Saturday, April 23, 2011

Do You Know How to Invest?

There is no easy answer to this question. But in the following three part series, we will take a look at one of the more successful investors to come along in the past century. A humble man prone to self-examination and reflection. Most investors never take the time to do what is necessary to achieve this sort of inner investor peacefulness. 

In part one of this review on one of the greatest investors, Bernard Baruch, titled "Notes on Investing: Baruch and Lessons Learned", we looked at what he has learned from his own mistakes, errors that we all make and of which numerous books have been written in anattempt to correct our own investor and totally human fallibilities on the subject. 

In part two, we looked at, among other things, the art of investing and getting a good night's sleep.

In part three of this series, we take a look at Baruch, the behavioralist, predating the science and doing so by examining how people react to markets, how he responded to his own inner biases and why stepping back for a spell gives one new and better perspective. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Plight of the Savvy Investor and the Goldilocks Mutual Fund

We are a fickle bunch. We think of ourselves as savvy investors, although there is a great deal of room for improvement among all investors to which degree of savviness. Yet we are in almost every instance our own worst enemy. Victoria Holt is quoted as saying: "Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience". Yet still, after several decades of behaviorists studying our actions in the marketplace like so many mice in a lab, we still do the same predictable things time and again.

And perhaps the first emotion we feel once we begin to second guess each of our "investment" decisions is regret. And if the recent selling of actively managed mutual funds by investors over the last year or so is any indication, regret for past decisions is in full swing.

Adding to the chatter that actively managed mutual funds and by default the managers who stand at the helm, is John Bogle, chanting the mantra he has carried since the late seventies. Why, he has asked, would anyone choose to look for more than what an index fund can provide? And as we begin to acknowledge the pull and tug, feel the most susceptible to such cost savings as a lower fees, which is always good, index funds begin to come to the front of our thinking about which investment is best.

But once you begin to believe that getting mediocre returns in the equity markets is the "new" goal, the attempt at saving some money in terms of the fees charged by actively managed funds in exchange for the smaller returns that index funds offer becomes the overall focus. And if that is the sight path you choose, index funds are definitely the right fund to use.

In a recent report in the NYTimes on the subject of this exodus from highly regarded performers over decades to index funds in search of lower fees, one thing stands out in the numbers. This is simply a beast feeding upon itself.

Consider this: You own X amount of shares in an actively managed mutual fund and you sell. But rarely do investors act alone. They are signalled by some change in the wind, some report drilled over and over or perhaps, it is from the suggestion of a colleague. Suddenly, fear sets in and you begin to think that you have the wrong investments. The fees are too high, you think and then anything that resembles a stick snapping alarms you and your fellow investors and you run.  And then you regret.

The selling prompts the redemption of shares, which when enough investors sell simultaneously, and enough shareholders accounts need to be made whole as they leave, markets move. And if the movement is great enough, the equities drop. And so do the indexes. So you sell at a loss only to buy shares in a fund you just, via the herd, lowered.

In many instances, the outflows are no reason to believe that the actively managed mutual fund world will implode. In fact, according to Brian Reid, the Investment Company Institute’s chief economist, 93% of the investment assets stayed right where they were as the remainder moved to other investments. Among those investments - more than just index funds reaped the benefit of this change in loyalty to actively managed funds - overseas funds gained as well as funds focused on commodities. Bond fund outflows also helped boost the index fund profile.

And what did this sell-off net the exiting investors? What were they looking for? Believe it or not, index funds that are actively managed. This surprising move has some folks, including myself, scratching our collective heads.

True, the fee structure of index funds is far cheaper that that of the actively managed fund (index funds average about .16% while actively managed funds average about .97% - with many load and closed end funds added into that average and increasing it as a result). But once you let a broker enter the mix, the fee structure changes, coming closer to the cost of the actively managed fund and at a lesser overall return.

Index funds because of the tax efficient structure belong in taxable accounts - as long as the capital gains tax remains historically low. Inside a tax deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA, the effect is lost. This is and should be the domain of the actively managed mutual fund. And while you should never lose sight of the role fees play in the long-term performance of your investments, believing that fees are the only driver in achieving steady returns is misplaced.

And while I have nothing against index funds, the growing number of funds  that slice and dice the markets do not always lead to lower fees for investors. But talk about index funds enough, and investors won't notice nor take the time to compare one index to another.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Do You Know Where Your Value Fund Is?

Last week the topic of emerging markets came up on a radio show I host every Friday. Although we only skirt the issue on many occasions, this week the term "emerging markets" kept popping up during the course of conversation with Lauren Templeton and her husband Scott Phillips, both of Templeton Capital Management. These two are value investors and if you have never met one (or two), they offer an unique perspective on the world of investing that is counter to what many of us think it is.

Now I often mention that emerging markets are often mature well before they lose the emergent title. In fact, the grey area between when they cease to emerge and the point when they are considered developed is often prolonged, with noticeably slowing growth and maturing markets. But even then, the unrest that signals investors that there is still significant (and sometimes worthwhile) risk makes the investment worthwhile well past its prime.

