. Markets are generally efficient enough that asymmetric risk-reward opportunities rarely occur. The tricky part is discerning between the real deal vs. imitations conjured from misjudgment or wishful thinking analysis.

Diversification, Correlation

“If you buy ten emerging growth funds and all these companies have small sales and are very volatile companies, buying ten of those is not diversification.”

The correlation between assets, not the number of assets, ultimately determines the level of diversification within a portfolio.


“One out of every hundred Americans was in my fund…For many of these people, $5,000 is half their assets other than their house. And there are people you meet who say we sent our kids to college, or we paid off the mortgage. What I’m saying is that it’s very rewarding to have a fund where you really made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

How refreshing. Those who work in the investment management world sometimes forget for whom they toil (beyond numero uno). A job well done could potentially make large positive impacts on the lives of others.

Team Management

On how he’s spending his time after stepping down from managing the Magellan Fund:

“…I work with young analysts. We bring in six new ones a year and I work with them one-on-one.”

Process Over Outcome

On whether Peter Lynch would have pursued an investment career had he lost money in his first stock purchase:

“Well, I guess if I’d lost money over and over again then maybe I would have gone into another field.”

Only in the long-run is outcome indicative of skill.


“…I was always upset by the fact that they called Magellan a growth fund. I think that is a mistake. If you pigeonhole somebody and all they can buy are the best available growth companies, what happens if all the grow companies are overpriced? You end up buying the least overpriced ones.”



An Interview with Bruce Berkowitz - Part 2


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

AUM, Compounding, Subscription, Redemptions

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

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

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

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

AUM, Sourcing

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

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

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

Diversification, Correlation, Risk

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

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

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

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

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

Making Mistakes, Sizing

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

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

Creativity, Team Management, Time Management

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

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

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

When To Sell, Expected Return, Intrinsic Value, Exposure

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cash, Redemptions, Liquidity, When To Sell

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

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

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

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



Buffett Partnership Letters: 1965 Part 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

Control, Liquidity

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

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

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

Mark to Market, Subscriptions, Redemptions

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

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

Benchmark, Clients

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

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

Time Management, Team Management, Clients

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

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

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

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



Stanley Druckenmiller Wisdom - Part 1


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

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

Trackrecord, Capital Preservation, Compounding, Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expected Return, Opportunity Cost

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

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

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

Team Management

On working with George Soros:

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

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


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 2


Part 2 of highlights from an 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!

Fee Structure

“…I launched my fund [November 2006] with an innovative fee structure – wait three years and then charge only on the positive return over the market…three-year lock up…given the changes in the marketplace we simply did not think a three-year lock-up was a tenable proposition under any circumstances. So…we had to abandon our three-year free structure as well…What I was extraordinary surprised by however, was how little this mattered to many potential investors. There is an institutional imperative that has evolved in hedge funds that is very similar to that which has evolved in long-only funds. Being different, no matter how right it may be, doesn’t help.”

Given my family office background, the fee structure topic has come up frequently especially as it relates to fundraising. One would think that fee discounts should garner more investor interest. Unfortunately, my advice is the same as Rapuano’s: “being different, no matter how right it may be, doesn’t help.”

The average retail investor is usually not sophisticated enough to care about the difference between 1% (management fee) & 15% (incentive fee) versus 2% & 20%. The average institutional investor is merely going through the motions of checking boxes with a “cover your behind” mentality before presenting to committee. So with the exception of sophisticated investors (fewer in number than the unsophisticated), the fee discount really doesn’t make much difference.

In fact, it could potentially hurt fundraising because it begs the additional question: why are you different? With only 60 minutes or so per meeting, it’s likely best to not waste time having to answer this additional question.

Shorting, Team Management, Exposure

“On the short side, we only short for alpha – we do not use shorts to control exposure explicitly or to hedge or control monthly volatility…This model has been chosen very specifically to suit the skills of me and my team. We think being able to short makes us better analysts, it keeps us more honest.”

