Tag Archives: inflation

Does Net-Net Investing Work In Japan? (#JNets, #valueinvesting, #Japan)

If you took a look at the companies I purchased off my Japanese net-net (“JNet”) worksheet about six months ago, you’d probably conclude net-net investing doesn’t “work” in Japan, at least not over a six month period. The cheap, crappy companies I bought then are cheaper, still crappy companies today.

However, if you took a look at all the companies I didn’t buy from my list, you might get a different impression altogether. While there are a few companies of this group whose fundamentals worsened and/or whose stock price fell, most are up anywhere from 10-15% with several up substantially more, 30-50%. About 10% of the total list seems to have gone private as you can’t find financial info nor trade the symbol any longer, which in my experience in JNet-land typically means they received an MBO.

And if you look at an entirely different list of JNets I generated about two months ago (because all my original picks were no longer JNets), which I finished researching one month ago and which I failed to do anything about until yesterday, the story is even better (or worse, if you’re me). How would you like to see the top pick on your list closed up 25% the day prior and about 40% total since you composed your list? How would you like to see the average company on your list priced 15% or more higher from where you first researched it, meaning you could’ve locked in your 15% annual return for the year in a few months time?!

Once again, this list also had several symbols which no longer trade, presumably because they received buyouts or other going private transactions.

So, in the last few days I learned a few things about JNets:

  1. They “work”
  2. The “M&A activity in Japan, particularly in the small cap space, is a non-starter” claim, is a myth
  3. Even crappy businesses with cash-rich balance sheets are moving like hotcakes in Abenomic Japan
  4. The strengthening of the dollar against the Yen does impact your $ returns, but so far Yen prices on JNets have outpaced the move of the Yen against the dollar
  5. Contrary to my belief that I could take my time allocating idle capital in Japan, it now appears that time is of the essence

My old motto for JNets was, “Steady as she goes.” My new motto is, “Churn and burn” or “Turn and earn.” I’m going to be watching things much more closely than I had before.

To be clear, my experience so far has been frustrating, but it hasn’t been catastrophic as I suggested in my introduction. I have captured some of the windfall moves myself although I continue to have laggards in the portfolio, at least in dollar terms. Very few of the original companies I picked are trading lower than when I bought them, though some have not moved up enough yet to make up for the exchange rate loss. My first portfolio of JNets was bought when the Yen/$ rate was 79. It’s now almost 99 Yen to the dollar and I made my second portfolio purchase around 94 Yen to the dollar.

Overall, in dollar terms my first portfolio is up 5%, with one MBO and apparently another just recently as I found out the stock is up 43% with no ask but I haven’t found a news item explaining why yet. Several others traded above NCAV so I am culling them and putting them into new opportunities. I have not yet determined what the “secret formula” is for picking the JNets that will really take off– oddly, it was mostly the companies whose prospects seemed least fortunate that I neglected to purchase and was in shock to see their stock prices 35% higher or more. As a result, I plan on wider diversification and a more random strategy in choosing between “best” companies and cheapest stocks.

I’m sure many investors have done much better than 5% in Japan in the last half year, and many more have done better still in the US and elsewhere. This isn’t a contest of relative or absolute performance. This is simply an opportunity to settle the score and point out that yeah, Benjamin Graham’s philosophy is alive and well in Japan.

Notes – Buffett Partnership Letters, 1957-1970 (#valueinvesting)

Recently I sank into my overstuffed armchair (in this situation, “sank” is used derisively to connote frustration and discomfort with regards to ideal reading conditions) with a copy of Buffett’s partnership letters from the 1957-1970 period in my hands. I found them on CSInvesting.org and had never taken the time to read them before, but figured it was about time as I was curious to consult a primary source on this period of Buffett’s investment career, having already read a 3rd-party recounting in The Snowball.

My interest was to read critically. Buffett’s letters have been read and analyzed and mulled over by thousands of investors and business people and have been discussed ad nauseum. But everyone seems to come away with the same lessons and the same pithy quotes that they throw up on their blogs when appropriate. I wanted to see if I could find anything original. From my own set of knowledge and understanding of Buffett and “how he did it”, I achieved my goal, but I can not guarantee creativity to anyone else who may be reading this. Somehow, somewhere in some overlooked nook of this vast interweb, I may have missed the discussion where someone went over these exact points.

Market timing, or the “value climate”

Amongst value investors, the sin of attempting to time the market is considered to be one of the greatest (for example, see the special note at the end of my recent review of The Intelligent Investor). Luminaries like Graham warn us that attempting to jump in and out of the markets according to their perceived price level being high or low is a speculative activity that will be rewarded as such, which is to say, it’ll eventually end in disaster.

However, while value gurus like Graham warned against market timing as a primary tool of analysis in an investment program, it’s also true that both Graham and Buffett were nonetheless intimately aware of market valuations and sentiment and both of them discussed the way their perception of market valuation influenced their portfolio orientation at any given time. For Graham and his intelligent investors, the response was to weight the portfolio toward bonds and away from stocks when the market was high and the opposite when the market was low. Similarly, Buffett advised in his 1957 letter:

If the general market were to return to an undervalued status our capital might be employed exclusively in general issues… if the market should go considerably higher our policy will be to reduce our general issues as profits present themselves and increase the work-out portfolio

This quote alone, along with many others just like it throughout the partnership letters, makes it clear the Buffett did not ignore broad market valuations. And not only did he not ignore them, he actively manipulated his portfolio in response to them. However, there are a few key things to note in terms of the heavily nuanced differences between what Buffett did and what the average market timer does:

  • Market timers are forecasters, they act on a perceived market level because of their anticipation about future market levels; Buffett refused to speculate about what the future of the market level might be and instead accepted it for what it was, changing what he owned and in what proportions, not whether he was invested or uninvested
  • Market timers are binary, choosing between “risk on” or “risk off”; Buffett responded to higher market levels by seeking to gain greater exposure to market neutral opportunities (special situations revolving around corporate action) while still continuing to make investments in individual undervalued businesses as he found them
  • Market timers always maintain the illusion of “full control” knowing they can always sell out or buy in any time they like in response to market valuations; Buffett acknowledged that many times he might desire to have greater market neutral exposure but that such opportunities might dry up in the late stages of a bull market, dashing his plans

The importance of relative performance

Another concept of Buffett’s money management style that stood out was his obsession with relative performance. I found this interesting again because the orthodox value investment wisdom is that it is not relative, but absolute, performance which matters– if you permanently lose a portion of your capital in a period, but your loss is smaller than your benchmark, you’ve still lost your capital and this is a bad thing.

