Just Own Berkshire?

A friend asks:

Is the portfolio you own with shares of Berkshire Hathaway diversified enough to be your entire equity portfolio?

Here’s my response, with a bit of added color versus my original reply. It’s helpful to have Berkshire’s top 13F holdings (included below) for reference:

180930_BRK_13F
Source: Berkshire 13F via WhaleWisdom.com

Do I think you could buy today’s Berkshire 13F portfolio and hold it forever as a well-diversified portfolio? No. There’s no such thing as a permanent stock portfolio. Capital markets are far too dynamic for that.

What you’re really buying (and thus have to underwrite) with a share of Berkshire are Warren and Charlie’s capital allocation skills. This is an extremely concentrated portfolio. Not necessarily a bad thing for skilled investment managers like Warren and Charlie. But just a handful of stocks and their idiosyncratic characteristics are going to drive portfolio performance.

Do I believe you could plausibly own Berkshire and only Berkshire as a kind of closed-end fund/ETF managed by Warren and Charlie? Yes, I do. The obvious issue you run into here is that sooner or later Warren and Charlie are going to shuffle off this mortal coil. I suspect it’ll be much tougher for investors to maintain the same level of conviction in their successors.

Would I do it myself? No. It’s an awful lot of single manager risk to take, to just own Berkshire. Even if Warren and Charlie were immortal, it would be a lot of single manager risk to take. However, I could definitely see using Berkshire alongside just a couple other highly concentrated managers, if you’re the kind of investor who doesn’t mind high tracking error and is concerned more with the risk of permanent capital impairment than volatility.

Could you potentially just use Berkshire in place of an allocation to large cap US stocks? Yes, I definitely think you could.

The answer to this question really hinges on your definition of risk, and issues of path dependency in investment performance. In my view, the starting point for any asset allocation should be the global market capitalization weighted portfolio. Deviations from the global market capitalization weighted portfolio should be made thoughtfully, after careful deliberation. Whenever you deviate from the global market capitalization weighted portfolio, you are implicitly saying you’re smarter than the aggregated insights of every other market participant.

Sorry to say, but you’re probably not that smart. I’m probably not that smart, either.

To concentrate an investment portfolio in a single share of Berkshire implies you have a massively differentiated view of where value will accrue in the global equity markets, and that you’re extremely confident in that view. In hindsight, it seems obvious Berkshire would be a great bet. But in financial markets, literally everything seems obvious in hindsight.

Does this mean a concentrated bet on Berkshire wouldn’t work out?

Absolutely not. It just means we need to carefully consider whether a highly concentrated bet on Berkshire makes sense in light of its potential performance across a broad range of possible futures.

Personally, I’m not confident enough in my ex ante stock and manager selection abilities to bet the farm on a single pick like that.

And I think that’s true for most of us.

Ode To Liquidity

When it comes to risk management there is one consideration that towers over all the others. That is liquidity.

The word “liquidity” can mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes it literally means “cash.” Other times it refers to your ability to quickly convert the full value of another asset (like a stock or a mutual fund share) into cash. This post will reference liquidity in both contexts.

Liquidity (“cash”) is the lifeblood of our financial lives. It is the medium through which we move consumption forwards and backwards in time. It is the bridge that links spending, saving and investment.

You don’t fully appreciate the importance of liquidity until you need it and don’t have it.

Poor people understand this intuitively. For a poor person life is a never-ending liquidity crisis. It is the global financial crisis on repeat. There’s a reason the foundation for all financial planning is the net cash emergency fund. The net cash emergency fund is your liquidity buffer. It’s loss-absorbing capital. It’s what keeps you from getting caught in the vicious cycle of dependency on short-term, unsecured, high cost debt like credit cards and payday loans.

Funnily enough, there are plenty of rich people who live life on the edge of a liquidity crisis. Some of these people have a large amount of their net worth tied up in real estate or private business ventures. You can have a lot of paper wealth but still very little liquidity.

When the shit hits the fan, your paper net worth is irrelevant. If you don’t have enough cash on hand to meet your financial obligations, you are toast. This is the story of every banking crisis in the history of finance.

Sure, you can sell the illiquid things you own to raise cash. But that takes time. And the less time you have to sell the worse your negotiating position gets.

There is nothing a shrewd buyer delights in more than finding a forced seller who’s running out of time. This is the essence of distress investing. Distressed investors are often able to buy good assets for fractions of their value because the sellers are desperate for liquidity.

