Sunday, October 4, 2009

Old Money vs. New Money Mistakes

One of the truths about investing is that to invest is to make mistakes. I am not suggesting that investing is an avoidable mistake. We have no choice but to invest our time, talents, and capital. The reason we have no choice is that these resources already exist in some form and if we do not change them, we are reinvesting them in their present forms. Innately, humans and animals instinctively know that our resources will deteriorate and perhaps disappear over time. Thus, we choose to do something with our resources. For most of us, we have no choice but to invest or attempt to improve our condition.

How we choose to invest is primarily a function of our experience. Our experience is not just what we individually have lived through, but also what we have consciously learned through the experiences of others with whom we choose to identify. Whether we like it or not, one of the inputs to our experience is our own DNA. This DNA is composed of elements of human race characteristics and more directly, family background. This is not to say that since there have been four separate (and not connected) Lipper brokerage firms, that for all time members of my family are condemned to be members of the New York Stock Exchange. What it does suggest is that we have a disposition to be attracted to transactions and services for others who transact. These tendencies can be applied to the various worlds of art and computer services among others. Luckily for the world, people are wired differently so we can find essential diversity in what we do. For the most part, our experience, no matter how formed, does not trap us into certain behavior, despite our propensities. Thus, as we enter each new theater of experience, we either treat what we are about to do as something new, or part of a continuum from the past.

Experienced investors, or if you will, old money, invest differently than those with new money. Each of us is human, and therefore makes mistakes; but often the mistakes of old money are different than the mistakes of new money.

Most of the old money that I know did not materially change the disposition of their financial assets after the experience of the last couple of years, even though their money piles are smaller. Their “normal” asset distribution might have been 5% in cash, 35% in bonds, 20% in domestic growth stocks or funds, 20% value stocks or funds and 20% international stocks. At the end of last year they may have had over 60% in cash and fixed income, 15% in value-oriented stocks or funds, 15% in international and 10% invested with a growth objective. An experienced investor believing that almost all relative performance is cyclical, might not change any commitments. For what the market takes away it will return over time. Further, from their experience, they believe after a major decline they should not change most managers or stocks of currently profitable companies. Old money has an affinity to long term records as they have had their money over the long term. They also generally prefer investing with organizations rather than in the success of any particular CEO or money manager. Thus, they chalk up the declines they have experienced as just a “normal’ cyclical decline which will be corrected by a “normal” recovery followed by some secular growth. In many ways this is almost a Newtonian view of a grand watchmaker overseeing our universe.

Owners of new money are full of themselves. They earnestly believe that their investment results are largely, if not totally, dependent upon themselves. They look at the current market always as an opportunity to show how bright they are relative to the mistakes of others. This personality-driven approach often identifies with specific hero CEOs or hot money managers. A somewhat over-simplification of their choices is that they believe in participating, if not leading momentum. Everyone recognizes that at any given time there are numerous unknowns that are likely to dramatically impact security prices and trends. If momentum won’t supply the answer, the new money is more likely to divine the right answers. They have more tools, or if you prefer gadgets, than the old money players and this give them an almost insurmountable advantage.

In these stylized cases, both the old money and the new money are making fundamental investment mistakes that others have committed in the past. Old money is betting on repetition, as in history repeats itself. If that was entirely true there would be no progress, as everything would circle back to our beginning point. In truth, history does show an uneven upward bias to the human condition and valuations. What many do not realize is that the upward bias is caused at least in part by the abandonment of failed, or too weak to survive, elements; as well as the pull of some new potential riches. Further progress is made by recognizing mistakes/opportunities. In the “old money” asset allocation example shown above, some wise investors might reallocate their money back to their “normal” portfolio. (There may be a seldom-declared advantage to this tactic: By increasing one’s commitment to a currently depressed area, if successful, the quicker one will get to the upper limit of the allocation causing a cut-back. One of the reasons for the dramatic declines in numerous portfolios last year was their over-investment in what was “hot” was not automatically corrected.)

New money often does not recognize that what is working so well now is very similar to similar beneficiaries of momentum in past market cycles. One of the many lessons coming out of the Great Depression of the 1930s was the peril of the extreme use of leverage or margin in the 1920’s by various utility holding companies, the great Goldman Sachs Trading Company and individual investors. Applying those lessons from the ancient past might have reduced the 2008 losses in various leveraged vehicles.

Both the stereotypical old money investor and the new money investor do not take into their considerations that they may be wrong. Their “system” like those of many disappointed race track bettors, does not contemplate that judgment mistakes are as normal as other accidents. Both set of investors can reduce their odds on big individual mistakes of judgments by using professionally sound funds. (Caveat Emptor: I manage portfolios of funds for institutions and a very limited number of individuals.) One might combine both the old money and new money approaches (using the asset allocation example above), by reweighting the equity portion of the account in favor of growth stocks or funds as momentum appears to be picking up in that direction. Another example of combining the lessons from these two habit patterns is taking the view that in terms of high-quality fixed income, it appears unlikely that interest rates will drop materially and therefore the capital appreciation potential from this particular segment is limited, and thus the commitment to high quality fixed income should be below “normal.”

Which kind of an investor are you old or new?

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