“We also like the flexibility to hold a lot of cash or be a bit more short when we think there are no great values lying around…we think eliminating the pressure to stay low-exposure (and to therefore often put on very poor shorts) is a good match for our style…”

Rapuano highlights a very important distinction: shorting for alpha vs. shorting to control exposure. I would add a third category: shorting to justify the incentive fee.

Also, it’s an interesting idea to build an investment process that works with the behavioral tendencies of the investment team. I guess the flip-side is to recruit for talent that fits a specific type of investment process.

Making Mistakes, Process Over Outcome

“Then there are the mistake where you just misjudged the situation in your analysis…I thought something was low probability but then it happens…we analyze these types of mistakes, but it’s not a focus on what happened, but simply to make sure we did all the work we could have been expected to do, our judgments were based on sound analysis, and well, sometimes you’re just wrong. There are other mistakes, however, that you can try to eliminate, or at least not repeat.”

“For me, my worst ones have been when I strayed from either my core values or my process. So, when we’ve done something as a ‘trade’ (it just seemed too easy) and not subjected it to the rigors of the process it usually doesn’t work out.”

Mistakes are not just situations when the outcomes are bad (i.e., ideas don’t work out). Do we make a mistake each time we stray from our investment process?


Ruane Cunniff Goldfarb Investor Day


The following excerpts (of Q&A) were extracted from the Ruane Cunniff Goldfarb Investor Day Transcript. For those with a little free time, I highly recommend the reading of the entire transcript. These guys are masters at dissecting businesses and identifying the heart of any topic. Psychology, Creativity


About 36 years ago, shortly before Benjamin Graham passed away, he did an interview for the Financial Analysts Journal…This is before the explosion of information, ETFs, mutual funds. Asked if he advised “careful study of and selectivity among” individual stocks in constructing a portfolio, he answered, “In general, no. I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook ‘Graham and Dodd’ was first published; but the situation has changed a good deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on,” — 1976 we are talking about — “I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent, I'm on the side of the ‘efficient market’ school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.” I'm just wondering if you would comment on that and how the investment industry has changed over that period of time.

Greg Alexander:

...I would add — that it is a funny thing — I have kids 14 and 11, and I think that the next generation will go about their decision making maybe differently than us. They have every expectation that they can go and spend an hour on the Internet and become semi-expert on anything that they are interested in, whether it is figuring out how to do a Rubik’s cube, which I remember looking at and not having the least idea. But with all the information, the timeless human struggle remains judgment, the ability to think long term when there are problems that are short term, and whether we see something solid where everyone perceives uncertainty — many factors of that nature. Looking in new areas where people have not thought so much, there are many factors like that, that are timeless. I always tell people there will be men and women on the moon but we still will not understand the guy next door.




Would you be kind enough to share with us the philosophy of some of your adventures in corporate governance?

David Poppe:

I think as we said in the letter that we wrote to clients a few weeks ago, the goal is really to own best-of-breed world-class companies and to be positive and passive shareholders. Ideally for us we are going to spend a lot of time on research on the front end. We are going to identify a business that we love and a management team that we think is really strong. Then we are going to make an investment. Afterwards, I would not say we are going to go away, but we are going to be quiet. We are going to own it and if we get everything right, we are going to own it for a really long time. Where you have to get involved, you really need sharp elbows and you need a different kind of personality than we have. It's a different — I don't want to say effort level — but different relationship…So hopefully we are not going to have a lot of adventures in corporate governance if we are doing our jobs really well.


Team Management

David Poppe:

We do allow the analysts to trade in their own accounts; they do have personal accounts. They can buy things that we do not own in Sequoia, but I do not think they do so often. The only time that really comes up is when Bob and I reject something for Sequoia and the analyst strongly believes that it was a great idea, and he did a lot of work on it and feels good about it. We think that is an appropriate outlet for frustration.

Wisdom from Steve Romick: Part 3


Continuation of content extracted from an interview with Steve Romick of First Pacific Advisors (Newsletter Fall 2010) published by Columbia Business School. Please see Part 1 for more details on this series.  

Creativity, Team Management

G&D: We also noticed that you recently hired Elizabeth Douglass, a former business journalist with the LA Times, which we found interesting – can you talk about that decision?