Again, from the 1957 letter, Buffett turned this idea on its head:

I will be quite satisfied with a performance that is 10% per year better than the [Dow Jones Industrial] Averages

Because Buffett calculated that over the long-term the DJIA would return 5-7% to shareholders including dividends, Buffett was aiming for a 15-17% per annum performance target, or about 3x the performance of the Dow. But, as always, there was an important twist to this quest for relative out performance. In his 1962 letter, Buffett stated in no uncertain terms:

I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets. Preferably these should involve a substantial decline in the Dow. Our performance in the rather mild declines of 1957 and 1960 would confirm my hypothesis that we invest in an extremely conservative manner

He went on to say:

Our job is to pile up yearly advantages over the performance of the Dow without worrying too much about whether the absolute results in a given year are a plus or a minus. I would consider a year in which we were down 15% and the Dow declined 25% to be much superior to a year when both the partnership and the Dow advanced 20%

And he concluded by noting:

Our best years relative to the Dow are likely to be in declining or static markets. Therefore, the advantage we seek will probably come in sharply varying amounts. There are bound to be years when we are surpassed by the Dow, but if over a long period we can average ten percentage points per year better than it, I will feel the results have been satisfactory.

Specifically, if the market should be down 35% or 40% in a year (and I feel this has a high probability of occurring in one year in the next ten– no one knows which one), we should be down only 15% or 20%. If it is more or less unchanged during the year, we would hope to be up about ten percentage points. If it is up 20% or more, we would struggle to be up as much

In his 1962 letter, he added further detailing, sharing:

Our target is an approximately 1/2% decline for each 1% decline in the Dow and if achieved, means we have a considerably more conservative vehicle for investment in stocks than practically any alternative

Why did Buffett focus so much on relative out performance in down years? Because, as a value investor, he was obsessed with permanent loss of capital. In a broad sense, making money in the market is somewhat easy as over long periods of time as the market has historically tended to rise higher and higher. Every now and then, however, it corrects sharply to the downside and it is in these moments when the average investor panics and sells out at a loss, thereby permanently impairing his capital.

Buffett believed that by buying at a discount and taking a more conservative approach to the investment problem from the outset, he would limit any losses he might sustain in the inevitable downturns in the market. This by itself would put him ahead of other market participants because he’d have more of his capital intact. The real power behind this strategy is what comes afterward, as then the just-as-inevitable recovery would continue the compounding process again– with more of his original capital than the other guy, Buffett would enjoy greater pure gain over time as he would have a relatively shallower hole to climb out of each time.

True Margin of Safety: two pillars of value

Fellow value investor Nate Tobik over at OddballStocks.com has talked repeatedly about one of Ben Graham’s concepts which he refers to as the “two pillars of value”, namely, that a company which represents a bargain both on the basis of a discount to net assets and a discount earnings is the most solid Margin of Safety one can possess because you’re not only protected two ways but you also have two ways to “win.”

Reading the Buffett partnership letters, it’s clear that the reason Buffett was knocking it out of the park in his early years was because he relied upon the same methodology. Buffett later was critical of his own early practices and many others have derided the investment style as akin to picking up soggy cigar butts and taking the last puff before discarding them, but there is no denying in studying several of the investments Buffett disclosed that Buffett was buying things which were “smack you over the head” cheap.

For example, in the 1958 letter, Buffett disclosed the partnerships’ investment in Commonwealth Trust Company of New Jersey, a small bank. Buffett claimed the company had a computed per share intrinsic value of $125, which was earning $10/share and trading for $50. This meant that Buffett bought the company for 40% of book value, or at a 60% margin of safety to indicated value. And, in two pillar tradition, he was also buying at a 5x multiple of net earnings– by any standards, an incredibly cheap value. If one were to look at the company as a bond and study it’s earnings yield, this company was offering a 20% coupon!

Making good buys, not good sales

In the example of Commonwealth Trust Co. discussed earlier, though Buffett calculated an intrinsic value of $125/share, he ultimately sold for only $80/share. He did not sell out near intrinsic value but rather far below it. Still, because he had originally bought at $50/share, he nonetheless earned a 60% return despite the company trading at a still-substantial discount to intrinsic value.

As Buffett chirped in his 1964 letter:

Our business is making excellent purchases– not making extraordinary sales

Why does Buffett harp on this idea so frequently? There are a few reasons.

One, an excellent purchase price implies a substantial discount to intrinsic value and earnings power, therefore there is a built-in margin of safety and the downside is covered, a principle of central importance to sound investing.

Two, an individual has 100% control over when they buy a security but relatively little control over when and in what conditions they sell, particularly if they use margin. You may not always get the price you want when you are ready to sell but you will always get the price you want when you buy because that decision is made entirely by you and doesn’t require the cooperation of anyone else. Buying at a discount ensures you “lock in” a profit up front.

Three, buying at a discount gives one optionality. If a better deal comes along, it is more likely you can get back out of your original investment at cost or better when you buy it cheap. When your original purchase price represents a substantial discount you have a better chance of finding a buyer for your shares because even at higher prices such a sale would probably still represent a bargain to another buyer meaning both parties can feel good about the exchange.

