Baupost Letters: 2000-2001


This concludes our series on portfolio management and Seth Klarman, with ideas extracted from old Baupost Group letters. Our Readers know that we generally provide excerpts along with commentary for each topic. However, at the request of Baupost, we will not be providing any excerpts, only our interpretive summaries. For those of you wishing to read the actual letters, they are available on the internet. We are not posting them here because we don’t want to tango with the Baupost legal machine.

Volatility, Psychology

Even giants are not immune to volatility. Klarman relays the story of how Julian Robertson’s Tiger Fund closed its doors largely as a result of losses attributed to its tech positions. As consolation, Klarman offers some advice on dealing with market volatility: investors should act on the assumption that any stock or bond can trade, for a time, at any price, and never enable Mr. Market’s mood swings to lead to forced selling. Since it is impossible to predict the timing, direction and degree of price swings, investors would do well to always brace themselves for mark to market losses.

Does mentally preparing for bad outcomes help investors “do the right thing” when bad outcomes occur? 

When To Buy, When To Sell, Selectivity

Klarman outlines a few criteria that must be met in order for undervalued stocks to be of interest to him:

  • Undervaluation is substantial
  • There’s a catalyst to assist in the realization of that value
  • Business value is stable and growing, not eroding
  • Management is able and properly incentivized

Have you reviewed your selectivity standards lately? How do they compare with three years ago? For more on this topic, see our previous article on selectivity

Psychology, When To Buy, When To Sell

Because investing is a highly competitive activity, Klarman writes that it is not enough to simply buy securities that one considers undervalued – one must seek the reason for why something is undervalued, and why the seller is willing to part with a security/asset at a “bargain” price.

Here’s the rub: since we are human and prone to psychological biases (such as confirmation bias), we can conjure up any number of explanations for why we believe something is undervalued and convince ourselves that we have located the reason for undervaluation. It takes a great degree of cognitive discipline & self awareness to recognize and concede when you are (or could be) the patsy, and to walk away from those situations.

Risk, Expected Return, Cash

Klarman’s risk management process was not after-the-fact, it was woven into the security selection and portfolio construction process.

He sought to reduce risk on a situation by situation basis via

  • in-depth fundamental analysis
  • strict assessment of risk versus return
  • demand for margin of safety in each holding
  • event-driven focus
  • ongoing monitoring of positions to enable him to react to changing market conditions or fundamental developments
  • appropriate diversification by asset class, geography and security type, market hedges & out of the money put options
  • willingness to hold cash when there are no compelling opportunities.

Klarman also provides a nice explanation of why undervaluation is so crucial to successful investing, as it relates to risk & expected return: “…undervaluation creates a compelling imbalance between risk and return.”


The investment objective of this particular Baupost Fund was capital appreciation with income was a secondary goal. It sought to achieve its objective by profiting from market inefficiencies and focusing on generating good risk-adjusted investment results over time – not by keeping up with any particular market index or benchmark. Klarman writes, “The point of investing…is not to have a great story to tell; the point of investing is to make money with limited risk.”

Investors should consider their goal or objective for a variety of reasons. Warren Buffett in the early Partnership days dedicated a good portion of one letter to the “yardstick” discussion. Howard Marks has referenced the importance of having a goal because it provides “an idea of what’s enough.”

Cash, Turnover


Klarman presents his portfolio breakdown via “buckets” not individual securities. See our article on Klarman's 1999 letter for more on the importance of this nuance

The portfolio allocations changed drastically between April 1999 and April 2001. High turnover is not something that we generally associate with value-oriented or fundamental investors. In fact, turnover has quite a negative connotation. But is turnover truly such a bad thing?

Munger once said that “a majority of life’s errors are caused by forgetting what one is really trying to do.”

Yes, turnover can lead to higher transaction fees and realized tax consequences. On taxes, we defer to Buffett’s wonderfully crafted treatise on his investment tax philosophy from 1964, while the onset of electronic trading has significantly decreased transaction fees (specifically for equities) in recent days.

Which leads us back to our original question: is portfolio turnover truly such a bad thing? We don’t believe so. Turnover is merely the consequence of portfolio movements triggered by any number of reasons, good (such as correcting an investment mistake, or noticing a better opportunity elsewhere) and bad (purposeful churn of the portfolio without reason). We should judge the reason for turnover, not the act of turnover itself.

Hedging, Expected Return

The Fund’s returns in one period were reduced by hedging costs of approximately 2.4%. A portfolio’s expected return is equal to the % sizing weighted average expected return of the sum of its parts (holdings or allocations). Something to keep in mind as you incur the often negative carry cost of hedging, especially in today’s low rate environment.


Bob Rodriguez’s Diversification Experiment


Below are some portfolio management highlights from a recent interview (July 2013) with Bob Rodriguez and Dennis Bryan of First Pacific Advisors in Value Investor Insight. Especially intriguing is Bob’s description of his ongoing experiment related to the effects of diversification on portfolio returns.

Diversification, Sizing, Volatility

“Your portfolio today has fewer than 30 positions. Is that typical?

DB: Generally speaking, we have 20 to 40 positions, with 40-50% of the portfolio in the top ten. That level of concentration is simply a function of wanting every position to potentially be a difference maker. Philosophically we would have no problem with concentrating even more, but clients often have a problem with the volatility that comes with having fewer holdings.

RR: I actually have an experiment going on this front since June 30, 1984. I have an IRA account that was set up then and over that period has only been invested in stocks that the Capital Fund has owned, but with never more than five holdings at a time. I’ll buy a stock only after the fund buys it and sell only after the fund sells it. From June 30, 1984 to December 31, 2009, when I stepped down from lead management, the Capital Fund had compounded at approximately 15% per year. But this IRA account had a compound rate of return of 24%. I attribute that premium to the higher concentration and to the fact that at no point has this account been affected by the inflows and outflows resulting from others’ emotional decision making. I was the only investor.


