I met with a UK-based portfolio manager yesterday and our conversation eventually led to a fascinating discussion of the differences in distribution and compensation structures in the US versus Europe.
In the US, for example, we have well-developed retail distribution channels for financial products (wirehouses, RIAs, broker-dealers, banks).
In continental Europe, distribution is dominated by the banks. For many reasons, there is simply not much of a retail investing culture in Europe. The end users of UCITS (European mutual funds) tend to be very wealthy families with multi-generational wealth management needs.
While here in the US we are preoccupied with what a fiduciary standard for investment advisor conduct and compensation should look like, the discussion in Europe is much different (to the extent there is any discussion at all).
Which leads me back to the title of this post, and why I want to be reincarnated as an Italian mutual fund manager…
In Italy, the standard compensation structure for an equity manager is apparently a 2% management fee with a performance fee assessed monthly, but with no high watermark or preferred return hurdle (!!!)
That is to say, if you are an Italian fund manager operating under this scheme, you get a cut of the profits every month you post a positive return. Even if your clients are underwater on their original investments. It is a hedge fund manager’s dream!
(Usual disclaimer applies: this is not financial advice. I do not own any Netflix. Nor am I short Netflix at pixel time (though the thought has crossed my mind). Netflix is actually a super dangerous stock to short at this juncture as it appears to trade purely on momentum as of 3/7/18)
Netflix happens to be a stock market darling.
Netflix’s earnings numbers also happen to be garbage.
To those readers who own NFLX in any real size, I have a simple question for you: how does NFLX generate half a billion dollars of GAAP earnings while simultaneously burning $1.79bn of operating cash?
As I’m sure the NFLX bulls know, it has to do with the way NFLX accounts for the cost of content. NFLX spends real cashtoday to produce and license streaming content. However, on its income statement it amortizes that cost over a longer time period to (allegedly) better reflect the economics of that content. While the cash flow statement shows $1 of spend on content going out the door today, the income statement spreads that same $1 over about four years.
Who determines the amortization schedule? Why, management, of course.
Here is the relevant disclosure:
The table is a little hard to read so here is the text of the note again (emphasis mine):
On average, over 90% of a licensed or produced streaming content asset is expected to be amortized within four years after its month of first availability.
As of December 31, 2017, over 30% of the $14.7 billion unamortized cost is expected to be amortized within one year and 29%, 78% and over 80% of the $1.4 billion unamortized cost of the produced content that has been released is expected to be amortized within one year, three years and four years, respectively.
As it turns out, the NFLX of today is a massively capital intensive business. This wasn’t always the case. Back when NFLX distributed other people’s content it cash flowed quite nicely.
As a general rule I am suspicious of businesses that show growing GAAP income alongside large, negative operating cash flows (in NFLX’s case the cash burn actually gets larger over time–it is moving in the wrong direction). In these cases management’s judgement is driving the income statement. We have a special name for this in analyst land: “low earnings quality.”
So. Does the income statement or cash flow statement better reflect the economics of this business? This is hardly a trivial issue when you are buying a $138bn market cap company on 200x EV/EBIT. After all, it does you no good to add millions of subscribers if you have to burn up all your cash flow to retain them over time. Meanwhile you are funding that cash burn by taking on billions of dollars of debt:
The benefit of accruals for smoothing irrelevant volatility comes at a cost. Accrual accounting opens the door to opportunistic short-run income smoothing that can lead to future restatements and write-downs (e.g., Enron). Earnings quality can be improved when accruals smooth out value-irrelevant changes in cash flows, but earnings quality is reduced when accruals are used to hide value-relevant changes in cash flows. Distinguishing between these two types of accrual adjustments is critical to financial analysis. As we discuss in Chapter 3, an astute analyst cannot focus on earnings alone. To assess earnings quality, the analyst must evaluate the company’s cash flow statement and balance sheet in conjunction with the income statement.
Hence I have this niggling contrarian idea about NFLX. My niggling contrarian idea about NFLX is that the business valued at 200x EV/EBIT is an accounting illusion, and what NFLX will really be in the long run is a massive incinerator of cash. A massively levered incinerator of cash. In extremis: a potential zero.
This is not without precedent. The movie business, for example, is notorious for creative accounting.
Now maybe NFLX is cut from a different cloth than the bankrupt movie studios of yore. Maybe it has developed super sophisticated ways of allocating production capital so as only to back projects with a high probability of success and very long cash flow streams. Management sure doesn’t account for content that way in the financials. But hey, maybe they are just that rare conservative management team of a highly touted momentum stock.
Has it occurred to anyone buying (or hawking) NFLX stock on 200x EV/EBIT that if you spend like FOX and Time Warner on content, maybe your stock should be priced similarly? (e.g. FOXA: 14x EV/EBIT BUTWITH $3.4BN OF FREE CASH FLOW)
I am not writing this up as a research note or an investment recommendation. This is simply an exercise in healthy skepticism.