This last point was critical in Buffett’s Commonwealth situation. He was happy to sell at only $80/share despite a $125/share intrinsic value because he had found another opportunity that was even more compelling and because his original purchase price was so low, he still generated a 60% return. Meanwhile, the other party who took this large block off his hands was happy to provide the liquidity because they still had a 56% upside to look forward to at that $80/share price.

Early activism, the value of control

Another lesson from Buffett’s partnership letters is the importance and value of activism and control. From an activism standpoint, the examples of Sanborn Maps and Dempster Mills are well-known and don’t require further elaboration in this post (follow the links for extensive case study analysis at CSInvesting.org, or even read Buffett’s partnership letters yourself to see his explanation of how these operations worked).

But activism is something that is best accomplished with control, and often is its by-product. On the topic of control, Buffett said in his 1958 letter with regards to Commonwealth:

we became the second largest stockholder with sufficient voting power to warrant consultation on any merger proposal

By gaining a large ownership share in an undervalued company, an investor can play a more active role in ensuring that potential catalysts which might emerge serve to adequately reward shareholders. Similarly, time is money and when one has control,

this has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation

An investment situation offering, say, a 30% return, offers a 30% annualized return if captured within a year, a 15% annualized return if gained after two years and only a 10% annualized return if it takes 3 years to realize value. Having control can often be the difference between a 30% and a 10% annualized return by allowing an investor to accelerate the pace at which they turn over their capital.

It is a myth, therefore, that Buffett only became a wholesale/control buyer as he employed greater amounts of capital in his later years. While many of his investments were passive, minority positions in the partnership years, Buffett never shied away from control and activism, even saying in his 1961 letter:

Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen

In this sense, “value is its own catalyst” and something which is cheap and remains cheap for an extended period of time can actually be a unique opportunity to accumulate enough shares to acquire control, at which point the value can be unlocked through asset conversion, a sale or merger of the company or through a commandeering of the company’s earnings power.

Portfolio buckets: generals, work-outs and control

In his 1961 letter, as well as later letters, Buffett outlined the three primary types of investments that could be found in the partners’ portfolios, the approximate proportion of the portfolio to be involved with each and the basis upon which such investments should be chosen.

The “bread and butter” according to Buffett was his “generals”, businesses trading at substantial discounts to their intrinsic value which were purchased with the intent of eventually being resold at a price closer to the intrinsic value:

our largest category of investment… more money has been made here than in either of the other categories… We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen… Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price… individual margin of safety coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential… [we] are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner

While admitting that the particular and eventual catalyst was often not known with the average investment in a general security, Buffett also admitted in his 1963 “Ground Rules” letter section:

Many times generals represent a form of “coattail riding” where we feel the dominating stockholder group has plans for the conversion of unprofitable or under-utilized assets to a better use

The next category was workouts:

our second largest category… ten or fifteen of these [at various stages of development]… I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior

The beauty of work-outs is that they relied on corporate action, not market action, to realize value. In this sense, they could provide a meaningful buffer to share price declines in generals during bear markets as their performance was largely “market neutral.” For example, in his 1963 (1962 being a bear market) letter Buffett said:

This performance is mainly the result of having a large portion of our money in controlled assets and workout situations rather than general market situations at a time when the Dow declined substantially

The final category was control, which started out as something of an after-thought or an accidental consequence of investing in certain generals which remained cheap, but later turned into an active category Buffett would search for opportunities in.

Buffett also mentioned the idea of the “two-way stretch” in control situations– if bought at a significant discount, there were generally two ways to profit from a control investment. Either the stock price remained low for a long period of time and control was acquired, in which case “the value of our investment is determined by the value of the enterprise,” or else the stock would move up in the process of consolidating a position in which case it could be sold at a higher level in the way one would normally “complete a successful general operation.”

Time horizons for performance

This particular point is more well-known but it bears repeating here. Buffett was obsessed with long-term performance and constantly advised his partners about appropriate timelines for judging investment performance, especially based-upon the particular type of investment being considered. For example, in his 1960 letter he said:

My own thinking is more geared to five year performance, preferably with tests of relative results in both strong and weak markets

In the 1961 letter, Buffett discussed “establishing yardsticks prior to the act” and again emphasized:

It is my feeling that three years is a very minimal test of performance, and the best test consists of a period at least that long where the terminal level of the Dow is reasonably close to the initial level

In other words, what did your performance look like after a three year period where the broad market index made no progress, or even reversed?

With control situations specifically, Buffett advised:

Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it

Diversification

It’s clear that Buffett had 15-21 “generals” or about 50-60% of his portfolio, with another 10-15 positions in workouts or another 15-30%, with the remainder in control situations. However, control situations could scale up to as much as 40% of the portfolio in an individual investment if the situation called for it in Buffett’s mind.

And while Buffett mentioned in an earlier letter of having approximately 40 positions in the portfolio in total, he later (around the time he started being influenced by Charlie Munger and other “quality over quantity” investment practitioners) became more critical of the idea of diversification. In the 1966 letter, Buffett lamented:

if anything, I should have concentrated slightly more than I have in the past

He also castigated “extreme diversification”:

The addition of the one hundredth stock simply can’t reduce the potential variance in portfolio performance sufficiently to compensate for the negative effect its inclusion has in the overall portfolio expectation

Buffett was learning the merits of “concentration” in areas outside the portfolio, as well. In discussing slight additions to the office space at Kiewit Plaza and the hiring of additional support personnel, Buffett added:

I think 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

Of course, the results of this focus were obvious to all in time.

