Category: Portfolio Strategy

Portfolio Strategy

Black Monday

Stock prices sank sharply on Monday in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy
announcement over the weekend. Other firms perceived to have credit-related
worries sank sharply as well: shares of insurance giant AIG fell 60.8%, Washington
Mutual was down 26.7%, and Citigroup lost 15.1%. Among the thirty Dow Industrial
component issues, only Coca-Cola managed to eke out a gain, closing up 25
cents for the day.

The S&P 500® Index fell 4.71%, its largest one-day percentage
loss since September 17, 2001 when the Index fell 4.92% following a four-day
trading suspension. Ranked by magnitude of one-day losses for the S&P
500® Index, Monday’s decline ranks fourteenth among all trading sessions
since January 1950. Although some market breaks are still fixed in our memory,
others have faded from view. We suspect few non-professionals can recall
what the news background was when stock prices plunged on October 27, 1997;
January 8, 1988; or September 11, 1986.

Rank Date S&P
500®Close
Change
vs. Prev Close
1October 19, 1987224.84-20.47%
2October 26, 1987227.67-8.28%
3October 27, 1997876.99-6.87%
4August 31, 1998957.28-6.80%
5January 8, 1988243.40-6.77%
6May 28, 196255.50-6.68%
7September 26, 195542.61-6.62%
8October 13, 1989333.65-3.12%
9April 14, 20001,356.56-5.83%
10June 26, 195018.11-5.38%
11October 16, 1987282.70-5.16%
12September 17, 20011,038.77-4.92%
13September 11, 1986235.18-4.81%
14September 15, 20081,192.70-4.71%

The S&P data are provided by Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group.

Financial journalists will undoubtedly be scribbling energetically in the
coming weeks to offer anxious investors an explanation for “what it all means.” A
sample appears in the most recent issue of Forbes, where three prominent
investment professionals offer their views of the future: one is quite bullish,
one is quite bearish, and the third is cautious but hopeful. Each offers
compelling evidence to make their case. Forbes editors helpfully
place each column on consecutive pages, making it easy for readers to determine
which pundit is promoting views most similar to their own. The only investors
likely to improve their portfolio results by reading such observations are
those who were not properly diversified to begin with and become motivated
to take action. The world is an uncertain place, and sharp fluctuations in
asset prices reflect that uncertainty.

History offers abundant evidence that market economies are resilient. The
world will find a way to manage its financial affairs without the advice
of Lehman Brothers, and the residential mortgage loan will survive even if
Fannie Mae does not. The key issue for investors is to make sure their financial
future does not get derailed by events at a handful of firms, and that their
portfolios are properly positioned to capture all the rewards the markets
have to offer when the next up cycle begins. Recent events have provided
an unusually harsh lesson of the importance of diversification. In a matter
of days, shareholders of three financial giants—Fannie Mae, Freddie
Mac, and Lehman Brothers Holdings—have seen their shares plunge into
the penny-stock category. A fourth, American International Group, is scrambling
for survival. For well-diversified investors, the financial damage associated
with these four firms has been minor; in aggregate, they represented less
than 1% of a diversified US equity portfolio on May 31, 2008, and even less
for a global strategy.1 Four
or five years from now, these investors may have a difficult time remembering
what happened and when.

However, for those with concentrated positions, especially employees with
large holdings of company stock, these events are a financial tornado inflicting
potentially irreparable damage. One business owner cited by the Wall
Street Journal
recently purchased 25,000 shares of Freddie Mac at roughly
$5 and lost most of his investment in a matter of days. Ironically, he claimed
to be through with day-trading strategies, and was seeking a profitable long-term
investment. Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal estimated that the
24,000 employees of Lehman Brothers have seen $10 billion in personal wealth
evaporate as the value of Lehman shares collapsed. Many long-time employees
of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac have experienced similarly catastrophic losses.
When times are good, the risk of a concentrated portfolio often appears extremely
remote. In March 2006, Fannie Mae was once characterized by Money magazine
as “America’s Safest Stock,” with a bulletproof business model that was “as
close as you’ll get to an invincible earnings machine.”

Events of 2008 demonstrate the importance of getting a few big issues right – namely
diversification and balance.  We expect that patience will prove critical
as well.

1Weights
for the US Core Equity
1 Portfolio
as of May 31, 2008 are used.

Bajaj, Vikas, Bajaj and Tara Bernard. “Worker Assets Shrink at Fannie and
Freddie.” New York Times, August 29, 2008.

Birger, Jon Birger. “The Rock.” Money, December 2001.

Dreman, David. Dreman. “Get Ready for Rising Prices.” Forbes, September
29, 2008.

Fisher, Ken Fisher. “The Unbubble.” Forbes, September 29, 2008.

