Why Buffett Won His Bet Against Hedge Funds

QE had a lot to do with it.

Active fund manager billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have been critical of active fund manager millionaires for their very high fees and chronic underperformance. It is not unusual for the ultra wealthy to trash the merely wealthy for their avarice. After all, ultra wealth is so rare that it can be seen as an act of God, whereas mere wealth is the product of human toil and vanity, arduous and earthly.

Buffett and Munger are all-in on their recommendation that investors should dump active strategies and instead invest in passive indexed mutual funds or ETFs that simply mimic the S&P 500. Although this is a popular line among many seasoned investors, it has been getting long in the tooth and has turned what was once a good idea into a crowded trade, with hundreds of billions of dollars shifting from active to passive.

In our view, Buffett’s advice represents last year’s thinking. This year’s thinking, we argued previously, should be that passive funds are merely free-riding active funds and that past a certain market share, passive strategies will bite investors as badly or worse than active ones. Continue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>

To Save or Ruin Twitter

A decision that could fix Twitter or hasten its demise.

This is not the first article to suggest that Twitter can generate some revenues by charging its users, but perhaps we can offer some new angles to the discussion. To begin, it is helpful to differentiate between the different types of Twitter users. These seem to be:

  • Media firms publishing their stories and videos, for example CNN, the New York Times, etc.
  • Corporations marketing their products or making announcements.
  • Non-profit organizations and NGOs raising awareness on various issues.
  • Government institutions, agencies or individuals trying to inform the public.
  • Famous individuals looking to communicate with their fans, for example celebrity entertainers, politicians or opinion leaders.
  • Public or semi-public individuals looking to raise their visibility and to build their personal brand, for example journalists, consultants and academics.
  • Small or mid-sized businesses promoting their services and products.
  • Private individuals seeking a mode of expressing their thoughts and feelings, often anonymously through a pseudonym.
  • Private individuals who rarely or never tweet but visit Twitter frequently to read the news or other people’s tweets. Continue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>

Passive Funds Are Just Free-Riding Active Funds

If you and your neighbor have the same income and expenses except that he rides the bus for free every day while you pay a fare, he will be richer than you. Until recently, this was obvious: the neighbor is a free rider while you pay your way.

But now, the obvious is presented as a novelty. Plenty of people are extolling the benefits of free-riding without naming it as such and encouraging a large exodus from active to passive (or indexed) funds. The only problem is that proponents of this form of free-riding neglect to also mention the following corollary sub-plot.

Now your neighbor makes you feel like a fool and convinces you to also ride for free. Soon, your whole town has caught on to the idea and fewer and fewer people are willing to pay for the bus. After a while, the number of people supporting bus service with their dollars becomes so small that buses go out of business or fall into a state of disrepairContinue reading at Seeking Alpha >>>

On White Collar Prosecutions, with Jesse Eisinger

“The government no longer has the will and ability to prosecute top corporate executives across a wide variety of major industries.”______ Jesse Eisinger

photo_7887Jesse Eisinger is a senior reporter at ProPublica and a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal. He has studied, investigated and written extensively on the 2008 financial crisis, its causes and consequences. In 2011, he and a colleague won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. In addition, he has won the 2015 Gerald Loeb Award for commentary.

Eisinger is the author of a forthcoming book on white collar prosecutions, to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. He speaks to populyst’s Sami J. Karam about the reasons why there have been few such prosecutions in recent years. Among these reasons, Eisinger identifies ‘elite affinity’, a revolving door between government and business, and a resource shift that took place at the FBI after 9/11. The conversation closes with Eisinger’s discussion of current anti-trust issues and some comments on the 2016 US presidential race.

TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:

New York, Two States of Mind

Is New York City helping or holding back Upstate New York?