Sizing things up

Buffett dwelled on “the question of size” at length in his letters to partners. He made it clear that portfolio size and investment opportunity looked something like a continuum with small size on the left of the spectrum and large size on the right, with “generals” hanging near the left pole (size is a disadvantage), workouts inhabiting some kind of middle ground where they were neither benefitted nor impaired by size and control situations distinctly on the right where size was an enormous advantage.

Generals and control situations are, in this sense, almost opposites because Buffett warned that some generals were too small to buy meaningful stakes in for a large portfolio, whereas a small portfolio might never be able to acquire enough shares to gain control of certain investments.

Inflation-adjusting Buffett’s portfolio positions and capital at various points in time also gives important clues to the role size played in his operations. For example, Sanborn Maps was apparently around a $4.5M market cap when he mentioned the company in his letters. This would be about $35M or so in today’s dollars (this is not an endorsement of BLS/CPI measurement techniques, just a convenient rule-of-thumb), so clearly Buffett was hunting in a small/micro-cap space at least at this time.

In a similar vein, Buffett started with $105,000 in capital in 1956, which is about $893,000 in 2012. In his 1966 letter, he complained that the amount of capital being managed at the time, $43,645,000, was beginning to be burdensome in terms of size versus opportunities. This would be about $312,000,000 in 2012, to put it into perspective.

Apparently, the value investment framework Buffett created could work quite well even at a scale that we might consider to be decently large.

Serendipity: the reason for Buffett’s rise, and retirement

Few ever think to mention the incredible role serendipity played in Buffett’s early fortunes, but Buffett himself was well-aware. Not only did he begin his career at the outset of an astounding decade-long-plus bull market, but in 1952,

and for some years subsequently, there were substantial numbers of securities selling at well below the “value to a private owner” criterion we utilized for selection of general market investments

As the bull market started to grow gray hairs in the late 1960s and Buffett began contemplating an exit from the business, he similarly remarked in his 1967 letter:

Such statistical bargains have tended to disappear over the years. This may be due to the constant combing and recombing of investments that has occurred during the past twenty years, without an economic convulsion such as that of the ’30s to create a negative bias toward equities and spawn hundreds of new bargain securities

The comment on the aftermath of the 1930s bears repeating. The primary reason for the prevalence of bargain issues in the market around the time Buffett started investing was due to a massive psychological paradigm shift in attitudes about the stock market following the crash of 1929 and subsequent depression of the 1930s. By the late 1960s, a new inflationary thrust had managed to erase this psychology and great gains were actually made in sending it in the reverse direction. Buffett was convinced of

the virtual disappearance of the bargain issues determined quantitatively

the kind whose figures “should hit you over the head with a baseball bat”, which were being replaced by

speculation on an increasing scale

So how did Buffett respond to these new market conditions where his toolkit didn’t seem to work as well? Did he compromise his standards, or try to shape-shift his style into the “New Era” of investors and keep going? Well, anyone who has studied Buffett already knows the answer. Buffett knew his circle of competence and he knew what worked. When what he knew worked stopped working (because the opportunities weren’t available), he quit.

Despite writing in his 1968 letter that the answer to a potential phase out of the partnerships was “Definitely, no.” Buffett nonetheless in his 1969 letter suggested that “the quality and quantity of ideas is presently at an all time low” and that “opportunities for investment that are open to the analyst who stresses quantitative factors have virtually disappeared” and for this reason, he decided to close up shop.

There’s a lesson for all of us here. As Joel Greenblatt has argued, value investing doesn’t work all the time, which is why it works. We should respect this, just as Buffett did– when the deals dry up, we should go fishing (or at the very least, look for bargains in other markets that are in a different stage of psychology/sentiment/valuation). Trying to make great long-term returns when valuations won’t support it is a fools game and more likely to end in failure.

A few miscellaneous notes

In the 1968 letter, Buffett referred to 10-12% as “worthwhile overall returns on capital employed”.

With regards to dividends, although Buffett always described the return of the Dow for each annual period inclusive of dividends earned, and although when describing his investment in Commonwealth he specifically mentioned that the company was not paying dividends, and although we know from an anecdote in The Snowball that Buffett was receiving substantial dividend checks from his partnership portfolios because his wife Susie accidentally through a few away one time, I noticed that Buffett makes no specific mention in any of the letters of the importance of dividends nor that dividends impacted his investment decisions or philosophy.

Notes – Doing The Hugh Hendry (#debt, #diversification)

Below is some commentary from Hugh Hendry I found in an FT.com editorial I since can not access as I don’t have a login. But I thought it was interesting when I first read it awhile back and I still think it’s interesting now. I meant to post it earlier. Rectifying my mistake:

For the moment, let us forget the chances of a hard landing in China. Forget the drama of Europe’s circus of politically inspired economic incompetency. Forget that the good news of the US economy’s succession of positive economic surprises is really bad news as fixed income managers have sold copious amounts of too cheap volatility and because it has made equity investors turn bullish, sending stock market volatility back to 2007 levels. This is dangerous. Improved US data may represent a classic short-term cyclical upturn amid a profound global deleveraging cycle.

Such moves have been commonplace for the past three years and have yet to prove a harbinger of any structural upswing. I worry that the pathological course of the last several years will see volatility rise sharply once again. Even so, there exists, in terms of my parochial world of hedge fund investing, a bigger issue.

I fear that my no longer small community has been compromised. Last year was generally very tough for long/short strategies and I commiserate with all concerned. But last year world class funds lost more than 15 per cent in just two months. Today they are celebrated again for making double digit returns in the last quarter even though they still languish below high water marks and their reputation for risk management, at least to those clients who have poured over their copious due diligence statements, has been sorely compromised.

