Vulture Capitalism

640px-White-backed_vultures_eating_a_dead_wildebeest
Source: Wikipedia

Predictably, the Sears bankruptcy has attracted much wailing and gnashing of teeth around so-called “vulture capitalism” as practiced by hedge funds and private equity firms (here in the biz we use terms like “activism” or “distressed” investing). “Vulture” is of course used as a pejorative in these articles. Personally, though, I think practitioners should embrace the label.

In nature, vultures play an important role in ecosystems:

When vultures are unable to clean up the carrion in an area, other scavenger animals increase in population. The scavengers that tend to move in where vulture populations are low include: feral dogs, rats, and blowfly larvae. While these animals do help to remove carcasses from the landscape, they are also more likely to spread disease to human populations and other animals as well. In India, for example, the feral dog population increased significantly after vultures consumed cow carcasses poisoned with diclofenac, a painkiller. These feral dogs carried rabies and went on to infect other dogs and local people. Between 1993 and 2006, the government of India spent an additional $34 billion to fight the spread of rabies. India continues to have the highest rate of rabies in the world […]

[…] It is important to remember that even though the vulture species lacks the cute cuddly appearance of some endangered species, it is still a critical piece to a much larger, complex ecosystem. The world needs vultures to help control the spread of disease.

Likewise, vulture capitalists pick apart the corpses of dead and dying firms. Eventually that capital is recycled elsewhere in the market ecosystem.

Now, clearly this is not a pretty process. It is gruesome. It involves ruthlessly cutting costs; it involves firing good, hardworking people; it involves selling off assets and extracting cash instead of going through the “feel good” motions of reinvesting that cash into a dying enterprise. The firms that specialize in these activities are at the pointy end of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction.” It’s not exactly shocking that they’re unpopular with the general public.

But here’s the thing about “vulture capitalists.” They don’t feed on healthy companies. And there’s a good reason for this. Healthy companies are too expensive for distressed funds and buyout firms to get their claws into.

The popular notion that Sears, as a business, is dead money has been around since at least 1988. 1988! That’s thirty years. Three decades. Take a moment and think about that.

For thirty years now it’s been pretty clear the investment case for Sears rests largely on a sum-of-the-parts valuation of the real estate assets. There were very few possible worlds in which Sears would reinvent itself as a thriving retail business—particularly given brutal competition from Wal-Mart, Target, CostCo and others.

So when we talk about Sears we’re talking about the business equivalent of a sickly, dying wildebeest. Vulture capitalists consuming the carcass is simply the natural order of things. Even though hedge funds and private equity firms lack the cute, cuddly appearance of certain other market participants, they remain important pieces of a much larger, complex ecosystem.

Getting While The Getting’s Good

800px-Gluttony
Woodcut depicting the deadly sin of Gluttony, by Sebastian Brandt; Source: Wikipedia

Lately, investors have been gorging themselves on private equity. The Financial Times reports:

“The current speed of fundraising is in my experience unprecedented,” said Jason Glover, a London partner at Simpson Thacher, the law firm. “[Private equity groups] are keen to take advantage of the unusually benign conditions, particularly in anticipation of a change in market conditions when fundraisings may become significantly more difficult.”

But Mr Glover, who has been involved in private equity fundraising for more than 25 years, said investors are eager to park their cash in top-performing funds. “Investors are keen to deploy increasing amounts to private equity and with many of the top funds massively oversubscribed, their only way to secure a commitment is to act quickly before those funds are sold out,” he said.

Private equity funds have also gained traction with investors as other asset classes, like hedge funds, have underperformed, said Warren Hibbert at Asante Capital Group. He said: “The private equity market today provides a unique product which is very difficult to kill, unlike hedge funds. It’s very difficult to lose money in a private equity fund.”

Part of the public service I attempt to provide on this blog is drawing attention to screaming red flags when I see them. As far as screaming red flags go this is a pretty good one.