SR: We are trying to do due diligence in a deeper way and get information that may not be easily accessible. For example, with Aon, Elizabeth will help us track down people who used to work for Aon and get their phone numbers…So, she is an investigative journalist for us, a data synthesizer, research librarian and just a great resource to have.”

During my tenure at the multi-billion family office, my colleagues and I used to joke about Manager Bingo. Instead of numbers, on a bingo card, we’d write certain buzz words – “private equity approach to public market investing,” “long-term focus,” “margin of safety,” “bottom-up stock selection with top-down macro overlay” etc. – you get the idea. In meetings, each time a manager mentioned one of these buzz words/concepts, we’d check off a box. Blackouts were rare, though not impossible, depending on the manager.

But I digress. In the marketing materials of most funds, there’s usually a paragraph or sentence dedicated to “proprietary diligence methodology” or something to that effect. Most never really have anything close to “proprietary” – just the usual team of analysts running models, following earnings, and setting up expert network calls with the same experts as the competition.

Here, Steve Romick describes an interesting approach: a “research librarian” and detective to organize and track down new resources that others on Wall Street have not previously tapped, thus potentially uncovering fresh information and perspective. This is not the first time I’ve heard of investment management firms hiring journalists, but the practice is definitely not commonplace. Kudos on creativity and establishing competitive advantage!


Benchmark, Hurdle Rate

“Beating the market is not our goal. Our goal is to provide, over the long term, equity-like returns with less risk than the stock market. We have beaten the market, but that‘s incidental. We don‘t have this monkey on our back to outperform every month, quarter, and year. If we think the market is going to return 9% and we can buy a high-yield bond that’s yielding 11.5% and we’re confident that the principal will be repaid in the next three years, we‘ll take that…We are absolute value investors. We take our role as guardians of our clients’ capital quite seriously. If we felt the need to be fully invested at all times, then we would have to accept more risk than I think we need to.”

Romick’s performance benchmark is absolute value driven, not to outperform the “market”. I wonder, what is a adequate figure for “long term, equity-like returns?” Is this figure, then, the hurdle rate that determines whether or not an investment is made?



“Fortunately, people are emotional and they make visceral decisions. Such decisions end up manifesting themselves in volatility, where things are oversold and overbought.”

Emotions and investor psychology causes volatility (Howard Marks would agree with this), which is a blessing to the patient, rational investor who can take advantage when “things are oversold or overbought.”


Foreign Exchange

“The government is doing its best to destroy the value of the US dollar. We have made efforts to de-dollarize our portfolio, taking advantage of other parts of the world that have better growth opportunities than the US with more exposure to currencies other than our own.”



“We are seeking those companies that are more protected should inflation be more than expected in the future…We are looking for companies where we feel the pricing power would offset the potential rise in input costs. That leads us to a whole universe of companies, while keeping us away from others.”

Buffett Partnership Letters: 1963 Part 2


Continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters, please see our previous articles for more details. Topics covered include: Benchmark, Hurdle Rate, Expected Return, Volatility, & Team Management.  

Benchmark, Hurdle Rate

“At plus 14% versus plus 10% for the Dow, this six months has been a less satisfactory period than the first half of 1962 when we were minus 7.5% versus minus 21.7% for the Dow.”

“If we had been down 20% and the Dow had been down 30%, this letter would still have begun “1963 was a good year.”

“Our partnership’s fundamental reason for existence is to compound funds at a better-than-average rate with less exposure to long-term loss of capital than the above investment [benchmarks]. We certainly cannot represent that we will achieve this goal. We can and do say that if we don’t achieve this goal over any reasonable period, excluding an extensive speculative boom, we will cease operation.”

“A ten percentage point advantage would be a very satisfactory accomplishment and even a much more modest edge would produce impressive gains…This view (as it has to be guesswork – informed or otherwise) carries with it the corollary that we much expect prolonged periods of much narrower margins over the Dow as well as at least occasional years when our record will be inferior…to the Dow.”

Buffett’s performance goal was relative (10% annual above the Dow), not absolute return. He once again makes a statement about ceasing operation if he doesn’t achieve this goal – the man was determined to add value, not content leaching fees.