Towards the end of times, when all of mankind congregates in a final purgatory to draw the main lessons of this grand adventure called Life, there will be special attention paid to the centuries’ long efforts at harmonizing individual happiness with the needs of the collective. There will be seminars on leadership and war. There will be a thick chapter on the blessings and dangers of science. There will be a long section, co-written by poets and undertakers, on the success of freedom and the failure of tyranny. There will be wonder and consternation about religion and the nature of the universe. And there will be, inevitably, extensive reporting on economic ideology.

Here, a slim primer on laissez-faire will easily outshine ponderous encyclopedic tomes on communism, socialism and other failed -isms. Capitalism, the word and the theory, will be presented as a zealous and perhaps unnecessary attempt at creating a code for laissez-faire, something that occurs naturally. Cronyism will be understood as the corruption and distortion of laissez-faire and the phrase crony capitalism will be dismissed as an oxymoron and an unwarranted amalgamation. Read more

The Bridge from Laissez-Faire to Socialism

Cronyism remains unchecked in the world’s largest economy.

We might object to the phrase crony capitalism for two reasons:

First, because cronyism is in some ways the antithesis of capitalism. The freedom to compete and the freedom to fail that are central tenets of capitalism are severely compromised by cronyism when in the former case powerful politicians intervene to shield their friends in business and finance from competition, and in the latter intervene again to save them from bankruptcy or occasionally from criminal prosecution. Of course, these friends in turn are no disloyal slouches and they later show themselves to be supremely appreciative by underwriting, financially and otherwise, those same politicians who had all but guaranteed their continued dominance in normal times and their survival against bad odds in times of distress. Read more

The Way Forward for Hedge Funds – 2

In the first installment, I made a case that hedge funds can regain their popularity by reverting to their initial mandate which was to be hedged. I examine here how such a model hedge fund would have performed in the past 50 years if it had returned:

  • 0% in all years when the market was down.
  • 75% of the market gain in all years when the market was up.

In essence, this fund only has a chance of outperforming the S&P 500 in the long run if the market has a big down year (say 10%+) every few years.

So what do the past 50 years tell us? Read more

The Way Forward for Hedge Funds – 1

Hedge funds should go back to hedging and also consider lower fees.

Equity hedge funds are under tremendous pressure, having underperformed their benchmark in nearly every year since 2008. But can it really be true that the average equity hedge fund is no better over the long run than granny’s passive indexed ETF or mutual fund that tracks the S&P 500?

On one side, hedge funds employ full-time cohorts of smart ambitious highly credentialed people who spend long hours and a lot of money visiting and analyzing companies to find the best opportunities. They sit in beautiful new offices and use the latest in real-time data feeds and state of the art technologies. Read more

It’s the Demography, Stupid

11 November 2014

(See also the post Demography Charts – 1)

America’s anemic recovery can be explained by its slowing demographics.

Politicians tend to overstate the positive impact of their policies on the economy and to also exaggerate the negative impact of their opponents’ policies. In all likelihood, there are other more potent factors at work.

Instead of GDP, we look at wealth creation as the main measure of the economy. GDP measures economic activity which means that building roads to nowhere is a positive contributor to GDP in the near term because of the jobs provided and the material and services purchased. But building roads to nowhere is a waste of money. By contrast, wealth creation accounts for the return on invested capital and differentiates between good and bad projects.

And wealth creation has three main drivers: innovation, demographics and the economy’s institutional framework.

To illustrate the importance of innovation, consider a country where there is little innovation and therefore little creation of intellectual property assets. The main assets in such an economy are hard assets, such as real estate, natural resources and the like. Unless there is strong demand for these assets from foreign markets, the economy of that country would stagnate or grow slowly with its population. Good examples of such countries today are commodity economies like the leading oil producers, industrial metal producers etc.

Now consider a country where there is innovation but where the population is small. Here the amount of wealth created by innovation would be quite small unless there is strong foreign demand for the products and services brought about by that innovation. A new iPhone that can only be marketed to a small population would create a lot less wealth than one marketed to a large population. Good examples are Switzerland and Finland which are quite innovative, have relatively small populations but export their products in large quantities.

Innovation is back.
Innovation is back.