Private equity is simple in principle and is first and foremost an exercise in financial engineering:

Step 1: Buy cheap company.

Step 2: Add gobs of debt.

Step 3 (optional, if desired): Cut expenses to boost free cash flow.

Step 4: Flip the levered entity at a higher valuation.

The problem private equity investors face today is that they are buying into funds based on past performance that is not likely to persist. The reason? Valuations.

Remember, per the above steps private equity works the same as flipping houses. You need a cheap entry price, low financing costs and stupid willing buyers on the other side. As entry valuations rise, the bar rises on the back end. You need to find progressively dumber more optimistic buyers to exit the investment and earn an attractive return.

Dan Rasmussen of Verdad Capital has written and spoken extensively about his firm’s in-depth research into private equity returns. In a piece written for American Affairs, he discussed the negative impact of higher entry valuations at some length:

This is more troubling than most market observers understand. Private equity is price sensitive because of the use of debt. Higher prices require more debt, leading to higher interest costs and higher risk of bankruptcy. The importance of valuation to returns is controversial but key to understanding the asset class, so it is worth looking at the issue from a few different angles.

The first approach is to look at PE deals and compare returns to purchase price. One PE firm did just such an analysis and found that over 50 percent of deals done at valuations of more than 10x ebitda lost money and that the aggregate multiple of money was barely over 1.0x (i.e., for every dollar invested, only slightly more than one dollar was returned to investors).

The second is to compare the average purchase multiple in a given year to the returns of the funds from that vintage year. There is a –69 percent correlation between purchase price and vintage year return, a strong inverse relationship.

The third is to look at PE-backed companies that IPO. My firm, Verdad, looked at every company taken public in the United States and Canada by a top-100 PE firm since the financial crisis, a data set of 195 IPOs with an aggregate ebitda of $66 billion and an aggregate market capitalization of $728 billion. The average company in this data set went public with $4 billion in market capitalization, traded for 17x ebitda, and was 21 percent leveraged on a net debt/enterprise value basis at IPO. We segmented these IPOs by valuation at IPO. We divided the universe into three buckets: companies that went public at less than 10x ebitda (about 20 percent of companies), 10–15x ebitda (about 20 percent of companies), and more than 15x ebitda (about 60 percent of companies). According to our research, the cheaper IPOs dramatically outperformed the Russell 2000, the moderately priced IPOs matched the Russell 2000’s return, and the expensive IPOs underperformed.

Included in the article is this chart comparing historical valuation multiples:

Verdad_Am_Affairs_Multiples
Source: Verdad Capital via American Affairs

As for Mr. Glover’s assertion that “it’s very difficult to lose money in a private equity fund,” here is a list (not comprehensive) of assets and strategies that wore that mantle at one time or another:

  • Tulips
  • Railroad stocks
  • The Nifty Fifty
  • Tech stocks
  • Hedge funds
  • Mortgage bonds
  • Florida real estate
  • Energy stocks
  • Bitcoin
  • Beanie Babies
  • Tesla stock

The First Mutual Fund

Vereinigte_Ostindische_Compagnie_bond
Dutch East India Company bond from 1623; Source: Wikipedia

Today the mutual fund industry is a multi-trillion dollar business. It is amazing to think these structures, and other innovations we think of as “modern,” such as asset-backed securities, have their origins in the 18th century.

The material in this post is summarized from an article contained within a 2016 collection of essays, Financial Market History: Reflections on the Past for Investors Today, from the CFA Institute Research Foundation. Specifically, this material is from Chapter 12, “Structured Finance and the Origins of Mutual Funds in 18th-Century Netherlands,” by K. Geert Rouwenhorst.

You really ought to read the whole piece as it contains a wealth of fascinating information not summarized here. If you are the kind of person who is fascinated by the idea of structured finance for colonial plantations, that is.

