alternative investments, the SEC and Trump

My earliest experience with alternatives was as a rookie analyst in 1979. Among other things, I was covering small oil wildcatters who funded themselves by promoting oil and gas limited partnerships sold through retail brokers. The 1/2″-thick prospectuses laid out terms that were so unfavorable to limited partners that at first I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy them. So I asked the VP Finance of one of my coverage companies. He laughed, and said the offerings were not for people who wanted to make money. They were for people who wanted to tell others at a party that they were wealthy enough to have an income tax problem.

I remember a China-oriented private equity fund whose prospectus touted the promoters’ prowess through their extraordinary history of high returns. The returns were high–but, after fees, they matched almost exactly those of the Hang Seng index. Again, lots of sizzle but…

As part of the financial reform after the financial crisis, and because of widespread improprieties in the alternatives industry–like misstatement of returns, or professional credentials, or size of assets under management …or other stuff I’d call flat-out fraud–many alternatives providers were required to begin filing reports with the SEC, which has since prosecuted a number of high-profile cases of abuse.

Trump is now taking two actions in support of alternatives, both of which seem to me only to be pluses for dubious alternatives promoters. He’s proposing that ordinary investors be allowed to buy alternatives in 401k accounts (they’ve been barred as too opaque and risky). He’s also “solving” the issue of fraudulent reporting by ending the mandate that smaller alternatives firms to file their results with the SEC (removing the threat of Federal prosecution for, say, falsifying returns).

Neither makes any sense to me. Why do this? Maybe the same reason Trump has made no effort to keep his promise to eliminate the carried interest ploy private equity managers use to avoid income tax.

William Ackman and Automatic Data Processing (ADP)

Pershing Square, the hedge fund founded by well-known investor William Ackman, established a position in business services company ADP earlier this year.  Arguing that ADP was poorly managed–a problem Ackman said he could fix–he nominated himself and two associates for election to the board of directors of the firm.

Results of voting were released last week.  None of the three Pershing Square nominees were elected to the ADP board, despite Ackman being recommended by the three major shareholder advisory firms (the other Pershing Square nominees were recommended by two of the three).

Ackman has proclaimed this result as a victory for him, in that his nominees received about a quarter of the votes cast.

I’m not convinced.  Here’s why:

In early days of my career, institutional investors generally didn’t pay much attention to voting on corporate proposals. Generally, if they voted, they cast their ballots with management.  In the early 1990s, though, the SEC criticized the industry for this attitude and strongly reminded investment managers of their fiduciary obligation to study corporate issues carefully and vote their shares in the best interest of their customers.

 

I witnessed the early days of dealing with this new requirement.  Time had to be found for a meeting of all the portfolio managers who held a given stock. Consensus was very often hard to come by.   On the other hand, having having a money manager cast votes on both sides of an issue was at best a dubious proposition.  Lots of lawyers, both inside and outside counsel–none of whom had any clue about the relevant investment issues–had to get involved, as well.  A real mess.

 

Proxy solicitation firms saw a chance to radically transform their business.  They began to provide third-party voting advice, which was formulated by newly-hired teams of specialists in investment law.  These services were an instant hit.  Portfolio managers could get back to the work they knew best; investment management firms could rest easy, knowing that their taking advice from an objective third party would be a good  defense against any complaint they were not taking their fiduciary obligations seriously.

For at least the past twenty years, the policy of money management companies has been to follow the advice of firms like ISS, Glass Lewis and Egan-Jones, unless there are very strong reasons to do otherwise.  All three recommended that institutions vote to elect Ackman to the board.  Yet, despite the fact that institutions own 83% of ADP’s shares (according to Google Finance) neither Ackman nor the rest of his slate were elected.

This is not even a moral victory, in my eyes.  Just the opposite–it’s a surprisingly weak showing.  Of course,  the fact that the shares of JC Penney (JCP) are now trading below $3, can’t have helped.  JCP was another high-profile turnaround target of Pershing Square’s at $25 or so a few years ago,

daily volatility, non-correlation …and beta (ii)

This post is about hedge funds.

hedge funds:  a purist’s view

To a purist, a hedge fund is about hedging.  That is, it’s about running a portfolio with offsetting long and short positions.

Conceptually, this can be done either by assembling pair trades (one long, one short, often both in the same industry) or by creating opposing portfolios of good ideas and clunkers.  By using the money obtained from borrowing, and then selling, the hoped-for clunker stocks to fund the hopefully strong-performing good ones, the hedge fund manager ends up with no net exposure to the securities market he’s working in.  His return consists in the spread, if any, between the performance of the aggregate long portfolio and the shorts.  In a perfect world, he never loses money, although the amount he makes in a given year is up in the air.  It depends on the relative valuations of the “good” and “bad” securities that his market gives him.

(By the way, I worked on, and briefly ran, a very successful short-only portfolio for an innovative institutional client in the early 1980s. We pruned “bad” stocks from an S&P 500  index fund and reinvested the money in the rest of the index.)

today’s version

In today’s world, hedge funds are a motley group of mostly strongly net long, mostly highly concentrated portfolio strategies.  They do have common characteristics, though.  They charge very high fees, and as a group they’ve underperformed the S&P 500 pretty continually for more than a decade.  Also, many times it’s hard to get your money back if you no longer want to participate.

why institutional support, despite weak returns?

