Hero to toad

Investing is a brutally competitive business. Unlike being a doctor or plumber, where you fix things in reality, investing is all about how you perform relative to your peers. No one gets an appendectomy, or has their pipes unclogged, and then asks how that fix compares to all other fixes done by all other professionals. If the problem gets fixed, the customer is happy.  

Investing is more like sports in this way. Hardly anyone asks about a football, baseball or basketball players’ career stats. Instead, people want to know how athletes stack up to the competition, and more specifically, how many championships have been won.

I was reminded of this recently with the announcement that Bill Miller is retiring from managing Legg Mason’s Value mutual fund. You may not have heard of Miller, but he became famous in the early 2000’s for beating the S&P 500 year after year. Amazingly, he managed to beat the S&P 500 every calendar year for the 15 years ending in 2005. This made him a deity among many individual and professional investors.  

If Miller had retired in 2005, he would still be touted as the hero he seemed to be. He’d be able to write best-selling books, make a fortune with speaking engagements, and perhaps even milk that hero status for the rest of his life.

Instead, Miller stayed on the job and has gone from hero to toad. Not only did he fail to continue out-performing the S&P 500 every year after 2005, he managed to lose a huge amount of his clients’ money (after making a ton for them prior to that). Investors have abandoned him en masse as his fund went from over $20 billion in assets to around $2 billion, now.  

A good question to ask is whether Miller “lost his touch,” or if he ever had a touch to begin with. I don’t think Miller lost his touch, I think the odds simply caught up with him.  

Looking at Miller’s record, you’d see that he didn’t out-perform every period, he just happened to out-perform calendar years over 15 years. Change the date to October 31st instead of December 31st, and you would have seen that he didn’t out-perform every year. Added to that, he really didn’t out-perform the market by that much over those 15 years. His edge was small and has been completely erased.

Look deeper into his process, and you’ll see an almost blind contrary approach–buy what others hate and wait. Because the market always recovered nicely between 1990 and 2005, Miller looked like a genius (even though he wasn’t). In fact, I believe Miller was one of the most over-rated money managers of the last 20 years.

Does that make Miller the toad he is being treated as now? Not at all. Miller out-performed most (probably 80%) professional and individual investors. He’s neither a hero nor a toad, but clearly an above average money manager.

And yet, people’s perception of him is based on his retirement date, not his career stats. One feels for Bill Miller like one feels for sports greats that never win the championship. They are always seen as “could-have-beens” instead of the out-performers they are. Such is life.

Many seem to forget the role that luck plays in life, and particularly in sports and investing. Many that seem great, are both good and lucky; and many that seem mediocre are actually much better than perceived.  

Think for a second, about Steve Jobs. Looking at his career in 1985, 1990 or 1995, he seemed like a loser to most. Even in 2000, when he was clearly (in hindsight) on the come-back trail, most (including me) had written him off as a has-been. Then he went on to change the computer, mobile phone, music and movie-making industries and become what many consider the greatest CEO ever. It’s sad to say it, but perhaps cancer saved Jobs’ reputation from the fate of Bill Miller.

Look, too, at Robert Rodriguez, one of the best mutual fund managers alive. He under-performed the S&P 500 over 15 of 18 5-year periods from 1973-1991. But, if you invested with him in 1968, you’d have three times the money you would have had investing in the S&P 500. It pays to back the right horse, not the one who just looks pretty. Looking at Rodriguez’s process, I could see he was great. Not so much with Miller.

Investors with the right process win in the long run, even if they don’t rack up amazing, headline-grabbing statistics. Look at how they do what they do, not just the results. Look for the Jobs or Rodriguez that hasn’t broken out instead of the famous show-boat who might be short-term lucky instead of long-term good. Look for single-minded focus, an ability to learn from mistakes, and an inherent love of the game and you’ll likely find a winner. If you over-simplify the process and look for the bandwagon everyone else is jumping on, you’re likely to find the odds will catch up with you, too.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Hero to toad

Contrarianism

My daughter, like her mama and daddy, is a tad bit independent. 

Being terribly independent myself, I have little problem with that.  But, it can be a bit difficult at times, especially as a parent trying to get a three-year-old to brush her teeth or get dressed in the morning.

One of her teachers, Ms. Karen, was very delicate in communicating this predilection to us.  She used the sandwich approach, saying that Vivian was 1) self-directed, 2) independent to the point of being difficult, and 3) more likely to be a leader than a follower.  Mama and daddy were quite proud despite the obvious and nerve-fraying meat of the sandwich.

Like most parents, we tend to amuse ourselves with our child’s tendencies.  So, to prove Vivian’s independence to others, we simply ask her if she is a contrarian.  Naturally, she proudly states that she is NOT a contrarian (missing the irony of the statement).  Mama and daddy are quite amused, even if at her expense.

The investing world, too, is filled with it’s own Vivians–contrarian to a fault.  They don’t see themselves that way, of course.  In fact, they credit their contrarian approach for their investing success.

Don’t get me wrong, I think a contrarian approach makes a lot of sense, but not as a principle to action.  It makes sense to look at what everyone else is selling; the contrarian trash pile is an excellent place to look for bargains.  But, everything thrown away is not of value, and doing the opposite of everyone is not by itself the best approach to picking investments.

I was reminded of this when I saw how many big, smart, and vastly more-successful-than-me investors had invested in British Petroleum (BP) during the second quarter.

Did they invest in BP simply because everyone was selling?  This makes some sense because it’s obvious that many sellers were irrational, simply selling to get it off their books no matter at what price.  As a trading strategy, I suppose I follow that reasoning.

If you had followed BP for years, understood its value, and then bought when the price tanked, I can understand that, too.  That shows an appreciation for the nature of the investment, the risks involved, and the price to value relationship.