You can probably live with that if you are a pension scheme or a large, sophisticated fund-of-fund because you have a global macro sub-sector that can benefit from short-term shifts in volatility. But the unfortunate thing is that this group exercised its stop losses somewhere between the great stock market rallies of 2009 and 2010. That is to say, they honoured the pact they had with clients. They adhered to the terms of their risk budget: they lost money and they reduced their positions. I fear that owing to this nasty experience the financial world is in danger of harvesting a monoculture of fund returns that could prove less than robust should the global economy suffer another deflationary reversal.

To my mind the situation has parallels with the plight of the banana. Today the world eats predominately just one type of banana, the Cavendish, but it is being wiped out by a blight known as Tropical Race 4, which encourages the plant to kill itself. Scientists refer to it as programmed death cell destruction. In stressful situations bananas fortify themselves by dropping leaves, killing off weaker cells so that stronger ones may live to fight anew. They operate a stop-loss system.

But modern mass production of single type bananas has replaced jungle diversity with commercial monocultural fields that provide more hosts to harbour the blight. The economy keeps producing stressful volatility events. Good managers keep shedding risk and monetising losses and are duly fired, leaving us with a monoculture of brazen managers who will never stop loss because they are convinced central banks will print more money.

Diversification has proven the most robust survival mechanism against failures of judgment by any one society, hedge fund manager or style. But what if we are now a single global hedge fund community afraid to take stop losses and convinced of an inflationary outcome to be all short US Treasuries and long real assets?

This is pertinent as I have always been fascinated by that second rout in US Treasuries in 1984, long after the inflation of the 1970s was met head on by Paul Volcker’s monetary vice and a deep recession. How could 10-year Treasury yields have soared back to 14 per cent and how could so many investment veterans have been convinced that a second even more virulent inflation wave was to hit the global economy?

Psychologists tell us the explanation is embedded deep in the mind. They refer to the “availability heuristic”. Goaded by the proximity to the last dramatic event, investors overreacted to the news that the US economy was pulling out of recession in 1984. They saw high inflation where there was none.

With this in mind, I would contend that it may take several more years before the threat of debt and deflation can be successfully exorcised from investors’ minds, even if the global economy were not set on such a perilous course. Such is the potency and memory of 2008’s crash that anything remotely challenging to the economic consensus could be met by a sudden and severe reappraisal to the downside.

Should such an event send 30-year Treasury yields back to their 2008 low of 2.5 per cent, we believe enlightened investors might better be served by thinking the opposite. Only then might it prove rewarding to short the government bond market and embrace what may turn out to be a much promised once in a lifetime buying opportunity for risk assets.


Kleptocracy Via Inflation Is The Global Model, Not Just Chinese (@John_Hempton, #china)

Australian hedge fund manager John Hempton is out with a new piece on his blog about “The Macroeconomics of Chinese kleptocracy“, the main takeaway of which is:

But ultimately the Chinese establishment like inflation – it is what enables their thievery to be financed.

The more serious threat is deflation – or even inflation at rates of 1-3 percent. If inflation is too low then the SOEs – the center of the Chinese kleptocratic establishment will not generate enough real profit to sustain the level of looting. These businesses can be looted at a negative real funding rate of 5 percent. A positive real funding rate – well that is a completely different story.

[...]

The Chinese establishment has a vested interest in getting the inflation rate up in China. Because if they don’t all hell will break loose.

Unless the Chinese can get the inflation rate up expect a revolution.

I know John (who appears to be a well-intentioned but generally naive political conservative) would likely strongly disagree with the following characterization but…

This is the kleptocratic model prevalent in all major developed and developing world economies– inflation is the keystone piece of these systems and it is why CB presidents from Bernanke to Draghi to Shirakawa are all intent on creating and maintaining it.

If the inflationary engine fails to turn over, the loot-truck stops making its rounds. If the loot-truck stops making its rounds, the elite and their scumbag offspring don’t get paid and all the world’s peasants (you don’t have to work a farm to be an economic peasant) suddenly wake up to just how desperately poor they are after being continually ripped off for decade upon decade.

But, I’m a cynic, so of course I’d see the world that way. More reasonable men, like Mr. Hempton, are more prevalent in the world than I, so everyone is spared my dark view of things and can instead bask in the glory of knowing that, while our systems may not be perfect, at least they’re not as bad and out in the open as China’s.

Review – More Money Than God (#hedgefunds)

More Money Than God (buy on Amazon.com)

by Sebastian Mallaby, published 2010

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer.

A veritable pantheon of masters of the universe

Mallaby’s book is not just an attempt at explaining and defending the beginning, rise and modern state of the hedge fund industry (the US-focused part of it, anyway), but is also a compendium of all of the hedge fund world’s “Greatest Hits.” If you’re looking for information on what hedge funds are, where they come from, what they attempt to do, why they’re called what they are and how they should be regulated (SURPRISE! Mallaby initially revels in the success “unregulated” funds have had and feints as if he’s going to suggest they not be regulated but, it being a CFR book and he being a captured sycophant, he does an about-face right at the last second and ends up suggesting, well, umm, maybe SOME of the hedge funds SHOULD be regulated, after all) this is a decent place to start.

And if you want to gag and gog and salivate and hard-to-fathom paydays and multiple standard deviations away from norm profits, there are many here.

But that wasn’t my real interest in reading the book. I read it because I wanted to get some summary profiles of some of the most well known hedgies of our time — the Soroses and Tudor Joneses and such — and understand what their basic strategies were, where their capital came from, how it grew and ultimately, how they ended up. Not, “What’s a hedge fund?” but “What is this hedge fund?” As a result, the rest of this review will be a collection of profile notes on all the BSDs covered by the book.