Does this mean you should never own illiquid things?

No!

It means you should never assume you will be able to sell an illiquid thing at a favorable price at a place and time of your choosing.

As an individual, how do you know if it’s okay to own an illiquid thing?

If you can write it down to zero the moment you buy it, and it will not impact your ability to make good on your day-to-day obligations, it is okay to own the illiquid thing from a liquidity standpoint. The thing may still turn out to be a terrible investment, but that’s a separate issue.

These days there are lots of things being marketed to regular folks that are illiquid things disguised as liquid things. These are things like interval funds–the mutual fund world’s answer to private equity. These are also things like non-traded REITs with redemption programs that allow you to withdraw, say, a couple percent of your investment every quarter.

Perhaps your financial advisor has pitched one of these things to you.

Read the fine print!

The underlying assets in these funds are illiquid, and the fine print always allows the investment manager to suspend your redemption rights. Third Avenue Focused Credit investors thought they had daily liquidity, like in any other mutual fund.

Ask them how that worked out.

Why Do We Bother?

Overheard:

Oh, yeah, they have model asset allocations at that firm. But the models are all overweight international equity so no one actually uses them.

I’d like to have this framed for my office. Someone I work with said his mom cross-stitches. I told him I’d pay for her to cross-stitch this quote so I could frame it for my office. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t think there’s a more perfect illustration of the behavioral investment issues at the heart of the investment advice complex.

Great quantities of money and effort are expended to produce research, models and recommendations.

A great show is made of customized financial advice. We make a fetish of independent thinking. Of “not being afraid to stand apart from the crowd.” Of “sticking to our process.”

But in the end, it’s usually the sales process that drives investment decisions.

Permanent capital is probably the greatest edge you can have as an investment professional. If I could choose between being 50 IQ points smarter, having a massive research budget or a modest amount of permanent capital to manage I would take a modest amount of permanent capital every time.

Every. Single. Time.

You Have To Earn It

Personally, I’m relieved to see market volatility pick up again.

I’m sick of all this feel-good, bull market crap where everyone can be investing geniuses as long as they focus on the “long term” and own the lowest cost, most tax efficient index funds. It’s high time some volatility comes along and shakes some weak hands out of the market.

People want to live in a riskless world where all the market ever does is go up. You know what kind of returns you are entitled to in a riskless world where all the market ever does is go up?

T-bills.

(Arbitrage 101, friends)

Lately, we’ve gone soft. We’ve forgotten good investment returns aren’t some god-given, inalienable right. Good returns must be earned. And here are some ways you can earn them:

  • By being so far ahead of a secular shift in technology or market structure that everyone else thinks you’re insane.
  • By investing in esoteric stuff no one else can sell to an investment committee.
  • By putting money to work when the world looks to be going to hell in a hand basket.
  • By enduring short and medium-term pain in unloved assets.
  • In spite of inevitable blowups and meltdowns in individual investments.
  • More generally, by persevering when fear and loathing reign supreme in the markets.

Whenever volatility picks up and people start freaking out, I’m reminded of Nick Murray’s definition of a bear market: “a period when stocks are returned to their rightful owners.”

Portfolio Construction In A Frightening And Uncertain World

My last post on risk management was somewhat impractical. It was critical of the shortcuts we often take in analyzing risk but didn’t offer anything in the way of practical alternatives.

The theme of the last post was that in spite of the sophisticated-sounding calculations underlying most analyses, they are at best crude approximations. In general, these approximations (e.g. assumption of uncorrelated, normally distributed investment returns) make the world seem less risky than it really is.

So, what are we supposed to do about it?

In theory:

  • We should take even less risk than our statistical models indicate is acceptable, building in an extra margin of safety. For example, holding some cash reserves even if we have the risk tolerance to run fully invested.
  • We should use leverage sparingly.
  • We should not make overly concentrated bets. I’m not just talking about individual stocks here. The same goes for securitized asset classes like US large cap stocks.
  • We should not have too much conviction in any given position.

Also, in theory, the more certain you are of an investment outcome, the larger and more concentrated you should make your positions. If you knew the future with total certainty, you would go out and find the single highest return opportunity out there and lever it to the max.

Given we live in a world where a 60% hit rate is world class, most of our portfolios should be considerably more diversified with considerably less than max leverage.