Anyway, the first mutual fund was launched in 1774 by a Dutch broker and merchant, Abraham van Ketwich. Its name, Eendragt Maakt Magt (“Unity Creates Strength”), goes to show that fluffy marketing copy is as old as the asset management business itself.

Rouwenhorst sets the scene:

The first mutual fund originated in a capital market that was in many ways well developed and transparent. More than 100 different securities were regularly traded on the Amsterdam exchange, and the prices of the most liquid securities were made available to the general public through broker sheets and, at the end of the century, a price courant. The bulk of trade took place in bonds issued by the Dutch central and provincial governments and bonds issued by foreign governments that tapped the Dutch market. The governments of Austria, France, England, Russia, Sweden, and Spain all came to Amsterdam to take advantage of the relatively low interest rates. Equity shares were scarce among the listed securities, and the most liquid issues were the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch West India Company, the British East India Company, the Bank of England, and the South Sea Company. The other major category of securities consisted of plantation loans, or negotiaties,as they were known in the Netherlands. Issued by merchant financiers, these bonds were collateralized by mortgages to planters in the Dutch West Indies colonies Berbice, Essequebo, and Suriname.

The investment strategy and terms went something like this:

Investment Strategy

The fund’s objective is to generate income through investment in a diversified global bond portfolio.

To achieve its objective, the fund will invest approximately 30% of its assets in plantation loans in the British colonies, Essequebo and the Danish American Islands. The remaining 70% of its assets shall be invested in a broadly diversified portfolio of issuers including European banks, tolls and canals.

The fund shall also conduct a lottery, whereby a certain portion of dividends will be used to repurchase investors’ shares at a premium to par value, and to increase dividends to some of the remaining shares outstanding. (You know, just for fun)

Share Classes

The 2,000 shares of the fund shall be divided into 20 classes, each to be invested in a portfolio of 50 bonds. Each class shall contain 20 to 25 different securities to ensure a diversified portfolio.

Custody & Administration

The investment advisor (Van Ketwich) shall provide a full accounting of investments, income and expenses to all interested parties no less than annually.

The securities owned by the trust shall be held in custody at the office of the investment advisor. Specifically, securities shall be stored in a heavy iron chest that can only be unlocked through the simultaneous use of separate keys controlled by the investment advisor and a notary public, respectively.

Expenses

The investment advisor shall receive an up-front commission of 50 basis points upon the initial sale of fund shares, and thereafter an annual management fee of 100 guilders per class of securities.

Rouwenhorst argues the driving force behind the creation of the fund was investor demand for portfolio diversification. To purchase a diversified portfolio of bonds would have been prohibitively expensive for small investors of the day. These investors may also have been gun shy following a financial crisis in 1772-1773, which nearly triggered defaults by several brokers.

Nonetheless, the fund endured a tumultuous trading history. By 1811 it was trading at a 75% discount to par (!) and was eventually liquidated in 1824, after making a final distribution of 561 guilders. Interestingly, Rouwenhorst notes that the fund actively repurchased shares when they traded at a discount–what looks to be an early form of closed-end fund arbitrage.

I do not have anything especially profound to conclude with here, other than to observe that financial markets have been complex and global in nature for quite some time. The first mutual fund is a perfect example.

Parsimony Is Beautiful

The last couple days I have been playing with a model for forecasting equity returns. The model came to my attention through David Merkel at The Aleph Blog, who had discovered it on Philosophical Economics.

I am not going to delve into the guts of the model in this post. You will be better served reading the linked posts above. However, the gist is that the aggregate level of equity ownership as a percentage of financial assets is an excellent predictor of subsequent 10-year annualized returns (r-squared is around 85%). Below is the most recent update from David Merkel’s website:

David_Merkel_Philosophical_Economics_Forecast_Model
Source: The Aleph Blog

What this is telling us is that given the aggregate allocation to equities across all investors’ portfolios, we should expect the S&P 500 to return an average 4.58% over the next 10 years, including dividends. It is more or less impossible to understate the significance of this result for anyone responsible for asset allocation decisions: individual investors planning for retirement; financial advisors serving individual clients; institutional investment committees responsible for pensions and endowments.

