Specialist

Warren Buffett’s Shareholder Letter 2016Warren Buffett issued his annual shareholder letter in February. I said that last year’s letter was a bit disappointing but this year, there was plenty of gems in the letter and very important advice that we should all listen to, take a simple investment approach with low fees...

The mistake of making purchases with Berkshire shares

  • I made one particularly egregious error, acquiring Dexter Shoe for $434 million in 1993. Dexter’s value promptly went to zero. The story gets worse: I used stock for the purchase, giving the sellers 25,203 shares of Berkshire that at yearend 2016 were worth more than $6 billion.
  • Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares

Be greedy when others are fearful…

  • Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons.
  • You should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted.

The Bet

Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses. A lot of very smart people set out to do better than average in securities markets. Call them active investors. Their opposites, passive investors, will by definition do about average. In aggregate their positions will more or less approximate those of an index fund. Therefore, the balance of the universe—the active investors—must do about average as well. However, these investors will incur far greater costs. So, on balance, their aggregate results after these costs will be worse than those of the passive investors. Costs skyrocket when large annual fees, large performance fees, and active trading costs are all added to the active investor’s equation. Funds of hedge funds accentuate this cost problem because their fees are superimposed on the large fees charged by the hedge funds in which the funds of funds are invested. A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.

  • Just one person took up the bet, Ted Seides. 9 years into the 10 year bet, Ted’s approach has delivered a compounded return of 2.2% annually. The S&P 500 has returned 7.% annually. That means if you invested $1m with Ted, you would have made $220,000. If you have stuck the money in an S&P 500 index, you would have made $854,000.

Fees

  • The underlying hedge-fund managers in our bet received payments from their limited partners that likely averaged a bit under the prevailing hedge-fund standard of “2 and 20,” meaning a 2% annual fixed fee, payable even when losses are huge, and 20% of profits with no clawback (if good years were followed by bad ones). Under this lopsided arrangement, a hedge fund operator’s ability to simply pile up assets under management has made many of these managers extraordinarily rich, even as their investments have performed poorly.
  • Still, we’re not through with fees. Remember, there were the fund-of-funds managers to be fed as well. These managers received an additional fixed amount that was usually set at 1% of assets. Then, despite the terrible overall record of the five funds-of-funds, some experienced a few good years and collected “performance” fees. Consequently, I estimate that over the nine-year period roughly 60% – gulp! – of all gains achieved by the five funds-of-funds were diverted to the two levels of managers. That was their misbegotten reward for accomplishing something far short of what their many hundreds of limited partners could have effortlessly – and with virtually no cost – achieved on their own.

On Active Investment Management

  • Some investment professionals, just as some amateurs, will be lucky over short periods. If 1,000 managers make a market prediction at the beginning of a year, it’s very likely that the calls of at least one will be correct for nine consecutive years. Of course, 1,000 monkeys would be just as likely to produce a seemingly all-wise prophet. But there would remain a difference: The lucky monkey would not find people standing in line to invest with him.
  • There are three connected realities that cause investing success to breed failure. First, a good record quickly attracts a torrent of money. Second, huge sums invariably act as an anchor on investment performance: What is easy with millions, struggles with billions (sob!). Third, most managers will nevertheless seek new money because of their personal equation – namely, the more funds they have under management, the more their fees.

Low Cost, Index Approach

  • In his early years, Jack (Bogle, founder of Vanguard) was frequently mocked by the investment-management industry. Today, however, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he helped millions of investors realize far better returns on their savings than they otherwise would have earned. He is a hero to them and to me.
  • Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.
  • My regular recommendation has been a low-cost S&P 500 index fund.
  • To their credit, my friends who possess only modest means have usually followed my suggestion.
  • I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.

Why wealth shouldn’t mean a different investment strategy to everyone else

  • The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.
  • In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade. Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.

What do you think?  Buffett is worth $76.1 billion and is the greatest investor the world has seen. When he gives investment advice, why do people ignore it? Is it because it’s boring? There’s certainly nothing boring about investing money and getting more than you put in back. Let me know what you think by dropping me an email at steven@bluewaterfp.ie