I don’t think any of that’s particularly controversial.

But I’m not just talking about individual stocks here. This goes for broad asset classes and the notion of “stocks for the long run,” too. I’m not arguing we should all be capping equity exposure at 50%. But it’s prudent to stress portfolios with extreme downside scenarios (this is unpopular because it shows clients how vulnerable they are to severe, unexpected shocks).

How robust is the average retiree’s portfolio to a 30% equity drawdown that takes a decade to recover?

For that matter, how robust is the average retiree’s portfolio to 1970s-style stagflation?

Jason Zweig interviewed a couple of PMs who had to endure through that period:

“It was so painful,” says William M.B. Berger, chairman emeritus of the Berger Funds, “that I don’t even want my memory to bring it back.” Avon Products, the hot growth stock of 1972, tumbled from $140 a share to $18.50 by the end of 1974; Coca-Cola shares dropped from $149.75 to $44.50. “In that kind of scary market,” recalls Bill Grimsley of Investment Company of America, “there’s really no place to hide.” Sad but true: In 1974, 313 of the 318 growth funds then in existence lost money; fully 123 of them fell at least 30%.

“It was like a mudslide,” says Ralph Wanger of the Acorn Fund, which lost 23.7% in 1973 and 27.7% more in 1974. “Every day you came in, watched the market go down another percent, and went home.”

Chuck Royce took over Pennsylvania Mutual Fund in May 1973. That year, 48.5% of its value evaporated; in 1974 it lost another 46%. “For me, it was like the Great Depression,” recalls Royce with a shudder. “Everything we owned went down. It seemed as if the world was coming to an end.”

Are we building portfolios and investment processes taking the possibility of that kind of environment into account?

Are we equipped psychologically to deal with that kind of environment?

I conclude with this evocative little passage from George R.R. Martin:

“Oh, my sweet summer child,” Old Nan said quietly, “what do you know of fear? Fear is for the winter, my little lord, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.”

Shenanigans! “Index Investing Distorts Valuations” Edition

Here is an oft-repeated meme that has begun to grind my gears. Here it is again, from the FT’s Megan Greene:

Passive investments, such as exchange traded funds (ETFs) and index funds, similarly ignore fundamentals. Often set up to mimic an index, ETFs have to buy more of equities rising in price, sending those stock prices even higher. This creates a piling-on effect as funds buy more of these increasingly expensive stocks and less of the cheaper ones in their indices — the polar opposite of the adage “buy low, sell high”. Risks of a bubble rise when there is no regard for underlying fundamentals or price. It is reasonable to assume a sustained market correction would lead to stocks that were disproportionately bought because of ETFs and index funds being disproportionately sold.

The idea that index investors cause valuation disparities within indices is a myth. It is mainly trotted out in difficult client conversations about investment performance. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s restrict the definition of “passive” to “investing in a market capitalization weighted index,” like the Russell 2000 or S&P 500. There is a simple reason everyone who makes this argument is categorically, demonstrably wrong:

INDEX FUNDS DON’T SET THE RELATIVE WEIGHTS OF THE SECURITIES INSIDE THE INDEX. 

It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than Russell 2000 stocks because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is correct to say things like, “S&P 500 stocks are more expensive than OTC microcaps outside of the index because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

It is demonstrably false to say, “NFLX trades at a ridiculous valuation relative to the rest of the S&P 500 because investors are chasing performance in US large caps by piling into index funds.”

Index funds buy each security in the index in proportion to everything else. Their buying doesn’t change the relative valuations within the index.

Here is how index investing works:

1. Active investors buy and sell stocks based on their view of fundamentals, supply and demand for various securities, whatever. They do this because they think they are smart enough to earn excess returns, which will make them fabulously wealthy, The Greatest Investor Of All Time, whatever. As a result, security prices move up and down. Some stuff gets more expensive than other stuff.

2. Regardless, the markets are not Lake Wobegon. All of the active investors can’t be above average. For every buyer there is a seller. If you average the performance of all the active investors, you get the average return of the market.

3. Index investors look at the active investing rat race and think, “gee, the market is pretty efficient thanks to all these folks trying to outsmart each other in securities markets. Let’s just buy everything in the weights they set. We are content to get the average return, and we will get it very cheaply.”