Alfred Winslow Jones – “Big Daddy”

  • started out as a political leftist in Europe, may have been involved in U.S. intelligence operations
  • 1949, launches first hedge fund with $60,000 from four friends and $40,000 from his own savings
  • By 1968, cumulative returns were 5,000%, rivaling Warren Buffett
  • Jones, like predecessors, was levered and his strategy was obsessed with balancing volatilities, alpha (stock-picking returns) and beta (passive market exposure)
  • Jones pioneered the 20% performance fee, an idea he derived from Phoenician merchants who kept one fifth of the profits of successful voyages; no mgmt fee
  • Jones attempted market timing as a strategy, losing money in 1953, 1956 and 1957 on bad market calls; similarly, he never turned a profit following charts even though his fund’s strategy was premised on chartism
  • Jones true break through was harvesting ideas through a network of stock brokers and other researchers, paying for successful ideas and thereby incentivizing those who had an edge to bring him their best investments
  • Jones had information assymetry in an era when the investment course at Harvard was called “Darkness at Noon” (lights were off and everyone slept through the class) and investors waited for filings to arrive in the mail rather than walk down the street to the exchange and get them when they were fresh

Michael Steinhardt – “The Block Trader”

  • Background: between end of 1968 and September 30, 1970, the 28 largest hedge funds lost 2/3 of their capital; January 1970, approx. 150 hedge funds, down from 200-500 one year earlier; crash of 1973-74 wiped out most of the remainders
  • Steinhardt, a former broker, launches his fund in 1967, gained 12% and 28% net of fees in 1973, 74
  • One of Steinhardt’s traders, Cilluffo, who possessed a superstitious eating habit (refused to change what he ate for lunch when the firm was making money), came up with the idea of tracking monetary data, giving them an informational edge in an era where most of those in the trade had grown up with inflation never being higher than 2% which meant they ignored monetary statistics
  • One of Steinhardt’s other edges was providing liquidity to distressed institutional sellers; until the 1960s, stock market was dominated by individual investors but the 1960s saw the rise of institutional money managers; Steinhardt could make a quick decision on a large trade to assist an institution in a pinch, and then turn around and resell their position at a premium
  • Steinhardt’s block trading benefited from “network effects” as the more liquidity he provided, the more he came to be trusted as a reliable liquidity provider, creating a barrier to entry for his strategy
  • Steinhardt also received material non-public information: “I was being told things that other accounts were not being told.”
  • In December 1993, Steinhardt made $100M in one day, “I can’t believe I’m making this much money and I’m sitting on the beach” to which his lieutenants replied “Michael, this is how things are meant to be” (delusional)
  • As the Fed lowered rates in the early 90s, Steinhardt became a “shadowbank”, borrowing short and lending long like a bank
  • Steinhardt’s fund charged 1% mgmt fee and 20% performance fee
  • Anecdote: in the bloodbath of Japan and Canada currency markets in the early 90s, the Canadian CB’s traders called Steinhardt to check on his trading (why do private traders have communications with public institutions like CBs?)

Paul Samuelson & Commodities Corporation – “Fiendish Hypocrite Jackass” (my label)

  • Paul Samuelson is one of history’s great hypocrites, in 1974 he wrote, “Most portfolio decision makers should go out of business– take up plumbing, teach Greek, or help produce the annual GNP by serving corporate executives. Even if this advice to drop dead is good advice, it obviously is not counsel that will be eagerly followed.”
  • Meanwhile, in 1970 he had become the founding backer of Commodities Corporation and also investing in Warren Buffett; he funded his investment in part with money from his Nobel Prize awarded in the same year
  • Samuelson paid $125,000 for his stake; total start-up capital was $2.5M
  • Management of fund resembled AW Jones– each trader was treated as an independent profit center and was allocated capital based on previous performance
  • Part of their strategy was built on investor psychology: “People form opinions at their own pace and in their own way”; complete rejection of EMH, of which Samuelson was publicly an adherent
  • Capital eventually swelled to $30M through a strategy of primarily trend-surfing on different commodity prices; in 1980 profits were $42M so that even net of $13M in trader bonuses the firm outearned 58 of the Fortune 500
  • Trader Bruce Kovner on informational assymetries from chart reading: “If a market is behaving normally, ticking up and down within a narrow band, a sudden breakout in the absence of any discernible reason is an opportunity to jump: it means that some insider somewhere knows information that the market has yet to understand, and if you follow that insider you will get in there before the information becomes public”

George Soros – “The Alchemist”

  • Soros had an investment theory called “reflexivity”: that a trend could feedback into itself and magnify until it became unavoidable, usually ending in a crash of some sort
  • Soros launched his fund in 1973, his motto was “Invest first, investigate later”
  • Soros quotes: “I stood back and looked at myself with awe: I saw a perfectly honed machine”; “I fancied myself as some kind of god or an economic reformer like Keynes”
  • Soros was superstitious, he often suffered from back pains and would “defer to these physical signs and sell out his positions”
  • Soros believed in generalism: know a little about a lot of things so you could spot places where big waves were coming
  • Soros had a “a web of political contacts in Washington, Tokyo and Europe”
  • Soros hired the technical trader Stan Druckenmiller, who sometimes read charts and “sensed a panic rising in his gut”
  • As Soros’s fund increased in size he found it harder and harder to jump in and out of positions without moving the markets against himself
  • Soros rejected EMH, which had not coincidentally developed in the 1950s and 1960s in “the most stable enclaves within the most stable country in the most stable era in memory”
  • Soros was deeply connected to CB policy makers– he had a one on one with Bundesbank president Schlesinger in 1992 following a speech he gave in Basel which informed Quantum fund’s Deutschemark trade
  • “Soros was known as the only private citizen to have his own foreign policy”; Soros once off-handedly offered Druckenmiller a conversation with Kissinger who, he claimed, “does know things”
  • Soros hired Arminio Fraga, former deputy governor of Brazil’s central bank, to run one of his funds; Fraga milked connections to other CB officials around the world to find trade ideas, including the number two official at the IMF, Stanley Fischer, and a high-ranking official at the central bank of Hong Kong
  • Soros was a regular attendee at meetings of the World Bank and IMF
  • Soros met Indonesian finance minister Mar’ie Muhammed at the New York Plaza hotel during the Indonesian financial crisis
  • Soros traveled to South Korea in 1998 as the guest of president-elect Kim Dae-jung
  • In June 1997, Soros received a “secret request” for emergency funding from the Russian government, which resulted in him lending the Russian government several hundred million dollars
  • Soros also had the ear of David Lipton, the top international man at the US Treasury, and Larry Summers, number 2 at the Treasury, and Robert Rubin, the Treasury secretary, as well as Mitch McConnell, a Republican Senator