For most investors these days, emerging markets are usually considered as the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, or what has become known as amongst investors, the BRIC countries. Many of the four nations have growing GDPs, some doubling every six to ten years. Compared to countries like the US, where GDP doubles about once a generation, it is easy to see why this fast past growth adds to the risk factors.

Growing pains aside, many of these nations still have governments that are either over-involved or not involved enough. Depending on who you speak with, this can be both a good thing and a bad thing. As David Brooks of the NYTimes recently suggested: "emergent systems are bottoms-up and top-down simultaneously". As long as we can't predict with any accuracy which will prevail or better which should prevail given our predisposition to the investment, emerging will always signify opportunity somewhere for the nimble footed investor.

The BRIC countries all run the risk of slowing down with the brakes of banking and government concern with growth and its stepchild inflation pushing hard on the pedal. Some see this as the initial signs that regulation will swoop in eventually, followed by over-regulation and that, value investors feel is the death knell for emergence. What makes a country emerge in the first place?

Chuan Li writing for the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development breaks it down into four simple, and easy enough for the average investor to understand. He writes: "Emerging markets stand out due to four major characteristics. First, they are regional economic powerhouses with large populations, large resource bases, and large markets. Second, they are transitional societies that are undertaking domestic economic and political reforms. Third, they are the world's fastest growing economies, contributing to a great deal of the world's explosive growth of trade. Fourth, they are critical participants in the world's major political, economic, and social affairs."

In other words, they have all been bitten by the capitalist bug. In the past, countries emerged with assistance. Now they emerge with investment. Companies swoop in and entice governments with their investment approach, the benefits that their involvement in the country will have on its people and that the system works best where the regulation hasn't yet developed to the point of constraint.

But that bug bite doesn't necessarily mean that the country will ever fully emerge. Political systems are delicate beasts that needs to be groomed and sold to the growing economic classes in many of these countries and even after decades of what appears to be peaceful expansion, the simple cost of producing enough to eat can bring the whole of this effort down. By this time, the emerging market investors have left the building. Confidence is a risky business in and of itself and needs to be sold to the growing middle class who for the first time, may have the feeling that they deserve even more.

As Investopedia describes the risks: "The possibility for some economies to fall back into a not-completely-resolved civil war or a revolution sparking a change in government could result in a return to nationalization, expropriation and the collapse of the capital market." Now you may ask, why bring up value investors?

For two reasons: First I always saw them as the patient investor, willing to research and parse every bit of information available, make a decision and quite possibly never see the need to rethink their position. Once made, value investors held their decision sacrosanct, quite possibly putting more money into the investment if the cost fell farther. And two, they always invoked the names of those who pioneers (Ben Graham, David Dodd, Sir John Templeton and most recently and possibly even more famous, Warren Buffet) as their only mentors; all other discussions were off the table.

The lines were blurred when the stocks they picked rose, turning their investments into profits and prompting their exit from the investment. And even though they considered what they did fundamentally sound, they chuckled albeit under their breath as they sold to new buyers. To find value, you must find someone who is willing to sell what you know is worthwhile. To sell that investment, you need to find a buyer who sees only the increased worth of the stock and makes the assumption that it is indeed a good buy if it is now worth more than it previously was.

It makes a growth investor think twice, an index investor think less, a technical investor to wonder what's next for the stock and to the portfolio investor an opportunity to add risk or as they prefer, diversify. But value investors seem to snub the rest of us a merely fools.

Here's a little quiz to help you decide where you fall on the investment curve. Consider Japan. The markets that track Japan have seen net outflows steadily increase over the last several weeks since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor problems swept its way into the world's focus. If the markets are as Jeff Sommers of the NYTimes recently described it: "It’s as if the world’s markets have been responding to the baton of a mercurial but authoritarian maestro, who changes direction often, but insists that all orchestra members play together as one" and Warren Buffet is spending time touting the investment opportunities in Japan, does investing there suggest value or virtuousness?

Japan is hardly considered emerging, even as they consider nationalizing their utilities, a hallmark of what is considered risk in emerging markets. Can rushing in at the point of this orchestrated exit be virtuous as some value investors suggest, infusing capital as a sign of their belief that the sell-off has gone too far? At what point can this sort of risk be explained away as "doing the right thing"?

Opportunity has often be the domain of the growth investor. Risk is why growth investors do what they do: selling when they perceive the risk to be too great and buying at the point where the risk subsides. Yet value investors claim to do the same sort of maneuvering. Acting less like the lion in pursuit of the wounded zebra and more like the vulture preparing to clean the carcass left behind, value investors create the illusion of running counter to the herd. Or in the orchestration of the markets, playing an instrument that doesn't jive with the whole.

While every investors plays a role in the orchestrated market, value investors seem to want no part of this group. Even as they write the next score for the investor musicians, they refuse to consider themselves for what they are. Backing their decisions with the fundamentals of research is not an excuse nor is it virtuous. It is simply embracing risk differently. Yes, Japan offers opportunities. But to suggest these opportunists are focused on the virtue rather than the profits masks the underlying bug bite: we are all in for the profit and with value investors, that profit is once again, based on your mistakes.