I also learned at Quantico that complex linear planning fails in warfare because the profession involves “the shock of two hostile bodies in collision, not the action of a living power upon an inanimate mass,” as Clausewitz reminds us. In the military-industrial exuberance of the post–Cold War decades, we invested heavily in exotic platforms such as drones, cyber capabilities, and billion-dollar strike fighters. Our low-tech but moderately street-savvy opponents in this millennium decided to fight us precisely where and how these assets were near useless. With few exceptions, the most useful equipment for this environment came from the Vietnam era and the most enduring lessons from the time of the Spartans.
Financial markets, made up of people competing for an edge, are precisely the type of environment designed to bedevil static planning. The financial environment is one where valuation multiples persistently mean revert, where income statement growth is not persistent or predictable, where GDP growth does not correlate with equity returns, where market share and moats do not lead to competitive advantage or price return.
So what are we to do in such an environment where outcomes are determined not so much by the very little we can foresee but by what might unexpectedly happen relative to the expectations embedded in the price at which the security is bought? How would we affirmatively strategize and operate differently as investors if all of our most cherished and marketed crystal balls for forecasting price returns are shattered? How should we operate amidst the chaos without operating chaotically?
In Afghanistan, I found that the most consequential assets on our side were the most robust and persistent throughout the history of warfare. An asymmetric but intelligent adversary had refused to engage us on any terms but those where war devolved to a competition of wills, where discipline, resolve, adaptability, and habituated combat-arms tactics dictated the victor, not drones or robot pack mules. Our own persistent behavioral biases were our worst enemy.
UPDATE: After reading and reflecting on this, it seems clear to me it is essentially providing a mental model for what war is and how it is conducted.
At first glance, war seems a simple clash of interests. On closer examination, it reveals its complexity and takes shape as one of the most demanding and trying of human endeavors. War is an extreme test of will. Friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, and danger are its essential features. War displays broad patterns that can be represented as probabilities, yet it remains fundamentally unpredictable. Each episode is the unique product of myriad moral, mental, and physical forces.
Individual causes and their effects can rarely be isolated. Minor actions and random incidents can have disproportionately large—even decisive—effects. While dependent on the laws of science and the intuition and creativity of art, war takes its fundamental character from the dynamic of human interaction.
Also this bit:
War is an extension of both policy and politics with the addition of military force. Policy and politics are related but not synonymous, and it is important to understand war in both contexts. Politics refers to the distribution of power through dynamic interaction, both cooperative and competitive, while policy refers to the conscious objectives established within the political process. The policy aims that are the motive for any group in war should also be the foremost determinants of its conduct. The single most important thought to understand about our theory is that war must serve policy.
New Jersey’s treasurer said on Thursday she will increase the expected rate of return for the state’s struggling public pension system from 7 percent to 7.5 percent, then lower it again over time.
The switch to a higher assumed rate means that the state, and participating local governments in New Jersey, will for now escape the higher costs that arise when investment return assumptions are lowered.
The savings come at a fortuitous time for new New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who took office in January and is facing a shortfall ahead of his first budget proposal in mid-March.
The higher rate will save about $238 million for the state and more than $400 million for local governments in the near term, according to the office of Acting State Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio.
Color me gobsmacked. Here is a translation into plain English:
We know that our current return assumption is unrealistic. But, if we lower it outright we are going to have to make large contributions we can’t really afford (we are only 49 percent funded as it is). So we are going to tell a teensy weensy little white lie, and pretend returns will be higher for a while. And eventually we will fix the numbers. It will all work out in the end. Trust us.
Where is one to begin with something like this?
With the fact that New Jersey’s treasurer is OPENLY FUDGING THE NUMBERS?
How about some healthy skepticism regarding whether a bunch of politicians will ever adjust the numbers back down to where they belong if it means a public outcry over unfunded liabilities or higher taxes?
Or maybe the troublesome fact that only 50% of projected liabilities are funded?
Puerto Rico should be instructive where these underfunded state and municipal pension plans are concerned, both in terms of the root causes of the problems and the difficulties inherent in closing massive budget holes. This is not likely to end well for New Jersey.
We all have our weird niche interests and obsessions. For instance, my quixotic obsession with tail hedging. Conventionally, that means protecting portfolios against “rare” events (the VIX doubling in a single day, for instance). I am interested in tail hedging in a less conventional sense. I am interested in actually making money off “rare” events. I use “rare” in scare quotes here because contrary to the what you might hear from boilerplate financial advice, “rare” events are surprisingly common in financial markets.