Finally, consider a country that has lots of smart innovators and a large population but that suffers from a poor institutional framework. It is a country where the government and citizens are corrupt, where contract law is nonexistent, where capital markets are small, where property rights are not protected. There would be little wealth creation in such a country because the innovators would emigrate to another country where they could more readily prosper from their innovations.

Since 1945, the United States has been blessed by all three major contributors to wealth creation: strong innovation, strong demographics and a stable and supportive institutional framework. The same has been true for Europe, albeit with slower innovation and slightly worse demographics. The same has been true for Japan, with still worse demographics.

So where do we stand today? Of the three main engines in the US, innovation and the framework are still going strong. But demographics have weakened in several ways. First, after declining for several decades, the dependency ratio (number of dependents per worker) has been rising since 2005. Second, the number of Americans aged 30-60, arguably the most economically active age bracket, has stagnated at a little over 120 million people. Previously, the 30-60 group had grown steadily in every year from 1978 to 2005.

Presidents Reagan and Clinton are credited with a successful economy but their years in office also benefited greatly from a falling dependency ratio. The same is true for the second President Bush until mid-decade when the dependency ratio bottomed out and started to rise.

The anemic recovery since 2008 can largely be explained by our deteriorating demographics. The US population used  to grow by 1 to 2% every year, which meant that companies could count on real growth of 1 to 2% and another 2 to 4% of inflation. But since 2007, annual population growth has fallen below 1% and inflation has also fallen. So what used to be safe annual domestic revenue growth of 3 to 6% is now looking more like 1 to 3%.

DependencyRatios

In Europe too, the dependency ratio bottomed and started to rise in the middle of the 2000s decade. In addition, Europe has been less innovative than the US in the past ten years, which explains its stock market lagging the US market. The rise of Google, Facebook and others and the resurgence of Apple have all taken place in the new millennium. Europe has had no such large success stories. Worse, one of its former superstars, Nokia, has nearly disappeared. So Europe still has a strong institutional framework but its other two engines of wealth creation are sputtering.

Japan’s dependency ratio bottomed in the early 1990s which may explain the country’s stagnation since then. It remains highly innovative but perhaps not sufficiently so in new focused companies with higher returns on capital.

The lesson of recent years is that US innovation may be strong enough to counter the effect of weakening demographics, but not strong enough to produce strong GDP growth. In addition, revenue growth in several industries has become highly dependent on exports to emerging markets. The economy and markets will do well if export demand continues to grow. But if emerging economies experience an important slowdown, our worsening demographics means that there will not be sufficient demand at home to pick up the slack.

For more data on US and world demographics, please refer to these previous posts:

The Economy’s New Boss: Demographics

Is America Heading Towards Zero Population Growth?

European GDP: What Went Wrong

Demographic Megatrends of the 21st Century

US Demographics and Housing

Market Is Approaching Reversal

Although technical analysis has severe limitations, it can be useful for near-term market forecasts. Judging from the chart of the S&P 500, a simple ascending channel seems to have worked well to predict index reversals between 2003 and 2007. That is true for the overall period, and also for a sub-channel in 2004-2006 (not shown). Like an object pushed along a frictionless surface, the market will keep on going in the same direction until another major force intervenes to push it in another direction. Technicals can then be useful to define the shorter-term limits of such a multi-year move.

S&P 500 2003-2007
S&P 500 2003-2007
Looking at the present, we can see that the index is approaching a level at the upper boundary of the channel where it is likely to reverse. Extending the channel to year end, we can say that, in a bullish scenario, the S&P 500 will end 2013 near 1,800. In a bearish one, it will fall to 1,400. That’s a wide range and therefore not a useful prediction. But it may help determine near-term reversals when the index approaches these limits.
S&P 500 2009-2013
S&P 500 2009-2013
Another technical indicator is also bearish. According to Bloomberg News, 82% of S&P 500 stocks are now trading over their 200-day average, compared to an average of 54% since 1994.