But a question continues to tickle my brain:

Why 10% above the Dow? Why not 5% or 15.7%? What is significant about this 10% figure (other than an incredibly ambitious goal)? Buffett plays coy claiming “guesswork – informed or otherwise,” but we know that Buffett was not the random-number-generating-type.


Expected Return, Volatility

“We consider all three of our categories to be good businesses on a long-term basis, although their short-term price behavior characteristics differ substantially in various types of markets.”

“Our three investment categories are not differentiated by their expected profitability over an extended period of time. We are hopeful that they will each, over a ten or fifteen year period, produce something like the ten percentage point margin over the Dow that is our goal. However, in a given year they will have violently differentiated behavior characteristics, depending primarily on the type of year it turns out t be for the stock market generally.”

As we have discussed in the past, Buffett was extremely conscious of the expected return and expected volatility (in a number of different scenarios) of his portfolio positions. For more commentary on this, please see our previous articles on expected return and volatility.

Buffett is “hopeful” that the investments he selects “will each, over a ten or fifteen year period, produce something like the percentage point margin over the Dow that is our goal.”

But how does he determine which investment fits this criteria during the initial diligence process prior to purchase – especially since the Dow itself is perpetually fluctuating?


Team Management

“…the Dempster story in the annual letter, perhaps climaxed by some lyrical burst such as ‘Ode to Harry Bottle.’ While we always had a build-in profit in Dempster because of our bargain purchase price, Harry accounted for several extra serves of dessert by his extraordinary job.”

“Beth and Donna have kept an increasing work load flowing in an excellent manner. During December and January, I am sure they wish they had found employment elsewhere, but they always manage to keep a mountain of work ship-shape…Peat, Marwick, Mitchell has done their usual excellent job of meeting a tough timetable.”

Praise – lay it on thick. The tool of appreciation can perhaps reach the uncharted corners of loyalty in your employees’ hearts where compensation had previously failed.


Buffett Partnership Letters: 1962 Part 3


This is a continuation in a series on portfolio management and the Buffett Partnership Letters. Please see our previous articles for more details. A slightly off tangent and random fact, in 1962, Buffett into new office space stocked with – hold on to your knickers – “an ample supply of Pepsi on hand.”


Team Management

“On April 17, 1962, I met Harry [Bottle] in Los Angeles, presented a deal which provided for rewards to him based upon our objectives being met, and on April 23rd he was sitting in the president’s chair in Beatrice. Harry is unquestionably the man of the year. Every goal we have set for Harry has been met, and all the surprises have been on the pleasant side. He has accomplished one thing after another that has been labeled as impossible, and has always taken the tough things first...He likes to get paid well for doing well, and I like dealing with someone who is not trying to figure how to get the fixtures in the executive washroom gold-plated. Harry and I like each other, and his relationship with Buffett Partnership, Ltd. should be profitable for all of us.”

The quote above is the start of Buffett’s tendency to mention and praise employees / operating partners. This habit would continue in his letters over the next 50 years. Here, we see two important items related to team management.

  1. Alignment of Interest – “rewards to him based upon our objectives being met,” which included 2,000 options (out of 60,146 total shares outstanding) equating to ~3% ownership, therefore a mutually beneficial relationship that’s “profitable for all…”
  1. Appreciation / Praise – an underutilized strategy with the potential to work wonders for talent retention. It’s in each of our natures to want to feel appreciated, and to hear praise. This is something that too often people in the finance industry fail to understand. Throwing money at the problem unfortunately doesn’t work in every instance and instead starts bidding wars for talent (compensation, unfortunately, is not a competitive advantage when it comes to employee retention). There are other subtler and perhaps more effective ways to attract and retain employees.



“The actual percentage division among categories is to some degree planned, but to a great extent, accidental, based upon availability factors…We were fortunate in that we had a good portion of our portfolio in work-outs in 1962. As I have said before, this was not due to any notion on my part as to what the market would do, but rather because I could get more of what I wanted in this category than in generals. This same concentration in work-outs hurt our performance during the market advance in the second half of the year.”