If you are interested in the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of tail risk, you should read Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness and Lo’s Adpative Markets (review forthcoming soon). But if you prefer practical applications, check out the below table:
This is taken directly from the paper “A Comparison of Tail Risk Strategies in the US Market.” The intuition is simple: markets offer the highest expected returns when they are bombed out, when valuations are deeply discounted, when (to borrow a Buffettism) everyone is feaurful. A tail hedge not only provides excess returns in times of crisis that mitigate drawdown, but also a source of liquidity that can be redeployed into equity and/or fixed income securities at firesale prices.
So, hypothetically, you make 2% at the portfolio level off a small-ish tail hedge and reinvest it into equities at firesale prices. Over the subsequent months and years maybe that amount doubles, triples or quadruples.
Sounds great, right? What’s the catch?
The catch is the cost of the hedge and the resulting drag on returns:
If you are interested in a detailed exploration of the strategies in the table, you will have to read the linked paper. However, at a high level the intuition is straightforward. When you are tail hedging you are essentially buying insurance. The person selling you the insurance wants to earn a premium for doing so.
The most common arguments against tail hedging are:
(1) there is no reason to hedge tail risk because in the long run equity markets always go up;
(2) the cost of the insurance is not offset by excess returns over time;
(3) there are better ways of mitigating tail risk.
I do not find Argument #1 compelling at all. All the data used to support this argument is subject to path dependency and survivorship bias. This is particularly true in the context of the US market, which is has been the best performing equity market in history. People tend not to respond well to my counterarguments because they imply an uncertain view of the future and they would rather extrapolate from the past (clients don’t like to face up to the uncertainty inherent in markets). People also have a difficult time with skewed payoffs–that is, understanding why a strategy with a 99% probability of a $1 loss and a 1% probability of a $100 gain is a good bet in the long run.
I do find Argument #3 compelling. AQR has a good paper on this that reaches similar conclusions to the Alternative Investment Analyst Review piece. However, AQR’s paper is focused on defensive applications of tail hedging strategies, whereas my interest is in playing offense. In full fairness, AQR addresses that in the paper:
We acknowledge that some investors might buy insurance for reasons other than reducing tail risk. For example, insurance can provide a cash buffer in times of market distress, potentially allowing investors to take advantage of fire-sales and other market dislocations. However, depending on the magnitude and frequency of the dislocations (and the manager’s ability to identify them), this opportunistic approach still might not make up for the negative expected returns from buying insurance. Other investors might occasionally have a tactical view that insurance is conditionally cheap. However, this is simply market timing in another form, and this decision should be made (and sized) in the context of other tactical views in the portfolio.
I have mixed views of Argument #2, mainly due to the issues of path dependency and survivorship bias noted above. If future equity returns look like the past 30 years or so, there is certainly no reason for long-term investors to tail hedge (assuming they have the wherewithal to stay invested in volatile markets). If the world becomes a more volatile and uncertain place over the next couple decades, investors may feel differently.
I have conducted some small experiments with real dollars over time. Most recently, I set up a long volatility trade using the VIXY ETF and ZIV ETN. It performed well during the February volatility spike, but was something of a blunt instrument (I have since closed out the position).
More recently I have been looking at Meb Faber’s TAIL ETF, which purchases a ladder of out-of-the-money put options on the S&P 500. Below is a rough scenario analysis I conducted to assess performance drag vs. crisis performance, as well as some historical monthly performance data for TAIL for context (the ETF has a short track record).
A couple takeaways:
This exposure has to be managed actively. When volatility spiked in early February 2018 the correct move would have been to trim the position on the back of the ~10% up move.
There is a consideration in play for me that is not in play for many retail investors, and that is that my compensation and career prospects are highly correlated to financial markets. For people with “bond-like” compensation (teachers, doctors) there is less benefit to spending portfolio dollars on a tail hedge from a pure risk management POV.
The real downside to putting on a position like this is not getting 18% annualized over a decade if the market returns 20% annualized. The real downside is getting an annualized 3% if the market returns 5%.
Billionaire Doomsday Prepping As Extreme Tail Hedging
Fear of disaster is healthy if it spurs action to prevent it. But élite survivalism is not a step toward prevention; it is an act of withdrawal. Philanthropy in America is still three times as large, as a share of G.D.P., as philanthropy in the next closest country, the United Kingdom. But it is now accompanied by a gesture of surrender, a quiet disinvestment by some of America’s most successful and powerful people. Faced with evidence of frailty in the American project, in the institutions and norms from which they have benefited, some are permitting themselves to imagine failure. It is a gilded despair.
I have a dramatically different reading: billionaire doomsday prepping is just an extreme form of tail hedging.
If you have a net worth of $1 billion, why not spend even $10 million of your net worth on a hedging strategy for the total collapse of civilization? This amounts to a 1% exposure. It’s a pretty good risk/reward tradeoff, if you ask me–especially if you are estimating your max downside as being drawn and quartered by some kind of Proletarian Justice Tribunal. Obviously, a financial hedge is not going to work here. You are going to need things like guns and butter. And some kind of bunker.