I was so taken with this model that after reading all about it I rebuilt it myself in Excel. What amazes me is its simplicity. You do have to do some mild data wrangling to calculate the aggregate investor allocation to equities (the data point is not pictured on the above chart). However, the model itself is derived from a simple ordinary least squares regression. It is easy to create and the underlying reasoning is fairly intuitive.

We live in the age of the algoInvestment firms are literally turning money over to black box AI systems. There seems to be something of a fetish for complexity.

I do not care much for complexity. I certainly do not care for complexity paired with opacity. It is possible I simply resent not being smart enough to follow it all. Whatever. When it comes to financial modeling, parsimony is a beautiful thing. You are far better off correctly capturing a few critical variables than trying to nail down every last detail. The world is too complex, dynamic and random a system to be modeled with a high level of precision. And the penalties for getting a key variable wrong can be very, very high.

Recall the pre-2008 risk models built on the assumption that home prices only ever went up. For a variety of reasons (including greed), everyone had it spectacularly wrong. From the linked article by Felix Salmon:

 “Everyone was pinning their hopes on house prices continuing to rise,” says Kai Gilkes of the credit research firm CreditSights, who spent 10 years working at ratings agencies. “When they stopped rising, pretty much everyone was caught on the wrong side, because the sensitivity to house prices was huge. And there was just no getting around it. Why didn’t rating agencies build in some cushion for this sensitivity to a house-price-depreciation scenario? Because if they had, they would have never rated a single mortgage-backed CDO.”

Bankers should have noted that very small changes in their underlying assumptions could result in very large changes in the correlation number. They also should have noticed that the results they were seeing were much less volatile than they should have been—which implied that the risk was being moved elsewhere. Where had the risk gone?

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

ICOs, Rigged Games & Frontier Justice

I want to spend a few moments ruminating on a timeless truth of finance and investing: smart money loves a rigged game.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis nothing better exemplified this than a hedge fund called Magnetar. While other investors were content to bet that toxic mortgage-backed securities and their issuers would fail, Magnetar helped structure and issue toxic securities and then bet those same securities would fail. You see the advantage? In the first instance you hope a security will go to $0. In the second instance you know it will go to $0, because you designed it that way.

Fast forward to today and Bloomberg is reporting on “hedge funds” flipping ICOs:

More than 80 percent of ICOs are doing presales, according to Lex Sokolin, global director of fintech strategy at Autonomous NEXT. For most of the 500 or so tokens launched and listed on exchanges this year, flipping “is very prevalent,” said Lucas Nuzzi, senior analyst at Digital Asset Research. “This has been a problem in this industry, and one of the reasons why there is an overwhelming amount of low-grade ICOs being launched.”

Some 148 startups have raised $2.2 billion this year, according to CoinSchedule. And sorting winners from losers is already hard, since most startups are doing ICOs armed only with a white paper outlining their idea and not much else.

That’s raised red flags with authorities trying to figure out how to protect consumers in what’s been an unregulated corner of the markets. In July, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission warned investors to beware of fraudulent practices and said any tokens sold as a stake in a company rather than ones tied to an application must abide by securities regulations.

“It would shock me if you don’t see pump-and-dump schemes in the initial coin offering space,” SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said Sept. 28. “This is an area where I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to retail investors.”

Here is the scam game. There is nothing dumb retail money likes to buy more than lottery ticket type assets. You saw it with tech stocks in the ’90s and you see it with ICOs now. It’s the reason unsophisticated investors trade small cap biotechs and penny marijuana stocks.

The smart money knows this. However, the smart money prefers not to play the lottery. Playing the ICO lottery would do nothing but put smart money on a level playing field with dumb retail money, which is self-defeating. Hence a great deal (but certainly not all) of the smart money has absolutely zero interest in holding any digital asset for the long term.