Due to “availability factors,” portfolio sizing involves a certain degree of we-get-lemons-and-therefore-we-make-lemonade.

Although Buffett had the optimal and “actual percentage division among categories” in “some degress[s] planned” in his head, he remained flexible and made do with what market offerings were available at the time.

It's Still A People Business


I recently read an interview in Inc. Magazine on leadership and people management with Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor. Sutton's audience is mainly corporations and other businesses, but his comments are directly applicable to the investment management business. After all, whether we like it or not, the investment management business is still a business that employs people. Even if you run a small firm with 1 employee (not including yourself), you still need to manage your working relationship with that other individual (whether he/she be analyst or partner).

The article starts off a little slow – feel free to skip directly to the section starting with the word Authoritarian. From there, it’s all good stuff. Some highlights include:

  • The best “coaches have to be schizophrenic. There are prima donnas you have to make feel terrible to get them going. And other players who lack self-esteem that need to be built up. So, half the time, he’s being an asshole, and half the time he’s being a nice guy. That’s because he really understands the people he works with.”
  • The best leaders are “moderately assertive” and are “good at reading a situation to know when to turn up the volume in terms of getting in people’s faces” and when to get out of the way.
  • Research has demonstrated that people prefer hierarchy to anarchy. In most instances, a good leader considers input from others but ultimately steps up and makes the decision.
  • Leadership doesn’t mean absolutely having to make a decision for decision’s sake, and that the lack of decision-making is okay in certain circumstances, such as when there are no good solutions available to a problem.

A portfolio manager needs to be able to effectively manage and motivate his/her team to achieve results. Currently, compensation is the most commonly used management and motivation tool in our industry. But the effectiveness of that tool only goes as far as a higher offer elsewhere – hence the high turnover rate at some firms. A team that is continuously turning over is disruptive to the investment process.

Buffett understood, very early on, the importance of managing and motivating people through praise and appreciation (more details to come in a future article). There are undoubtedly other methods that also work well. PM Jar will attempt to feature more articles in the future discussing effective team management methods relevant to portfolio managers.

Wisdom from David E. Shaw: Part 1


Previously, we summarized an interview with Michael F. Price from Peter J. Tanous’ book Investment Gurus. We now move to the near opposite end of the investment style spectrum, to an interview in the same book with David E. Shaw, the ingenious and unorthodox founder of D.E. Shaw, a well-known and renowned quant fund. Although Shaw runs a quant strategy, he provides a number of unique perspectives within the chapter that I believe valuable to traditional fundamental investors. After all, cross pollination and being open to new ideas is a good thing.


Tanous: David, there’s something else that comes up when you talk to a lot of the successful managers. Many of them, especially the ones who are clearly superior to their peers, may well have a sixth sense of some sort, in additional to their other qualities. Now they’re all very smart, they’re all very disciplined, they’re all focused, but you wonder if there isn’t an undefinable something extra at work. I suppose instinct and intuition…

Shaw: I think you’re talking about what I think of as a sort of “right brain” thought process…What we do is similar to what a classical natural scientist does. You go out there and study some set of phenomena. Then, using that sort of experienced-based pattern recognition and creative thought that’s so hard to describe, you formulate a well-defined hypothesis about what may be going on…One thing I think is often misunderstood, not just about our type of business but about the nature of science in general, is that the hardest part, the part that really distinguishes a world-class scientist from a knowledgeable laboratory technician, is that right-brain, creative part. 

Food for thought: does analyst = laboratory technician vs. portfolio manager = world-class scientist?

Here, creativity again rears its head – from an investor that runs a completely different strategy from some of the others that we’ve covered, such as Howard Marks, in reference to what makes investors successful.

As someone who has spent countless hours speaking with different fund/portfolio managers, I suspect the reason why creativity keeps creeping up is in part due to the competitive nature of our business. The defensive moat described by Buffett is just as important for the investment management business as it is for a business that makes widgets. Creativity allows an investor to stay one step ahead, to discover unique mispricings before the crowd, and thus efficiency, closes in.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for creativity in the investment or portfolio management process. In fact, once verbalized, the concept of a formula for creativity sounds quite absurd! Alas, perhaps there’s hope in that the intangible creative process could be taught or learned over time?