I am sure not all ultra-wealthy doomsday preppers look at it this way. But I am comfortable speaking for a majority. Even that New Yorker piece contains the following observation (they buried the lede, IMO):
Yishan Wong, an early Facebook employee, was the C.E.O. of Reddit from 2012 to 2014. He, too, had eye surgery for survival purposes, eliminating his dependence, as he put it, “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision.” In an e-mail, Wong told me, “Most people just assume improbable events don’t happen, but technical people tend to view risk very mathematically.” He continued, “The tech preppers do not necessarily think a collapse is likely. They consider it a remote event, but one with a very severe downside, so, given how much money they have, spending a fraction of their net worth to hedge against this . . . is a logical thing to do.”
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:
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.
There is an opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal worth commenting on. Todd Zywicki writes that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) under its previous leadership “pummeled American consumers and the economy while doing little to promote financial stability.”
The pain was especially acute for low- and middle-income consumers who lost access to credit cards, faced higher bank fees and reduced access to free checking, and found it harder and costlier to obtain mortgages, especially as first-time homebuyers. In response, consumers turned to payday loans and alternative products as financial life rafts—only to have Mr. Cordray poke holes in them by imposing regulations that would effectively outlaw payday lending.
He is on sound footing in regards to the regulatory burdens imposed on small banks and credit unions. His comments regarding consumer choice may look good on paper but to my eye appear ignorant of the reality on the ground.
This passage in particular irks me:
When the CFPB prototype was first proposed nine years ago, I wrote in these pages that the architects of the new agency should “treat borrowers like adults.” Instead, Mr. Cordray’s CFPB viewed consumers as too dumb, irrational or vulnerable to make their own decisions about whether to enter into a contract with an arbitration clause, take out a payday loan, or bargain with a car dealer over an auto loan.
The problem is that the people who are targeted for “alternative” credit solutions tend to be desperate individuals of limited financial sophistication. They are precisely the kind of people who lack the financial literacy to make informed decisions regarding things like arbitration clauses. Or compound interest, for that matter.
When I worked in consumer lending, I frequently encountered these borrowers. In fact, we had a couple of subprime lenders up the street from our office (we sat at the nexus of several communities varying dramatically in wealth). Disgruntled customers would often drift over to us when the punishing cost of their loans finally dawned on them. Even at the height of ZIRP here in the US, they were carrying mortgages at 10-15% and auto loans at 20%+.
None of these people understood the loan docs they had signed. Some of them might have been victims of deliberate mis-selling. However, I believe the overwhelming majority were simply financially illiterate. I could tell I had finally gotten through to one befuddled borrower on compound interest when his face lit up and he exclaimed, “so that’s how Warren Buffett does it!”
The key issue here is that the only way to make money as a lender is to charge punitive interest rates. Subprime borrowers are genuinely awful credits.Default rates are high and recoveries are low. (what quality collateral do you suppose someone is bringing to the table when he is willing to take a mortgage at 10% with Prime at 3.25%?)
There is certainly an argument to be had about whether the government should be in the business of protecting financially illiterate consumers from themselves. Mr. Zywicki obviously does not believe so. But I feel it’s important to at least properly frame that debate.
UPDATE: After some discussion on this subject with others, I developed the below analogy to cigarettes.
People get addicted to cigarettes, which are bad for their health and have broader negative impacts on society at large (read: healthcare costs). So, the government imposes punitive taxes on cigarette consumption. You remain free to buy cigarettes, but you are penalized for doing so. The reason is that the rest of us are forced to bear the cost of your bad habit.
Subprime lending is similarly corrosive. Subprime loans are “unhealthy” for the borrowers. They also undermine social cohesion more broadly by promoting distrust of the regulated financial system and markets in general. So, why should we as a society promote the proliferation of this type of financing?
As part of the above referenced discussion, I pulled a OneMain Financial (OMF) 10K. In fiscal 2017, OMF took a $955 million provision against something like $2.4 billion of net interest income. They are reserving something on the order of 40% of net interest income for expected loan losses.
On the one hand, I can look at this as the high cost of “serving” this customer demographic. As noted above, I have no illusions about these consumers being awful credits. Subprime lending is not a rainbows and butterflies kind of business. Far from it. From the business point of view, eggs must be broken to make the omelette.
On the other hand, I question the ultimate economic purpose of the enterprise. To me it looks a lot like a means of extracting wealth from the poorest, least financially literate communities and transferring it to management and shareholders (I have similar objections to our use of lotteries and casinos as regressive taxes on the poor). Such businesses certainly have a right to exist. However, they are businesses that should be kept on a tight regulatory leash.