Karmin, Craig Karmin. “Small Fannie, Freddie Holders Take Issue With Washington.” Wall
Street Journal,
September 12, 2008.

Karnitschnig, Matthew, Karnitschnig, Lian Leven, and Serena Ng. “AIG Faces
Cash Crisis As Stock Dives 61%.” Wall Street Journal, September
16, 2008.

Shilling, A. Gary Shilling. “Worse Is Yet to Come.” Forbes, September
29, 2008.

Smith, Randall, Smith and Susanne Craig. “The Lehman Stock Slide Hits Home.” Wall
Street Journal,
September 12, 2008.

Yahoo! Inc. Yahoo! Finance. In www.yahoo.com, accessed September
15, 2008.

Investing is like Dieting

This May, at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett boiled down what it means to be an intelligent investor into two startling sentences: “If a stock [I own] goes down 50%, I’d look forward to it. In fact, I would offer you a significant sum of money if you could give me the opportunity for all of my stocks to go down 50% over the next month.” Knowing he owns good businesses, Mr. Buffett wants prices to go down, not up, so he can buy even more shares more cheaply before they bounce back.

In the last long bear market, 1969 to 1982, stocks returned just 5.6% annually; after inflation, investors lost more than 2% a year. That mauling by the bear made stocks so inexpensive that over the ensuing 18 years they went up 18.5% a year, enough to turn $10,000 into more than $200,000. The renowned investor Benjamin Graham once wrote that “the investor’s chief problem — and even his worst enemy — is likely to be himself.” Equity markets are chaotic and the reason we expect the risk premium is that there are periods of extreme volatility.

For, as Mr. Buffett has also pointed out, investing is much like dieting: it is simple, but not easy. Everyone knows what it takes to lose weight. (Eat less, exercise more.) Nothing could be simpler, but few things are harder in a world full of chocolate cake and Cheetos. Likewise, investing is simple: diversify, buy and hold, rebalance and keep costs low. But simple isn’t easy in an environment that has seen extreme volatility as a result of skyrocketing oil prices, shaky lending practices and faltering investment banks. The real secret to being, or becoming, an intelligent investor is bolstering your self-control.

Nonprofits face unique challenges which greatly complicate matters.  Most long term reserves operate within an indefinite or uncertain time frame.  Furthermore, additional funds are often not available to buy additional securities as prices fall – as they are in 401k plans or other savings plans.  Accordingly, intelligent nonprofit investing must be matched with clear expectations and a thorough understanding of the organization’s cash flow requirements and tolerance for losses in the short term.  A well drafted investment policy should provide direction and minimize emotionally driven decision making.  A formal rebalancing policy should dictate the systematic process of selling high and buying lower.

Buffett’s Big Bet

Fortune senior editor Carol Loomis has had a special relationship with Berkshire Hathaway chief executive Warren Buffett for many years, both as a personal friend and as the editor of Mr. Buffett’s widely read annual letter to Berkshire stockholders. Among many contributions throughout a Fortune career spanning more than fifty years, Loomis has written numerous thought-provoking articles about Berkshire and Buffett.

Drawing on that special relationship, Loomis has revealed to Fortune readers the details of an intriguing bet placed earlier this year by Mr. Buffett that should be of interest to any investor contemplating a commitment to hedge funds.

Buffett has often warned of the potential wealth destruction associated with investment expenses. In a 1999 Fortune article, he pointed out that the long-run return to investors in corporate America cannot be higher than what corporate America earns on its assets and that efforts to earn higher returns by moving money from one business to another (“chair-changing,” in Mr. Buffett’s lingo) might be successful for some investors but can only penalize results for investors in aggregate. To illustrate this idea, Buffett suggested in Berkshire’s 2005 annual report that readers imagine a simplified world in which all American corporations are owned in perpetuity by a single family, the Gotrocks. Succumbing to the promises of various “helpers” from the financial industry, some family members attempt to outsmart their relatives by purchasing some of their shares in various businesses and selling certain others. Other “hyper-helpers” appear to assist in selecting the best helpers (for an additional fee, of course.) The net effect on the Gotrock family wealth can only be negative as the total earnings on American businesses are diminished by the helpers’ fees. Buffett argues that the total “chair-changing costs” are substantial, estimating that “the family’s frictional costs of all sorts may well amount to 20% of the earnings of American business.”

Buffett revisited the issue in Berkshire’s 2006 annual report, turning his attention to the fees charged by the typical hedge fund. Referring to the “2-and-20” crowd, Buffett observed that “the inexorable math of this grotesque arrangement is certain to make the Gotrocks family poorer over time than it would have been had it never heard of these ‘hyper-helpers.’