But what if the smart money could be the lottery? After all, it is much better to be in the business of selling lottery tickets than the business of buying them. ICO flipping gets you pretty close without actually requiring you to commit fraud.

This is The Greater Fool Trade. The fundamentals of the asset as an investment are irrelevant. You are scalping tickets and for an investor of modest sophistication that is an attractive position. You are arbitraging the greed and stupidity of others. Add 2-3x leverage and you’ve got yourself a “hedge fund.”

Frontier Justice

Before you despair of capital markets, consider that if the majority of ICOs are as fundamentally worthless as they seem, The Greater Fool Trade will eventually end in a catastrophic blowup (see also: tulips; pets.com). One day we will wake from a fitful slumber and there will simply be no one willing to bid any higher. The whole ICO complex will collapse. This is the logical end to any investment strategy that trades on the first derivative of greed. Many of the ICO flipping “hedge funds” will be destroyed in this cataclysm, precisely because they will have gotten too greedy themselves. They will stay in the trade for too long and with too much leverage.

Thinking on this symmetry I am reminded of these lines from late in the movie Unforgiven:

Will Munny: Hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess he had it comin’.

Will Munny: We all got it comin’, kid.

How To Destroy An Economy

FT Alphaville has up a transcript of a fascinating interview with Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann. If you don’t keep up to date on the latest happenings in Venezuela, the below video of a gang of bikers attacking a cargo truck with Molotov cocktails illustrates the post-apocalyptic state of the Venezuelan economy.

And if you have ever wondered how best to blow apart an economy, the interview pretty much walks you through the process. Here is an illustrative passage:

Let me just give you a sense of the magnitude of the mismanagement of the oil industry. In 1998, the year before Chávez got elected, or the year in which in December of that year Chávez got elected and he took power in February 1999. In 1998, Venezuela produced 3.7 million barrels of oil [per day]. Today it’s producing about two. If Venezuela had maintained its market share in the world oil industry — which it could have because it had infinite reserves, it had the largest reserves in the world — it would be producing two million barrels more than it is currently producing. With the same market share. So the collapse is immense relative to history, and it’s immense relative to this opportunity cost of where it should have gone had it just kept its market share the way it was.

That collapse of the oil industry happened in two steps. First, all the know-how of that industry, centuries of man-years of experience was lost in the firing of these people. They were not only fired but persecuted, so most of them left the country. Many of them left the country. And they caused, for example, an oil boom in Colombia [where many of them moved to]. Colombia went from producing 200,000 barrels of oil [per day] to a million barrels of oil thanks to the fact that Venezuelans knew how to extract much more oil from the fields that Colombia was already exploiting.

So there was a massive loss of human capital. They also wanted to create a politically conscious oil company, so they started to put an enormous amount of social programmes and other things on the books of PDVSA, the oil company. And as a consequence they starved the company from investment and they ran the company in an amazingly corrupt way, and this is really not just talk about corruption but evidence of corruption in massive ways. There were these foreign oil companies… These foreign oil companies have been complaining to the government that they want to wrest control of the procurement of oil projects because they know that this procurement is being done at multiples of what things should cost. There’s people that have been found in the US owning hundreds of millions of dollars of money that has been laundered out of PDVSA and so on.

So they really destroyed the hen that laid the golden eggs, at the time when their own plans and their own announced plans was to move Venezuela to produce six million barrels of oil. And instead of increased production they have never been able to stop a very rapid decline in production.

The (understandable) gut reaction of many people to what is happening in Venezuela is to kind of chuckle and shake their heads and say, “that’s socialism for you — good luck with that Bernie Sanders.” However, I’m not so sure the late Hugo Chavez even made a proper go at running a socialist economy. When you read Hausmann’s description of asset expropriations under Chavez it all sounds rather whimsical and Qaddafi-esque:

Chávez won re-election in 2006. And in early 2007 he announced that he was now going to move towards socialism, and he started with a spree of nationalisations. In those days the price of oil was very high, so he could afford to just buy everything that moved or that he fancied.