4. Index investors do this.

Despite what we in investment management like to tell ourselves, index investors are rather clever. They are trying to earn a free lunch. They let the active investors spend time, money and energy providing liquidity and (to a much lesser extent) allocating capital for real investment in primary market. They just try to piggyback on market efficiency as cheaply as possible.

In my experience, some index investors like to think of themselves as somehow acting in opposition to active managers. This, too, is demonstrably and categorically false. Index investors’ results are directly and inextricably tied to the activity of active investors setting the relative weights of securities within the indices. That activity is what determines the composition of the index portfolio.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Index investing only “works” to the extent the active investors setting the relative weights within the index are “doing their jobs.” When the active managers screw up, bad companies grow in market capitalization and become larger and larger weights in the index. At extremes, the index investor ends up overexposed to overvalued, value-destroying businesses. This happened with the S&P 500 during the dot-com era.

Now, flows of passive money certainly can distort relative valuations across indices, and, by association, across asset classes. When it comes to asset allocation, almost everyone is an active investor. Even you, Bogleheads. Otherwise you would own something like ACWI for your equity exposure.

A running theme of this blog is that there are no free lunches. Someone is always paying for lunch. These days, it’s the active managers. But that doesn’t mean the passive folks will always enjoy their meal.

Great Expectations

Not a good day for FANG. Facebook in particular:

180726_FB
Source: Google

Let’s cut to an investor reaction shot, courtesy of the FT. This made me laugh so hard I had to screencap it for posterity:

180726_FT_FB_Quote
Source: Financial Times

Uh oh. Looks like someone was just plugging management guidance into her model. Or forgot to fade revenue growth and returns on capital. Or both.

Look. Schadenfreude aside, FB is a good business with a good product. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on the valuation (of the so-called FANG stocks I have very strong opinions on NFLX and AMZN, but not so much on GOOG and FB). I have no real opinion on the long-run prospects for the business. Today’s price action is simply a helpful reminder that good businesses selling good products can still be bad investments if you overpay.

In my experience, that last bit is the hardest thing about investing for laypeople to understand. Most people understand what makes a good product. Somewhat fewer understand what makes a good business. But almost no one outside finance understands why overpaying can overwhelm everything else.

Let’s explore this further. Here is the most important chart in all of fundamental investing:

justified_pe_fade
Source: Demonetized Calculations

What are you looking at?

You’re looking at the valuation life cycle of a business (an exceptional one, btw) with the following characteristics:

 

justified_pe_fade_inputs

I generated the graph with a simple model called a fundamental H model. In an H model, a company’s life is divided into two parts: an “advantage period” featuring excess growth and returns on capital, and a “steady state” period where the company simply earns its cost of capital.

The intuition here is really, really simple. It’s so simple I’m not going to bother going into the details of what an H model actually looks like.

Ready?

Companies with exceptional growth and profitability attract competitors. Competition decreases profitability and slows growth (more companies are fighting over the same pool of customers). As competition drives down future growth and profitability, every company in the space becomes less valuable. Or, in another variation, a market simply becomes saturated, and there is very little growth left available. Or, new technology is developed that makes a company obsolete. You can go on and on. The variations are endless.

Some businesses are better at defending their profitability and growth (they have “moats”). If you are good at identifying strong moats, you can make a lot of money. This has worked out well for Warren Buffett. Especially since he was able to lever his bets with insurance float. All else equal, you should be willing to pay more for a business with a “wide moat.” How much? Believe it or not, figuring that out is the fun of it. It’s the game all of us long-term, fundamental investors are playing.

Likewise, in some industries with only a few large players, the players are smart enough to realize they should protect their profit pools, not undercut their competitors on price just to gain market share (this is uncommon).

Also, it’s technically possible to grow your way out of a contracting valuation. If the E in P/E grows large enough, fast enough, you can still make money even if the ratio shrinks. You could have paid several hundred times earnings for WMT stock back in the day, and still made money. But only a select group of businesses have this ability, and personally I think they are far more difficult to spot ex ante than people like to admit.

Anyway, all that’s beside the point.

The point is that growth and profitability inevitably fade to some degree. And when they do, valuations de-rate. When people overpay for businesses, what they are doing (whether they realize it or not) is being overly optimistic about the magnitude and the rate of the fade.

Basically, they are forgetting how capitalism works.

Disclosure: Small positions in FB and GOOG, via a mutual fund manager. But less than 1 bp on a lookthrough basis. So, practically speaking, no positions in anything referenced in this post.