Julian Robertson – “Top Cat”

  • Managed a portfolio of money managers, “Tigers”
  • Used fundamental and value analysis
  • Once made a mental note to never buy the stock of an executive’s company after watching him nudge a ball into a better position on the golf green
  • Robertson was obsessed with relative performance to Soros’s Quantum Fund
  • Called charts “hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo bullshit”
  • Robertson didn’t like hedging, “Why, that just means that if I’m right I’m going to make less money”
  • High turnover amongst analysts, many fired within a year of hiring
  • Tiger started with $8.5M in 1980
  • A 1998 “powwow” for Tiger advisers saw Margaret Thatcher and US Senator Bob Dole in attendance
  • Tiger assets peaked in August 1998 at $21B and dropped to $9.5B a year later, $5B of which was due to redemptions (Robertson refused to invest in the tech bubble)

Paul Tudor Jones – “Rock-And-Roll Cowboy”

  • Jones started out as a commodity trader on the floor of the New York Cotton Exchange; started Tudor Investment Corporation in 1983, in part with an investment of $35,000 from Commodities Corporation
  • “He approached trading as a game of psychology and high-speed bluff”
  • Superstition: “These tennis shoes, the future of this country hangs on them. They’ve been good for a point rally in bonds and about a thirty-dollar rally in stocks every time I put them on.”
  • Jones was a notorious chart reader and built up his theory of the 1987 crash by lining up recent market charts with the 1929 chart until the lines approximately fit
  • Jones was interested in Kondratiev wave theory and Elliott wave theory
  • “When you take an initial position, you have no idea if you are right”but rather you “write a script for the market” and then if the market plays out according to your script you know you’re on the right track
  • Jones made $80-100M for Tudor Investment Corp on Black Monday; “The Big Three” (Soros, Steinhardt and Robinson) all lost heavily in the crash
  • Jones, like Steinhardt, focused on “institutional distortions” where the person on the other side of the trade was a forced seller due to institutional constraints
  • Jones once became the catalyst for his own “script” with an oil trade where he pushed other traders around until they panicked and played out just as he had predicted
  • PTJ never claimed to understand the fundamental value of anything he traded
  • PTJ hired Sushil Wadhwani in 1995, a professor of economics and statistics at the LSE and a monetary policy committee member at the Bank of England
  • PTJ’s emerging market funds lost 2/3rd of their value in the aftermath of the Lehman collapse

Stanley Druckenmiller – “The Linebacker” (my title)

  • Druckenmiller joined Soros in 1988; while Soros enjoyed philosophy, Druckenmiller enjoyed the Steelers
  • He began as an equity analyst at Pittsburgh National Bank but due to his rapid rise through the ranks he was “prevented from mastering the tools most stock experts take for granted” (in other words, he managed to get promoted despite himself, oddly)
  • Survived crash of 1987 and made money in the days afterward
  • Under Druckenmiller, Quantum AUM leaped from $1.8B to $5B to $8.3B by the end of 1993
  • Druckenmiller stayed in touch with company executives
  • Druckenmiller relied on Robert Johnson, a currency expert at Bankers Trust, whose wife was an official at the New York Fed, for currency trade ideas; Johnson himself had once worked on the Senate banking committee and he was connected to the staff director of House Financial Services Committee member Henry Gonzalez
  • Druckenmiller was also friends with David Smick, a financial consultant with a relationship with Eddie George, the number 2 at the Bank of England during Soros and Druckenmiller’s famous shorting of the pound
  • Druckenmiller first avoided the Dot Com Bubble, then jumped aboard at the last minute, investing in “all this radioactive shit that I don’t know how to spell”; he kept jumping in and out until the bubble popped and he was left with egg on his face, ironic because part of his motivation in joining in was to avoid losing face; Druckenmiller had been under a lot of stress and Mallaby speculates that “Druckenmiller had only been able to free himself by blowing up the fund”

David Swensen & Tom Steyer – “The Yale Men”

  • Swensen is celebrated for generating $7.8B of the $14B Yale endowment fund
  • Steyer and his Farallon fund were products of Robert Rubin’s arbitrage group at Goldman Sachs; coincidence that Rubin proteges rose to prominence during the time Rubin was in the Clinton administration playing the role of Treasury secretary?
  • Between 1990 and 1997 there was not a single month in which Steyer’s fund lost money (miraculous)
  • Farallon somehow got access to a government contact in Indonesia who advised Bank Central Asia would be reprivatized soon and Farallon might be able to bid for it
  • Some rumors claimed Farallon was a front for the US government, or a Trojan horse for Liem Sioe Liong (a disgraced Indonesian business man); it is curious that Yale is connected to the CIA, Farrallon is connected to Yale

Jim Simons & Renaissance Capital – “The Codebreakers”

  • Between the end of 1989 and 2006, the flagship Medallion fund returned 39% per annum on average (the fund was named in honor of the medals Simons and James Ax had won for their work in geometry and number theory– named in honor of an honor, in other words)
  • Jim Simons had worked at the Pentagon’s secretive Institute for Defense Analyses (another possible US intelligence operative turned hedgie?)
  • Simons strategy was a computer-managed trend following system which had to be continually reconfigured due to “Commodities Corporation wannabes” crowding the trades by trending the trends
  • Simons looked to hire people who “would approach the markets as a mathematical puzzle, unconnected to the flesh and blood and bricks and mortar of a real economy” (this is distinctly different than the Graham/Buffett approach, and one wonders how this activity is actually economically valuable in a free market)
  • “The signals that we have been trading without interruption for fifteen years make no sense. Otherwise someone else would have found them.”
  • Renaissance treated employee NDAs like a wing of the CIA– anyone who joined could never work elsewhere in the financial industry afterward, and for this reason they specifically avoided hiring from Wall St in the first place; they were required to invest a fifth of their pay in the Medallion Fund and was locked up as bail payment for four years after they departed (money hostage)

David Shaw & D.E. Shaw

  • Began trading in 1988, the same year as the Medallion fund
  • Shaw was originally hired by MoStan in 1986 into their Analytical Proprietary Trading unit which aimed at beating Steinhardt at his block-trading game using predictive computer technology
  • In 1994, Shaw’s 135-member firm accounted for 5% of the daily turnover on the NYSE
  • Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, was originally a DE Shaw employee
  • The strategy was heavily reliant on pair-trade “arbitrage”, looking for securities in similar industries which were temporarily misaligned in price/multiple
  • Circle of competence: in 1995 the firm launched the ISP Juno Online, as well as FarSight, an online bank and brokerage venture

Ken Griffin & Citadel

  • Created in 1990, grew to $15B AUM and 1400 employees by 2008
  • Griffin’s goal was to develop an investment bank model that could compete with traditional, regulated ibanks, but which was actually a hedge fund
  • Flagship funds were down 55% at the end of 2008, losing $9B (the equivalent of two LTCMs)

John Paulson

  • Paulson graduated from HBS in 1980 and went to work for Bear Stearns; he launched his hedge fund in 1994 with initial capital of $2M which grew to $600M by 2003; by 2005 he was managing $4B
  • Paulson’s main strategy was capital-structure arbitrage
  • He looked for “capitalism’s weak spot”, the thing that would blow up the loudest and fastest if the economy slowed even a little; cyclical industries, too much debt, debt sliced into senior and junior tranches, risk concentrated
  • Paulson spent $2M on research related to the US mortgage industry, assembling a proprietary database of mortgage figures and statistics
  • Many of Paulson’s investors doubted him and threatened to pull capital in 2006
  • Paulson enlarged his bets against the mortgage market through derivative swaps on the ABX (a new mortgage index) and eventually acquired over $7.2B worth of swaps; a 1% decline in the ABX earned Paulson a $250M profit, in a single morning he once netted $1.25B
  • By 2007, he was up 700% net of fees, $15B in profits and made himself $3-4B

Conclusion

I’m actually even more bored with this book having finished typing out my notes than I was when I finished the book the first time I read it. The book actually has some great quotes in it, from the insane delusions of grandeur of government officials and central bank functionaries, to wild facts and figures about the statistical trends of the hedge fund and financial industries over the last 60 years. I am too exhausted to go back and type some of it out right here even though I kind of wish I had some of the info here even without an idea of what I’d use it for anytime soon.

My biggest takeaway from MMTG is that most of these masters of the universe have such huge paydays because they use leverage, not necessarily because they’re really good at what they do. Many of their strategies actually involve teasing out extremely small anomalies between asset prices which aren’t meaningful without leverage. And they’re almost uniformly without a meaningful and logically consistent understanding of what risk is– though many are skeptics of EMH, they seem to all see risk as volatility because volatility implies margin calls for levered traders.

There were so many displays of childish superstition. Many of these guys are chart readers. The government intelligence backgrounds of many was creepy. And it was amazing how many relied on informational asymmetries which are 100% illegal for the average investor. These people really travel in an elite, secretive world where everyone is scratching each other’s backs. How many one on one conversations have you had with central bank presidents? How many trips to foreign countries have you been on where you were the invited guest of the head dignitary of the country? Are you starting to put the picture together like I am?

Overall, it seems so arbitrary. The best word that comes to mind to describe these titans and their success is– “marginalism”. We have lived in an inflationary economy for the last 60+ years and these players all seem to excel in such an environment. But inflationism promotes marginalism; the widespread malinvestment of perpetual inflation confuses people looking to engage in real, productive economic activity, and paper shuffling necessarily becomes a high value business.

The author himself is incredibly ignorant of economic fundamentals and the role monetary intervention plays in the economy. All of the various crises these hedgies profited from seem to come out of nowhere according to his narrative. The incredible growth in volumes of money managed by the hedge fund industry over time goes without notice, as if it was just a simple, unexceptional fact of life. Shouldn’t that be interesting? WHY ARE THERE HUNDREDS OF FIRMS MANAGING TENS OF BILLIONS OF DOLLARS EACH? Where did all this money come from?!

That makes the book pretty worthless as it’s key.

One thing that does strike me is that many of the most successful, most levered trades of Soros, Druckenmiller and others were related to currencies. These guys are all Keynesians but they probably don’t fully believe their own economic theories. However, they do understand them well enough to make huge plays against the dope money managers who DO put all their credence into what they learned at university. I should think an Austrian econ-informed large cap macro fund would have quite a time of it playing against not only the dopes, but the Soroses of the world– they’ll get their final comeuppance as this system of artificial fiat exchange finally unwinds over the next decade.

And, little surprise, the guy with the nearly perfect trading record for almost a decade (Farrallon) was involved in arbitrage trades.

Trend following is for slaves. It may have proven to be a profitable strategy (with gobs of leverage) for the contemporary crop of hedgies but I feel fairly confident in saying most of these guys will get hauled out behind the woodshed in due time if they keep it up, to the extent their strategies truly are reliant on mystic chart reading and nothing more.

Bon voyage!