So for example he nationalised the telephone company that was owned by Verizon. He nationalised the three cement companies that were owned by the Mexicans, Cemex, Holcim and Lafarge. He nationalised one of the largest banks, which was owned at the time by Banco Santander. He nationalised the supermarket chain. He nationalised 3.7 million hectares of land.

So he went on an expropriation spree. At the beginning, when he had money, he would pay for things, and then if these were things owned by people he didn’t like, he would just expropriate and not pay for them. So he changed the contracts of the oil companies in a way that essentially extracted part of the expected cash flows out of them, and many of them accepted but a few of them, Exxon, Conoco Phillips and so on sued. And these suits are now being adjudicated by the International Court for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, and these investment disputes in Washington now add up to $16 billion of claims. Of expropriations that he didn’t pay for. And these are only the foreigners.

He expropriated the service companies that provided services to the oil company, because they started to protest that they were not being paid so instead of paying he just expropriated them.

So he took over significant chunks of the Venezuelan economy, and the typical thing is that the moment they took over a company, they ran it to the ground. Production collapsed. They nationalised the steel company. The steel company at the time of nationalisation was producing 4.5 million tons of steel with 5,000 workers. It now has 22,000 workers but it’s producing something like 200,000 tons of steel. So they ran those companies to the ground. Aluminium is almost not done any more, when Venezuela was producing about a million tons of aluminium back when…

So essentially they expropriated the economy and collapsed it on the public sector. And in the private sector they created all these constraints and this enormous uncertainty over property rights because everybody else was being expropriated and you never knew when it would be your turn. Owens-Illinois was a company making bottles. They were expropriated. Why bottles? Another company making detergents was expropriated. Why detergents?

So everybody else would not know when would his turn come up.

To me that reads more like a dictator and his cronies stripping assets. Which isn’t to defend the merits of socialism so much as argue socialism provided a convenient platform for Chavez to justify the systematic looting of the Venezuelan economy. In fact, dictators in general seem fond of socialist posturing as a means of bamboozling the masses. So-called Arab socialism is littered with examples of strongmen spouting vaguely socialist pronouncements while consolidating political and economic power within single party authoritarian states.

In a serendipitous convergence of themes, the Wikipedia entry for Nasserism contains the following reference to Chavez:

Hugo Chávez, late President of Venezuela, and leader of the self-styled ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, cited Nasserism as a direct influence on his own political thinking, stating: “Someone talked to me about his pessimism regarding the future of Arab nationalism. I told him that I was optimistic, because the ideas of Nasser are still alive. Nasser was one of the greatest people of Arab history. To say the least, I am a Nasserist, ever since I was a young soldier.”

Fear and loathing in asset management

Today I listened to a presentation that was one part screed against passive investing and one part shameless plug for sexy, paradigm-changing growth stocks. I will not mention the name of the presenting firm because it is irrelevant for the purposes of this blog. I am more concerned with the substance of the presenter’s arguments.

Assertion #1: Index investing distorts capital markets by inefficiently allocating capital

Rebuttal: This one is easy. Index funds buy shares on the secondary market. Companies raise capital in the primary market, in which index funds do not participate. While trading activity by index funds certainly impacts share prices, the contention that index funds distort activity in the primary market doesn’t hold much water. Index funds may influence financing decisions at the margins (should we raise debt or equity to finance a new factory?), however the impact of index funds on this decision pales in comparison to prevailing interest rates and tax policy. If capital allocation is going to keep investors up at night, they should be far more concerned with distortions and malinvestment driven by central bank policy actions, such as negative interest rates in Europe and Japan.