Team Management

“What we care about most is finding, literally, the very best people in the world for whatever the position is…We spend an unbelievable amount of money on recruitment, relative to our total operational budget. In particular, we spend a lot identifying the very best people in the world in whatever category that interest us. In fact, we’ll often start way before the point where we really need someone.”


Klarman-Zweig Banter: Part 2


Here is Part 2 of tidbits from a conversation between Seth Klarman and Jason Zweig. Part 1 and the actual text of the interview is available here. Time Management

“…sourcing of opportunity…a major part of what we do – identifying where we are likely to find bargains. Time is scarce. We can’t look at everything.”

“...we also do not waste a lot of time keeping up with the latest quarterly earnings of companies that we are very unlikely to ever invest in. Instead, we spent a lot of time focusing on where the misguided selling is, where the redemptions are happening, where the overleverage is being liquidated – and so we are able to see a flow of instruments and securities that are more likely to be mispriced, and that lets us be nimble.

Team Management

“…we are not conventionally organized. We don’t have a pharmaceutical analyst, an oil and gas analyst, a financials analyst. Instead, we are organized by opportunity.” Examples include spinoffs, distressed debt, post-bankruptcy equities.

During the recruiting and screening process, Baupost looks for “intellectual honesty…we work hard to see whether people can admit mistakes…We ask a lot of ethics-related questions to gauge their response to morally ambiguous situations. We also look for ideational fluency, which essentially means that someone is an idea person…do they immediately have 10 or 15 different ideas about how they would want to analyze it – threads they would want to pull a la Michael Price…we are looking for people who have it all: ethics, smarts, work ethic, intellectual honesty, and high integrity.”

Michael Price, Creativity

Mike taught him the importance of an endless drive to get information and seek value, as well as creativity in seeking opportunities.

“I remember a specific instance when he found a mining stock that was inexpensive. He literally drew a detailed map – like an organization chart – of interlocking ownership and affiliates, many of which were also publicly traded. So, identifying one stock led him to a dozen other potential investments. To tirelessly pull treads is the lesson that I learned from Mike Price.”

Risk, Creativity

The process of risk management is not always straightforward and requires creative thought. “An investor needed to put the pieces together, to recognize that a deteriorating subprime market could lead to problems in the rest of the housing markets and, in turn, could blow up many financial institutions. If an investor was unable to anticipate that chain of events, then bank stocks looked cheap and got cheaper.”

Capital Preservation, Conservatism

“Avoiding round trips and short-term devastation enables you to be around for the long term.”

“We have picked our poison. We would rather underperform in a huge bull market than get clobbered in a really bad bear market.”

During 2008, Baupost employed a strategy of identifying opportunities by underwriting to a depression scenario. “We began by asking, ‘Is there anything we can buy and still be fine in the midst of a depression?’ Our answer was yes…Ford bonds had an amazing upside under almost any scenario – if default rates only quadrupled (rather than octupled, as we assumed) to 20%, the bonds were worth par – and thus appeared to have a depression-proof downside.”

“Our goal is not necessarily to make money so much as to do everything we can to protect client purchasing power and to offset, as much as possible, a large decline in market value in the event of another severe global financial crisis…we also want to avoid the psychological problem of being down 30 or 40 percent and then being paralyzed.”

Foreign Exchange, Benchmark, Inflation

“We judge ourselves in dollars. Our clients are all effectively in the United States…we hedge everything back to dollars.” Michael Price used to do the same. Please see an earlier post on an interview given by Michael Price.

“When Graham was talking about safety of principal, he was not referring to currency. He wasn’t really considering that the currency might be destroyed, but we know that can happen, and has happened many times in the 20th century.”

Klarman is worried “about all paper money,” and has also mentioned Baupost’s goal to “protect client purchasing power.” Does he mean purchasing power on a global basis? Which brings forth an interesting dilemma: as the world becomes increasingly connected, and clients become increasingly global, will return benchmarks still be judged in US dollars and US-based inflation metrics?