“Does the effort to avoid emotional decision-making explain the Capital Fund’s relatively low turnover?

RR: The turnover ratio has averaged 20% since 1986. Part of that is a function of investing with a long time horizon in companies that don’t get better or realize hidden value overnight. Sticking with your conviction in such cases can certainly require patience and discipline that many investors might not have. Low turnover is also related to the fact that we’re slow to transition from companies we own and know intimately to those whose stocks we’re looking to buy and don’t know as well. There’s a transition risk there that we usually address by taking a long time to both scale into something as well as to scale out of it.”

Cash, Liquidity

“Right now we believe the stimulus of lower interest rates has propped up the economy, which props up profits, which props up stock prices. So in our modeling work we’re not taking today as “normal” and going from there. We’re building in the potential impact of interest rates rising, say, and the resulting lower level of economic activity. That type of conservatism in setting our intrinsic values explains why we have 30% of the portfolio today in cash.

RR: You don’t know the value of liquidity until you need it and don’t have it. That’s when people are selling what they can, not what they want to…People today say, “I can’t afford to earn zero return on my cash.” But if you’re a contrarian value investor, you should be used to deploying capital into an area that no one loves and where the consensus can’t understand why anyone in his or her right mind would invest. I would argue that is how people are thinking about holding cash today, which makes us glad we have it.”

Munger Wisdom: 2013 Daily Journal Meeting


Below are my personal notes (portfolio management highlights) from Charlie Munger’s Q&A Session during the 2013 Daily Journal Shareholders Meeting this Wednesday in Los Angeles. Opportunity Cost

After the meeting, I approached Munger to ask him about his thoughts on opportunity cost (a topic that he mentioned numerous times while answering questions, and in previous lectures and speeches).

His response: “Everyone should be thinking about opportunity cost all the time.”

During the Q&A session, Munger gave two investment examples in which he cites opportunity cost.

Bellridge Oil: During the the Wheeler-Munger partnership days, a broker called to offer him 300 shares of Bellridge Oil (trading at 20% of asset liquidation value). He purchased the shares. Soon after, the broker called again to offer him 1500 more shares. Munger didn’t readily have cash available to make the purchase and would have had to (1) sell another position to raise cash, or (2) use leverage. He didn’t want to do either and declined the shares. A year and a half later, Bellridge Oil sold for 35x the price at which the broker offered him the shares. This missed profit could have been rolled into Berkshire Hathaway.

Boston-based shoe supplier to JCPenney: One of the worst investments Berkshire made, for which they gave away 2% of Berkshire stock and received a worthless asset in return.

For both examples, opportunity cost was considered in the context of what "could have been" when combined with the capital compounding that transpired at Berkshire.

Making Mistakes, Liquidity

DRC (Diversified Retailing Company) was purchased by Munger & Buffett in the 1960s with a small bank loan and $6 million of equity. Munger owned 10% so contributed $600,000. But as soon as the ink dried on the contract, they realized that it wasn’t all that great a business due to “ghastly competition.” Their solution? Scrambled to get out as FAST as possible.

Related to this, be sure to read Stanley Druckenmiller’s thoughts on making mistakes and its relationship to trading liquidity (two separate articles).

Generally, humans are bad at admitting our mistakes, which then leads to delay and inaction, which is not ideal. Notice Druckenmiller and Munger come from completely different schools of investment philosophies, yet they deal with mistakes the exact same way – quickly – to allow them to fight another day. Liquidity just happens to make this process easier.

Another Munger quote related to mistakes: “People want hope.” Don’t ever let hope become your primary investment thesis.

“Treat success and failures just the same.” Be sure to “review stupidity,” but remember that it’s “perfectly normal to fail.”


Munger told story about press expansion – newspapers paying huge sums for other newspapers – relying largely on leverage given the thesis of regional market-share monopolies. Unfortunately, with technology, the monopolies thesis disintegrated, and the leverage a deathblow.

Perhaps the lesson here is that leverage is most dangerous when coupled with a belief in the continuation of historical status quo.

Luck, Creativity

The masterplan doesn’t always work. Some of life’s success stories derive from situations of people reacting intelligently to opportunities, fixing problems as they emerge, or better yet:

“Playing the big bass tuba in an open field when it happened to rain gold.”







Munger’s personal account had zero transactions in 2012.


On the decline of the General Motors: “prosperity made them weak.”

This is a lesson in hubris, and associated behavioral biases, that's definitely applicable to investment management. Investing, perhaps even more so than most businesses, is fiercely competitive. In this zero sum game, the moment we rest on the laurels of past performance success, and become overconfident etc., is the moment future performance decline begins.

Always be aware, and resist behavior slithering in that dangerous direction.


Berkshire had “two reasonable options” to deploy capital, into both public and private markets. Munger doesn’t understand why Berkshire’s model hasn’t been copied more often. It makes sense to have a flexible hybrid mandate (or structure) which allows for deployment of capital into wherever assets are most attractive or cheapest.

Clients, Time Management

Most people are too competitive – they want ALL business available, and sometimes end up doing things that are "morally beneath them," and/or abandon personal standards. Plus, general happiness should be a consideration as well.

The smartest people figure out what business they don’t want and avoid all together – which leads to foregoing some degree of business and profit – that’s absolutely okay. This is what he and Buffett have figured out and tried to do over time.

On doing what’s right: He and Buffett fulfill their fiduciary duty in that they “wanted people who we barely know who happen to buy the stock to do well.” Munger doesn’t think there are that many people in the corporate world who subscribe to this approach today.



And it begins...with Michael F. Price


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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