Successful Investing Is Not a Ranking by A. Michael Lipper, CFA

All too often, we unconsciously use arbitrage selection. We compare a given result against a perceived standard. This often leads to ranking against the standard. A classic old gag is an example of comparison: A man is asked how his wife is, and he replies, “Compared to what?”

I would suggest that it is equally wrong to confuse performance ranking with successful investing. One should invest as a process to produce income and capital to meet a spending goal. The real measure of successful investing, however, is how the investor feels about the result. Feeling good about the result is an unwritten, but very important, psychological goal.

Switching the measurement device

In the United States this week, the College Board announced that is making substantial changes to its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a metric used by increasingly fewer colleges in their admittance processes.

There were spoken, and I believe unspoken, reasons for the change. The most obvious reason is that the SAT exam is losing market share to a more knowledge-focused ACT exam (a competitor to the College Board). I believe that to some extent, these exams are used incorrectly in making selections.

Having sat on two university Boards of Trustees, I am under the impression that high school grades, modified by a view on the academic rigor of the secondary school, are a much better predictor of a student’s ability to handle college-level work. A similar level of higher analysis is more useful in making decisions as to selection of investment managers or funds.

Finding the correct context for successful selection

Investing is both an art form and a competitive sport. The art form attempts to use, within constraints, creativity to produce periodic investment results. Too often these are expressed in terms of the latest quarter, latest 12 months, 5 years, and 10+ years since inception. (Please note that I excluded three years, which statistically is the single worst period for future extrapolation but is loved by consultants who can earn their fees by replacing a manager on the basis of poor three-year performance just before the market changes and the manager looks much better.)

The competitive sport comes in when you start to compare how well a fund does versus others that are operating under the same or similar constraints.

The misunderstood constraints

Often liquidity management is the most severe constraint. Some of the elements of the constraint matrix are possible abrupt changes in cash flows. The impact of these changes can determine the need to maintain a minimum cash balance at all times, the need to size positions relative to their average (or extreme) market volume, and the minimum number of holdings.

Another set of constraints has to do with the quality of the management, market share, and balance sheet strength. Some managers can use IPOs, even if they own them for a very short time period. Other managers can use private placements. None of these constraints apply to the popular stock and bond averages. Thus they are inappropriate as investment measurement devices even though they are used by their publishers and others in the media business. The exchange traded funds (ETFs) that try to mirror the indices are also not appropriate investment vehicles because they lack the flexibility and fiduciary responsibility that are imposed on an active manager.

Two filters for successful investing

The first filter has to do with a non-profit institution, a personal fiduciary, or an individual when it comes time to authorize spending to meet the goals of the account. Clearly any time one withdraws money from an account one is reducing the capital to make more money in the future.

As the exchequer, you should psychologically feel positive about the goals of the money. If the withdrawal is less than the total, one should feel good about the ability to meet future planned goals with the remaining money and recognize the courage of spending over investing when warranted.

Before you feel too good about yourself, I was struck by a quote in a recent The Wall Street Journal. The quote was, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself…and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The source of this quote was Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner and a famed professor at Caltech who provided critical work for the Manhattan Project (which produced the atomic bomb). I appreciate his wisdom for itself, because of an affiliation to Caltech (where I am a current Trustee), and as graduate of Columbia University where the initial work on the Manhattan project was conducted.

The quote is a warning that it is easy to fool ourselves, particularly in the roles of a fiduciary. This thought came to mind this week when I had to terminate a manager to the firm’s surprise because it was celebrating that it was number one over five years in a particular category. My point was that is exactly when, as a fiduciary, one should leave the party. They can only go down on a relative basis from here.

Where are we now?

As regular readers of these posts know, I am wary of a forthcoming major peak. Thus each day I scan for data points that would indicate that I am premature in my concerns or that would add to my concerns. This week the roster of insiders, mostly corporate officials and directors were heavy sellers of their own stocks.

The leading sellers came from the health industries, with sales of $1,945,467 and only $185,247 in buys — more 10 times greater sales than buys. This was the case in all sectors.

Clearly many executives were selling their newly acquired shares received through stock options and had taxes to be paid. Nevertheless, inside selling of significant size is not often viewed as a positive. This was happening while both the S&P 500 and the MSCI World indices posted new highs.

These new highs were driven by large capitalization stocks trying to catch up with the valuations afforded to the mid-cap and small-cap stocks. According to Standard & Poor’s, the average price/earnings ratio on large caps is 15.4 times, 18.55 times for mid caps, and 19.32 times for small caps.

The lower P/E on large caps is mirrored by only a 12.76% gain expected in their operating earnings vs. 22.26%  and 35.15% for the mid and smaller capitalization stocks.

Putting it all together

Others are sensing that at some future point we will see a major peak and a subsequent decline, but not now. Speculation is growing using the surge in IPOs as one gauge, but it has not reached the fever pitch that describes a top.

Nevertheless, there is growing flight to investing into large capitalization stocks, not because they will grow faster than their smaller compatriots but because of the need for liquidity. We used to call some of these stocks “warehouse” positions that would go up reasonably well with the market but provided large exits when needed. (That worked when there were large amounts of capital on trading desks which could be compensated through wide spreads and/or commissions. This is not the case today.)

Please share with me how you are protecting your investments.

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Editor’s note:

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