Sunday, March 29, 2015

Selling, Risk, and Liquidity


“Drive for show, but putt for dough” is an old expression on how to win at golf. The vast majority of investment advice is about buying securities that are expected to go up in price. However, the terminal value of investing is the final conversion of paper wealth to spendable cash.

While investors in individual securities can benefit from my thoughts, my comments are directed at institutional and high net worth investors that have one or more portfolios of mutual funds. Those that own multiple portfolios of mutual funds should modify these comments due to the different expected timespans for each portfolio. (These can be discussed privately, if you would like.)

Drive for show

When a competitive golfer addresses his or her tee shot at a crowded first tee almost all the comments will be on the distance and direction of the first shot. However, the first shot is only positioning for the follow-on shots and in the end the key is how many shots it takes to complete the hole. Thus to some extent the first shot is like relative performance versus peers or benchmarks. If all you know is how good the drive off the first tee is, you really won’t know about the ultimate success of the player. Therefore, what the investor wants to capture is the cash conversion from the ultimate sale as one can not spend relative performance.

The more professional golf observer would pay attention to the form of the golfer, the particular club that was used, the amount of power the player used in hitting the ball, and the tactical position of where the first shot landed. If I knew these things I would be in a much better position to judge whether I wanted to bet on the success of the player rather than just remark that he/she hit a nice first shot. Applying this to the fund selection puzzle, I am much more interested in the process and procedures followed by the manager of a fund than their current relative performance.

Relative performance is a rearward looking device. We get paid to make future judgments and thus I am much more interested in the way  managers addresses their task, such as:
a)    What tools are likely going to be used?
b)   The time spent on studying the opportunities
c)    What comparisons with other opportunities in the present or past time periods?
d)   Compensation pressures, which might impact decisions?
e)    What does one know about the competitors that are playing in the game?
f)     And finally, what is the pattern of flows going into and out of the fund?

Since our major investments occur after several visits or points of contact, any changes in these processes or procedures need to be understood. We expect there to be changes as we live in a dynamically changing investment world. If there were no changes there is an increase of being blindsided.  Each of the items listed above can have an impact on future performance beyond general changes in the market. Our objective is to use process and procedure changes as early warning signals to begin to exit a meaningful position. To quote Sir John Templeton, “Progress requires change. Focus on where you want to go, instead of where you have been.”

Three reasons to sell

The first reason to sell is an actual or expected change in the nature of the account. This is particularly true if the account requires a higher than expected conversion to cash for operational spending needs.

The second reason to sell is actually to buy; the late Sir John said “the reason to sell is to buy a better bargain.” (We have had the honor and pleasure of supplying special data reports to him and also being called down to Nassau to consult with him and his colleagues.)

The third reason to sell is if some important deterioration in the process being used or fundamental change in the longer-term outlook for the investment occurs.

What to sell

Anytime one needs to add or subtract from a portfolio, the whole account should be reviewed. The change is an opportunity to partially redirect the course of the portfolio. Thus, the first pass should be to see whether the various components of the portfolio are properly balanced in today’s environment and future focus. This could be the ideal time to reduce a position that has gotten to be way out of balance. Depending on the nature of the account the natural barriers might be 10%, 20%, and 25% for an individual sector. In terms of a balanced account, the fixed income range should be between 25% and 60% with equities between 40% and 75% in most cases. If one is not hurried, changes should be averaged in or out over at least three time periods which can be days, weeks, months, or quarters.

The role of risk

If the account is all of the money of an institution or an individual without any expected new money coming into the account, a prudent investor needs to weigh the impact of a loss of capital on future spending needs. In the same light the investor needs to understand that the risk of not growing capital and therefore income can be a bigger risk than some downside diminution particularly after taxes and likely high inflation. While I am very conscious that various studies have shown that individuals feel a loss 2 ½ times more than a similar amount of gain, nevertheless for most tax-exempt institutional accounts whose demands go up on a countercyclical basis when economic times are poor, the risk to the organization of not growing the capital base is worse. A less than optimum capital base puts extreme pressure on earned income and fund raising in difficult times.

The role of liquidity

Another former client, Howard Marks, of Oaktree Capital Management wrote about liquidity in this week’s Barron’s. He said that liquidity is not important until it becomes vitally important. Further he characterizes liquidity as transient and paradoxical. Liquidity is the ability to get the last published price in a transaction, particularly when one is selling in troubled times. Normally mutual fund investors are not concerned about liquidity because when they place their redemption order they know it will be executed at the price (net asset value) calculated for the next close of the market. However, some fund investors may be surprised by the gap between one day’s price and the next one.

Some SEC commissioners and certain members of the US Congress are concerned about the potential evaporating liquidity in the bond market including US government issued debt. The professional investors (hedge funds) invested in various debt and equity Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) could overwhelm the marketplace with a wall of redemptions, which will probably be met by the market makers immediately selling the heavily weighted securities in the ETFs which will put more price pressure on the final net asset value for the ETF and the companion mutual fund.

As a student of the market for over fifty years I would urge fund holders not to panic during troubled periods and add to the forced sales. Well designed investment portfolios of mutual funds should survive the decline and could be very well positioned for a subsequent rise.

Question of the week: For your accounts is there more risk on the upside of not generating enough future capital than on the downside of avoiding forced losses?  
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