This is not the first time this argument has been trotted out and it certainly will not be the last. In August 2016 Bernstein published a research note titled: “The Silent Road to Serfdom: Why Passive Investing is Worse Than Marxism” (you couldn’t make this stuff up). It featured the below paragraph, which reads like something issued from the deepest bowels of The Ministry of Asset Management Propaganda:

We show later in this report that active investing, by seeking to understand ex ante what the ‘fair value’ price of an asset, or an equilibrium price level for an industry is, and allocating capital accordingly, helps the process of price discovery to occur much faster than would otherwise be the case. This has clear social and economic benefits compared with a passive regime where capital flows at best do not help, and indeed can hinder, the price discovery process. We would argue that, by virtue of being forward looking, a process of planning of capital allocation in a Marxist society could by similar logic be superior to a largely passive regime where the capital allocation is done by a marginal participant based on past performance and without any regard to industry dynamics or deviations from fair value. Whether or not any planning process can ‘beat’ fully functioning capital markets with a meaningful share of AUM run actively, we can envisage such a process being more effective than largely passive capital markets at allocating capital- and so a Marxist regime being superior to a capitalist system with little or no active management.

This is possibly the most extraordinary straw man I have seen in my career.

Assertion #2: Index investors are buying a backward-looking view of markets. Therefore index investors will miss out on the impending technologically induced disruption of our entire society

Rebuttal: This argument resonates more with me, although I take issue with the “backward-looking” characterization of index investing. The index investor seeks to piggyback on the work of active traders at low cost. The theoretical underpinning of index investing is that markets are efficient and thus price assets perfectly. Market prices therefore should reflect all available information about a stock, including expectations for future growth and profitability. If markets did not attempt to price future growth, you would not see certain stocks trade on triple digit earnings multiples.

There are certainly conditions under which indexing might impede price discovery and market liquidity, but it’s not like we are seeing some huge blowout in bid-offer spreads for S&P 500 stocks. And even if we are facing a less efficient market as a result of the trend toward passive investing, that should be a thrilling development for skilled investment managers. It should create more opportunities for stock picking.

Inasmuch as the new market paradigm is concerned, you would think from the tone of the presentation that the firm assembled a portfolio of niche ideas you couldn’t possibly own in passive form. And yet, what are The Companies Of The Future? Amazon, Activision Blizzard, Nvidia. The list goes on.

Can you guess the overlap with those names and the Russell 1000 Growth Index? Hint: it is high. Can you guess the level of sell-side research coverage for those stocks? Hint: it is not low.

On the basis of this presentation you would also think this was the first time in history markets had been on the cusp of transformative change, and that index funds were totally untested in periods of market and industry dislocation. You would never suspect that VFINX has been around since 1976. You would certainly be surprised to learn that index funds had weathered multiple financial crises, boom-bust cycles in commodities and credit, the rise of the internet – need I go on?

Reading this you might think I am some passive investing fanatic. I am not. I do not believe markets are perfectly efficient. Valuations matter. In my view the ETF world has clearly gone overboard with faddy, thematic products – not to mention solutions in desperate search of a problem. What individual or institutional portfolio needs 3x levered exposure to gold miners? Or 2x levered exposure to China A Shares? That’s just gambling packaged in a “passive” wrapper.

Yet despite all this, investment managers do themselves no favors trotting out tired, straw man arguments to combat what is clearly an existential threat to their business models. It reeks of desperation, and you can pick up the stench from a distance.

Morningstar columnist John Rekenthaler attacked this issue from a bit of a different angle in a recent article, concluding:

There will always be arguments against indexing. If passive funds never existed, traditional fund managers would be collecting an additional $40 billion in annual fees (roughly speaking, $5 trillion held by index mutual funds and exchange-traded funds times 0.80% for actively managed funds’ expense ratios). When $40 billion are put into play, people fight.

***

This post was written for entertainment purposes only and does not represent a recommendation to buy or sell securities, or to pursue any particular investment strategy. Prior to buying or selling securities, readers should consult with a financial advisor who can advise them based on their unique individual circumstances.