Trolling Warren Buffett

So the annual Berkshire letter is out and Buffett could not resist taking another swipe at Wall Street over his bet with Protégé Partners. I am not going to re-hash the letter or the bet here. (Incidentally, I highly recommend giving this annotated version a read) Rather, I want to draw your attention to one particular bit no one ever seems to talk about:

Berkshire_2017_Letter_Snip
Sources: Berkshire Hathaway; Safal Niveshak (highlight)

Am I the only person on the internet who believe this was a completely insane way to build a portfolio? Obviously, in the aggregate, the best investors can hope to do is match the market return, less fees (they can of course do considerably worse). It cannot be otherwise. There is nothing especially profound about the observation that it makes no sense to try and replicate the broad market with scores of active managers.

Fama and French demonstrated long ago that the aggregate portfolio of all investment managers more or less resembles the market cap weighted portfolio (read: an index fund, but with higher fees). Behold:

The high management fees and expenses of active funds lower their returns. If we measure fund returns before fees and expenses – in other words, if we add back each fund’s expense ratio – the α estimate for the aggregate fund portfolio rises to 0.13% per year, which is only 0.40 standard errors from zero. Thus, even before expenses, the overall portfolio of active mutual funds shows no evidence that active managers can enhance returns. After costs, fund investors in aggregate simply lose the fees and expenses imposed on them.

Adding insult to injury, the aggregate portfolio of active mutual funds looks a lot like the cap-weighted stock market portfolio. When we use the three-factor model to explain the monthly percent returns of the aggregate fund portfolio for 1984-2006, we get,

RPt – Rft = -0.07 + 0.96(RMt – Rft) + 0.07SMBt – 0.03HMLt + eit,where RPt is the return (net of costs) on the aggregate mutual fund portfolio for month t, Rft is the riskfree rate of interest (the one-month T-bill return for month t), RMt is the cap-weighted NYSE-Amex-Nasdaq market return, and SMBt and HMLtare the size and value/growth returns of the three-factor model.

The regression says that the aggregate mutual fund portfolio has almost full exposure to the market portfolio (a 0.96 dose, which is close to 1.0), but almost no exposure to the size and value/growth returns (0.07 and -0.03, which are close to zero). Moreover, the market alone captures 99% of the variance of month-by-month aggregate fund returns.

In short, the combined portfolio of all active mutual funds is close to the cap-weighted market portfolio, but with a return weighed down by the high fees and expenses of actively managed funds.

Therefore, in my view, Protégé’s failure was first and foremost a failure of portfolio construction. It’s totally fair to fault Protégé for this, just as it’s fair to fault many investors for buying into a collective delusion around hedge funds as magical assets* in the mid-2000s. To the extent Warren is underscoring that point, I wholeheartedly agree with him.

Beyond that, I don’t know the outcome of this best offers much insight into investment manager selection or the merits of investing actively. (See my Truth About Investing post for more on that subject) Warren Buffett did not get to be a billionaire buying index funds. Neither did Jim Simons. Or David Tepper. Or Seth Klarman.

Someone please sit down with Jim Simons or David Tepper or Seth Klarman or Howard Marks or any of the dozens of hedge fund managers who have trounced the S&P 500 over the past couple of decades and lecture them about the aggregate performance of active management. I would love to hear how it goes.

*  When I write about magical asset classes I am referring to any asset class or strategy people believe is inherently superior to others. In the mid-2000s investors clearly believed they could generate outperformance just by “being in” hedge funds. There are lots of reasons why aggregate performance has declined since then. First and foremost, hedge funds became victims of their own success as the space attracted large amounts of investor capital and many hundreds of talented money managers. Now that hedge funds are out of favor, the magical asset classes of today are private equity and venture capital. Also, hedge funds are not an asset class. They are a type of fund structure, just like closed end funds and mutual funds are types of fund structures. Similarly, you can argue that private equity isn’t a unique asset class so much as a levered investment in illiquid small caps and micro caps.

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