GMO’s second quarter letter to investors
Over the past year or so, there has been a welcome change to the culinary landscape of the Boston financial district. After two decades of wandering to largely the same old haunts for lunch, I am now faced with a whole new set of inexpensive and tasty choices literally outside our door, changing daily as the food trucks perform their mysterious nightly dance. And while part of me may worry about the general advisability of having a burning wood-fired oven built into a small truck and another part may worry about the long-term impact to my weight and arteries from eating the pizza that comes out of said oven, my taste buds are thrilled, and my wallet has no complaints either. We at GMO have been accused at times of believing that either the world never changes or that when it does change, those changes are generally bad. Well, it may just be the dumplings talking (available on Fridays on the Greenway by Rowes Wharf, $8 for four dumplings along with fried rice and homemade Asian slaw, $1 more if you want to add a spring roll with ginger soy sauce), but the world has indeed changed, and it is good! Food trucks seem to be a genuinely disruptive innovation, lowering the cost of entry for the restaurant business, fighting the tyranny of location, taking advantage of other innovations – every food truck I’ve been to accepts credit cards via Square – and encouraging experimentation, new ideas, and most importantly, better lunches for me and others who work in culinarily challenged areas.
While I’m sure you are happy for me and my new found culinary contentment, you may well be wondering whether this has any relevance for investing. I believe it does, and the relevance is this: investors spend far too much of their time looking for a free lunch, when they should be looking for the investing equivalent of an inexpensive and tasty food truck meal instead. Tasty food truck meals are far easier to find, and you are much less likely to discover that they come with strings attached that you didn’t think of until it was too late. So what are investing free lunches? Arbitrage opportunities, sources of high returns uncorrelated with the important risks to investors, portfolio construction techniques that reduce those risks without reducing returns, exploitable market inefficiencies that other investors are strangely willing to share the existence of with you. In common parlance, Alpha. I have used the capital A there as a signifier that there is something special about this particular Greek letter that gives it a fascination for investors well beyond what is ascribed to beta, gamma, delta, or the other symbols that finance has appropriated. My colleague Edmund Bellord suggested in a recent team meeting that we replace the term “Alpha” with “Magic Beans” in our conversations to add the proper element of skepticism when the term comes up. This is not to say that Alpha doesn’t exist. There are indeed occasional arbitrage opportunities, the markets do sometimes offer up sources of return uncorrelated to risks we should all care about, and we would be among the last to claim that markets are efficient. But finding Alpha is hard, everybody is on the lookout for it, and as all diligent analysts can tell you, most of the time that an opportunity starts out looking like Alpha, it winds up seeming more mundane as you do more research.
GMO: Put Selling and Merger Arbitrage – No Free Lunches Here
Just because an opportunity isn’t a free lunch, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t a tasty food truck meal, and such a meal can easily be an important part of your balanced diet … er, portfolio. So what do I mean by this? To some degree, the difference between a free lunch and a tasty food truck meal is a matter of mind-set. I’ll take the example of put selling, even though some of you may be bored of reading my musing on that particular topic by now. Some investors and strategists have suggested that put selling is a free lunch, and on the face of it, they seem to have a point, as you can see in Table 1, which compares holding the S&P 500 with selling one-month at-the-money (ATM) puts on the S&P 500 since 1983:
One-month puts have provided basically the same return after our estimated transaction costs as a buy and hold of the S&P 500, with a beta of about 0.5, volatility two-thirds that of the index, a Sharpe ratio 50% higher, and a CAPM alpha of 2.6%. To explain these, some strategists have invoked behavioral factors – irrational dislike of the limited upside of the strategy or other investor foibles. To our minds, no such explanations are necessary.
Beta and standard deviation are lousy risk measures for a put selling strategy, because almost all of the volatility of the strategy is “bad” volatility. At the end of the day, an investor selling puts on the S&P 500 is taking the same risk as the investor who buys the S&P 500 – both lose money at more or less the same rate when the S&P 500 goes down. If the reason why the stock market has a long-term return above cash is the nature and timing of the losses that periodically befall investors who own it, put selling has all of the same downside, and therefore should offer the same basic upside. It happens to do that in a different manner – through the collection of option premiums instead of participating in the gains of the stock market – but as my colleague Sam Wilderman points out, it is dangerous to confuse the manner investors get paid with the reason why they get paid. Purveyors of option strategies are apt to talk about the “variance risk premium” and “capturing short-term mean reversion” when analyzing put selling returns. But while these two factors do explain how put selling delivers its returns to investors, they arguably do little to help anyone understand why the returns exist.