Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Far-off Investment in Mutual Funds

First off, this is not the kind of thing you want to sink all of your investment dollars in. That might sound like a disclaimer, but the very idea that you could own a mutual fund that acted conversely to the way you want to react, a mutual fund that sold when markets were high and feasted when the markets were in trouble, and did so in many instances without so much as your normal hands-on knowledge, seems radical. You're an investor and you act like one.

Or you're an investor who knows that you aren't rational. And that is most of us. But a new study as uncovered that if you own a mutual fund far from where you live, you will allow it to do what it should do when the time is right. In other words, the farther away from your investment, as Miguel Ferreira of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal, Massimo Massa of INSEAD in France and Pedro Matos of the University of Southern California found out, the more you agree with the hedge fund-like attitude the fund exhibits.

Hedge funds have long since known that you need a presence in the place you invest. It wasn't until a paper by Melvyn Teo of the Singapore Management University uncovered the fact that a geographic presence is key to investment success. This sort of "boots-on-the-ground" approach does make sense. If you know your marketplace, chances are you will know all of the nuances about that investment area. But this new study suggests that the farther you are away from that sort of investment, the better the investment does.

In a diversified portfolio, you probably own a few funds that you are taking a risk with - something in the emerging markets, an international fund or a hybrid of the two. Good advice has always suggested that some limited exposure to what occurs in far-away places adds some seasoning to an otherwise straightforward portfolio. Little did many of us know until recently was that this sort of investment will do better because it is so far out of our field of expertise.

Perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a mutual fund manager is the reaction of the herd or herd mentality. Once the herd begins to move in one direction or the other, hence the description, there is little anyone can do to stop the momentum from gaining speed. I don't need to tell you that the most recent example of just such a herd reaction was during the most recent downturn. Once the well-informed investors began to retreat, other investors, via the alerts from the media, began to follow.

For a mutual fund manager, this is the worst of all possible events. Keep in mind, most mutual funds don't keep a lot of cash laying around. When the occasional investor exists, they sell something and pay them off. But when an entire herd heads for the door, the selling simply opens the market wound wider and the bloodbath begins.

Hedge funds don't allow this to happen which allows them to take a position that might be contrary to what the markets are doing. In other words, they can buy what you don't want and sell what you think is hot and make money on either end of the investment equation. But the ability to do this is made possible by the knowledge that their underlying portfolio is not affected by the herd. That's not to say that their investors don't panic, but the lock-up keeps them from mucking up the plan - for the hedge fund manager and the other investors - by trying to head for the door when they probably should be buying more.

Now what Ferreira, Massa and Matos discovered was a sort of geographic lock-up. The farther away from the fund the actual investor was, the higher the likelihood that they would allow the fund, with the local address to do what it needed to do without interference. In other words, the less you knew about what was happening, the better the fund was likely to do. Distance turned these far-away funds into de facto hedge-funds.

In a nod to the hedge fund industry, they wrote: “This intuition is similar to the one proposed for hedge funds: Hedge funds take advantage of mutual fund investors’ fire sales. When mutual funds are forced to sell to meet redemption calls, hedge funds buy the assets liquidated at fire sale prices (Chen, Hanson, Hong, and Stein, 2008). The fact that mutual funds intermediate a way higher fraction of asset under management than hedge funds suggests that this effect represents a large-scale “limits of arbitrage” phenomenon, way more important for the economy.”

In other words, mutual fund managers who essentially swoop into a location, buy what they think is a good buy (not saying that their research is faulty) and fly back to the home office, lack the physical understanding that a geographic embeddedness offers. In other words, if you live there, you know better what is going on. Even in a global economy with the world seemingly wired to give you information in a split second, being somewhere is still better in terms of investments.

As I said when I began, this is not a recommendation to put whatever you have in places far away from where you live. But rather a shortfall of what we understand about where we invest. If there had been lock-ups in place for mutual funds, there is a distinct possibility that the downturn would not have been as severe. While hedge funds use lock-ups to prevent investors from forcing redemptions of what would be illiquid investments, mutual funds could use the same rule to control herd mentality and protect the patient, long-term investor in the process.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mutual Fund Investing: Predicting the Future

Perhaps the best way to begin a prediction about 2011 is to see how I did in calling 2010, something I referred to as "Hope for a Decade Lost".
I wrote: "I wondered what economic nationalism would bring. Banks in major countries all were faced with unprecedented decisions, conundrums of epic proportions and no real template in which to test their theories of recovery." This played itself out in revelations about the Fed helping banks cover short-term losses and in doing so, helping to avert the potential for a major global crisis.

"In June of this past year," I wrote about 2009, "President Obama suggested that the Fed have greater power in regulation of more than just banks, proposing that the power of the Fed be extended to the whole of the financial system. With this expansion, the Fed would move beyond its control of interest rates and inflation (both of which were kept abnormally low and will begin their gradual uptick in 2010) to the role of financial police." This did happen but was softer than expected. I had hoped that someone responsible for the mess we are still in to be brought to justice - but that didn't exactly happen.

Read the full article here.