But, to buy it as a long term investment simply because others are selling makes little sense.  As Warren Buffett put it, if you aren’t willing to own an investment for 10 years, why would you want to own it for 10 minutes? 

I didn’t buy BP because I thought it was a terrible company before the Horizon rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico.  It had been carefully cultivating its green image and spouting “beyond petroleum” blather while racking up lousy returns and the worst environmental record in big oil (just for reference, the most profitable company, Exxon, has one of the best). 

Not only did I judge BP poorly, I also thought its long term risks were almost incalculable.  Few thought Three Mile Island would halt one of the cleanest, most efficient energy sources in America, but it did.  Knowing how irrational people were about that, why would I think a huge oil spill in the Gulf would be different?

Contrarians buy what others are selling without necessarily  understanding their purchase.  The strategy works like a charm…until it doesn’t.  That’s why a lot of contrarians tout their records as proof.  But, investing has a huge element of luck as well as skill, so both short and long records can be deceiving. 

Exhibit 1 is Bill Miller’s record at Legg Mason Value.  He beat the market every year for 15 years, then got crushed from 2006 to 2008 (down -56% vs. the market’s -23%).  I’m certain he did more research than a pure contrarian, but he also owned Bear Stearns, Countrywide Credit, Fannie Mae and a host of other companies with terrible business models.  After all, he had made a fortune and his reputation buying lousy banks in the early 1990’s that were bailed out by the government.  Not surprisingly, he was cursing the government for not bailing out his investments in 2008.

A contrarian approach works as a good starting point, but it’s not the whole enchilada.  You need to do a lot more research and be very honest with yourself (if you don’t really know, you’d better walk away). 

Excellent long term investment results are as much about not stepping on landmines as buying good investments.  A pure contrarian approach will eventually find landmines and lead to a blow-up.

Now, if I could only convince Vivian that contrarianism isn’t its own end…

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Contrarianism

Value investor drought

Pity the poor value investors.

Although they have excellent long term records, value investor results over the past couple of years have been poor relative to the market.

Consider Bill Miller at Legg Mason. After beating the S&P 500 for 15 years in a row, he has had a dreadful 2 1/2 years. His performance has been so bad his mutual fund investors are leaving in droves.

Does this mean value investing no longer works? Should investors pursue another methodology? If value investing hasn’t worked, what has?

The answer is momentum. If you simply invested in the things that were going up, you would have easily beaten the market. Invest in natural resources, such as oil or gold, after they went up and they’d just keep going up.

Is that a good way to invest now? Not normally, and probably not going forward.

You see, the market goes through periods when one thing works and others don’t. This rarely lasts because everyone jumps on the bandwagon until it’s full and no one else is left to jump on board. I think we’re close to that point now.

The last time momentum out-performed value investing was in the 1998-1999 period. After that, value investing clearly beat momentum investing for several years running.

Usually, when the market goes down, value investing handily out-performs. But in this down market, momentum has been winning. You have to go all the way back to the early 1990’s to find a similar situation. Guess what happened after that? That’s when Bill Miller’s record 15 years of out-performing the S&P 500 began.

Don’t pity the poor value investors–JOIN THEM. Every time value investing has performed poorly in the past has proven to be an excellent time to get on the value investing bandwagon. Right now, people are getting off, and that’s precisely why you should be getting on!

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Being a value investor requires painful patience

I’ll spare you the academic citations, but there’s a solid body of evidence that value investing beats growth investing over the long run.

If it works so well, why isn’t everyone a value investor?

Because it hurts.

Value investing is based on a couple of key principles:
1) you can determine the value of a business
2) the price of a business on a stock exchange diverges from value
3) at some point in time, stock price converges on value

The hard part in value investing is point 3).

No one is surprised that you can determine the value of a business.

Not many are surprised (finance and economics academics excluded) that stock prices diverge from value.

The hard part is that first phrase in point 3), “at some point in time.” How long do you have to wait for “at some point in time”? As Shakespeare put it, there’s the rub.

No value investor knows when the herd mentality of the stock market will converge on underlying value. Why not? You might as well as ask why a weather expert can’t predict how many inches of rain will fall on one square inch of land in Bowie, Maryland during a 12 hour period on June 30, 2014. The system is simply too complex for an accurate prediction to be made.

And, as any value investor can tell you (ask Bill Miller), it seldom works the way you think it will.

If the company you’ve bought consistently reports growing earnings per share, surely then the market will converge. No, it doesn’t.

Sometimes price converges on value without any news whatsoever. Sometimes price converges when a company announced declining earnings for quarters on end. Most of the time, while you wait, it doesn’t converge at all.

You simply can’t know when it will happen.

I’ve seen it happen in one day, and I’ve seen it take over 7 years.

And, that’s why it works. Most people don’t have the patience to wait. They want prices to go up soon…today…RIGHT NOW!!!

Value investing works because few people have the intestinal fortitude to wait.

It’s like asking an overweight person about losing weight or a poor person how to become wealthy. They both know the answer. The overweight person will tell you it requires a good diet and exercise, but they won’t do it. The poor person will explain that you need to spend less than you make to become wealthy, and yet they won’t do it.

The reason it works is not because people don’t understand what to do, but because it hurts to do it.

That’s why I say that value investors get paid to endure pain. It’s painful to wait if you don’t know when price will reflect value. It’s painful to buy something cheap just to watch it become dramatically cheaper. It’s painful to watch fundamental performance deteriorate even though you know it will improve several years from now.

Anyone who has done their homework knows what it takes to beat the market. Value businesses, buy when price is significantly below value, sell when price reflects value. Everyone knows it, but hardly anyone does it.

Why? Because it’s painful. But, boy, does it work!

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.