Why do pension funds continue to support hedge funds with a tolerance for weak performance they would never exhibit with long-only managers?

Two reasons:

–the claim of non-correlation with stocks and/or bonds.  This is basically a rerun of the fallacy of gold as a zero-beta asset, and

–the low expected return from stocks and bonds.  To pluck numbers out of the air, let’s say that over the next five years we can expect returns of 2% annually from bonds and 6% from stocks.  A portfolio made up of equal portions of both asset classes would have an expected return of 4% per year.  Suppose the actuarial assumption of a plan sponsor is that the plan is fully- or mostly-funded if the plan can achieve of 5% annual returns–or maybe 6%.  The plan managers, who hire outside portfolio help, have no way of get to either goal using conventional long-only investments.  That’s even going all in on stocks, which sponsors find too risky.  So the managers can either tell the sponsoring organization to add more money to the pension plan   …or they can hire hedge fund managers with pie-in-the-sky stories of high potential returns.  Until very recently, my observation is that they’ve by and large chosen the latter.

 

 

 

 

uncorrelated returns: hedge funds as the new gold

Every stock market person knows what beta is.

It comes from a regression analysis, y = α + βx, where y is the return on a stock and x the return on the market).  It shows how a given stock’s past tendency to rise and fall is linked to fluctuations in the market in general.  A stock with a beta of 1.4, for example, has tended to rise and fall in the some direction as the market, but move 40% more in either direction; a stock with a beta of 0.8 has tended to exhibit only 80% of the market’s ups and downs.

The professor in a financial theory course I took in business school asked one day what it meant that gold stocks had, at the time, a beta of zero.

The thoughtless answer is that it means they aren’t risky, or that they don’t go up and down.

A consequence of this thinking is that you can lower the beta, and therefore the risk, of your investment portfolio by mixing in some gold stocks.What’s interesting is that in the early days of beta analysis that’s what some institutional portfolio managers actually did with their clients’ money.

That didn’t work out well at all.

What should have been obvious, but wasn’t, is that the zero beta didn’t mean no risk–or that gold stocks are/were a good investment.  It meant what the regression literally indicates–that none of the movement in gold stocks could be explained by movements in the stock market in general.

The riskiness of gold stocks is there, but it came/comes in other dimensions, like:  how mines develop new supply, the ruminations of the gnomes of Zürich (in today’s world, Mumbai and Shanghai), the potential for emerging country craziness, the propensity of the industry to fraud.

Why write about this now?

I heard a Bloomberg report that institutional investors as a whole are upping their exposure to hedge funds, despite the wretched performance of the asset class.  Their rationale?   …uncorrelated returns.

It sounds sooo familiar.

Admittedly, there may be a deeper game in progress.  It’s impossible to say your plan is fully funded by projecting a gazillion percent return on stocks or bonds.  But who’s to say that a hedge fund can’t do that?

 

 

paradox of thrift; paradox of indexing?

The paradox of thrift is the idea that the common sensical approach individuals take in bad economic times–that is, to save a lot more–actually reduces overall consumption and ends up making a bad situation worse.

 

People are beginning to talk about the same sort of situation happening with investing and index funds.

The idea of indexing was initially popularized by Charles Ellis, who argued that large numbers of well-trained, well-educated, highly motivated, highly compensated portfolio managers were battling it out with one another every day in the active management world.  Therefore, he argued, none would be able to maintain a clear competitive advantage over any of the others.  And they would all be running up costs in their (futile) attempts to do so.  Therefore, the wisest course for anyone would be to take the lowest-cost route–simply buying the index.

Of course, it took Vanguard to provide the means and many years for the idea to be accepted.

Today, in contrast, it’s accepted that the lowest risk course of action, and likely the highest return one as well, is to buy an index ETF or mutual fund.

Over recent years, there has been a steady flow of assets away from traditional active managers in the US and into index products–meaning less money from management fees to fund active manager research.  In addition, the recent recession has triggered the mass layoff of seasoned brokerage house equity analysts.  (This is due to the contraction in assets under active management, regulatory constraints on the use of “soft dollar” commissions and the dominance of trading over research in brokerage firm office politics.)

Are we at the point where indexing has culled the herd of active managers enough that the fierce competition which has made the US stock market super efficient over the past generation is no longer functioning?

No, not yet.  2014 was the worst year in a long time for active managers, as far as outperformance is concerned.  And we know that hedge funds have rarely been able to keep up with the S&P.

However, today’s Wall Street seems to me to be much more reactive than proactive when it comes to company news.  That is to say, the market seems to react more strongly to company announcements of good or bad news, rather to have anticipated them from leading indicators.  Take, for example, the shock Wall Street showed when firms had weak 4Q14 results because of euro weakness–even though the size of the firms’ EU business was well-known and the change in value of the euro is shown in currency trading every day.

So something has changed.  It may simply be that brokerage research departments were much more important to the smooth functioning of the equity market than has been commonly perceived.

My question:  will individual investors take the place of active managers in keeping markets efficient?