Bill Miller and the Legg Mason Capital Management Value Trust mutual fund

Last week, Bill Miller of Legg Mason announced that he is stepping down as portfolio manager of that firm’s Capital Management Value Trust fund after 20+ years at the helm.

Mr. Miller was once the envy of equity portfolio managers everywhere for the fame and fortune his beating the S&P 500 for 15 years in a row brought hi.  In recent times, he has become the embodiment of very pm’s worst nightmares, however.

His previously hot hand–which had earned him designation by Morningstar as a “Manager of the Decade” turned icy-cold in 2006.  Ensuing weak performance erased the gains in relative performance his portfolio had made since “the streak” began in 1991.  The assets in his fund fell by almost 90% from the peak of $21 billion +.

my thoughts

I should say at the outset that I don’t know Mr. Miller and that I haven’t studied his portfolio composition carefully.  And I’m not interested enough to look up his past SEC filings to try to document my impressions.  With that warning, here’s what I think:

1.  It took Legg Mason a very long time–and the loss of the vast majority of Value Trust’s assets–before it made the change.  At the asset peak, the fund was generating management fees for LM at a $140 million annual clip.  It’s now generating under $20 million.

Why not act sooner?

Part of the reason is likely that after sagging in 2006-2008, the Value Trust outperformed in 2009.  More important, I think, is that the fund’s marketing has been all about “the streak” and the extraordinary investing prowess of Mr. Miller.   It’s a good story and an easy sell.  But it’s a risky strategy.  If it’s all about the numbers, and someone with even better results comes around–and invariably someone will–what do you do? You’ve already made the argument to your client to switch into the Value Trust because of the numbers; how can you now argue against numbers that tell him to switch out?

This selling direction also gives the manager himself a huge amount of power.  What’s the Bill Miller show without Bill Miller?  So if Mr. Miller wants to continue to run a concentrated portfolio with a strong emphasis on financials, despite steady underperformance, how do you stop him not to?

2.  I’ve never regarded Mr. Miller as a typical value investor, although he’s always described as one and the Value Trust (note the name) is classified with other value vehicles by rating services.  I have two reasons:

–Value investors are belt-and-suspenders kind of guys.  They run highly diversified portfolios, typically with 100-200 names–sometimes more.  Growth investors, in contrast, typically hold 50-60.  Looking up the Capital Management Value Trust on Google Finance told me it has only 46 names. (By the way, in my experience ratings services never pick up high concentration as a source of risk.)

–Both value and growth investors look for “undervalued” securities (only shortsellers want to find overvalued stocks).  That isn’t what the “value” in value investing signifies.  It means a certain approach to finding undervaluation.

Value investors look at the here-and-now.  Their holdings are typically asset-rich companies that have encountered temporary difficulties, which have been crushed by Wall Street and which are now trading at unduly depressed valuations as a result.  Growth investors, in contrast, look for companies whose future earnings prospects are being underestimated by the market.

In this sense, too, I don’t think Mr. Miller is a plain-vanilla value investor.  He has been happy to hold large positions in stocks like Amazon or AOL (in its heyday)–names I think other value practitioners wouldn’t give a second look because the whole story has been the rate of future earnings growth.

I have no idea how Mr. Miller squares this circle.  (The fund’s largest positions are now in technology, according to Google Finance.  But it’s not the same thing.  Today’s stocks are eBay and Microsoft.  Apple, the largest holding, is still a growth stock, unlike the others.  But AAPL trades at a very low PE multiple of current earnings.)

3.  Despite this flexibility, and the issue of heavy concentration aside, it seems to me that classic value behavior has been the Value Trust’s recent problem.  Relative to history, financials were trading at low price to book value (i.e., the balance sheet value of shareholders’ equity) ratios when Mr. Miller bought them.  In hindsight, that was a mistake.

There may have been a second.  If the stocks a growth investor buys underperform, he typically stops buying or lightens up.  Value investors tend to do the opposite.  They regard such stocks as being even cheaper than when they initially bought–and double up.  I suspect the latter is what Mr. Miller did.

two oddities

1. In the early part of my career, alternating cycles of outperformance by value and growth stocks were relatively brief.  Given a year, or two at the most, there would be little to chose between the numbers generated by one style or the other.  The 1990s, however, saw a multi-year value cycle in the early part of the decade, followed by a massive multi-year growth cycle–culminating in the Internet Bubble–at the end.  Despite the fact that the tide was running strongly against value during the latter years, Mr. Miller continued to outperform the S&P 500.  If he did so with value stocks, that’s his crowning achievement.

2.  After creating a strong business franchise under the Miller name, neither he nor Legg Mason did much to protect it.



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: