Morgan Creek Capital Management letter to investors for the second quarter ended June 30, 2016; titled, “The Value Of Value.”
Morgan Creek Capital Management – The Value Of Value
Contrary to recent media coverage, Seth Klarman is not most well known for being another billionaire who has just changed party loyalties in the current Presidential race, but rather for his incredible investing acumen that has generated 16.4% annual compounded returns for his investors over a remarkable thirty-three year career as the Chief Investment Officer of the Baupost Group. For all of you pulling out the calculators, yes, this amazing track record has compounded $1 into $150. Klarman grew up outside of Baltimore, the son of a college professor and a high school teacher, which helps explain his reputation for being incredibly intelligent, but it takes more than intelligence to be a great investor. Growing up near Pimlico Race Course there are rumors that he gained an interest in numbers at the track (as well as a love of race horses which continues today) and decided to attend Cornell and study math. However, as one who personally changed majors three times, this author can attest to the fact that college plans often change. Thanks to his early interest in the “stock pages,” perhaps, or some other influence (mine was a girl), he ended up followings his father’s footsteps and graduated with high honors and a degree in economics. One of my favorite sayings is, “life is a series of happy accidents,” and Klarman had the fortunate experience of having an uncle who helped him get a summer internship at Mutual Shares (the legendary Value Investment firm founded by Max Heine and later run by Michael Price). At Mutual Shares Klarman was “inoculated” with the Value Investing bug, and he returned to the firm after graduation. Although he left only eighteen months for Harvard Business School, Michael Price said in an interview that “Seth left us as a true believer”. At HBS, Klarman experienced another happy accident when he took a Real Estate class with Professor William Poorvu who immediately recognized Klarman’s intellectual abilities, later recalling in an interview that “He was the smartest person in the class” and said, “I realized he was a special guy.” Klarman graduated from HBS as a Baker Scholar (top 5% of the class). He was then invited to lunch one day by Poorvu where the professor explained that he and some associates had just sold their business interests. They planned to set up a family office to manage the “considerable sums” of money, and they wanted him to join. In 1982, Poorvu, Howard Stevenson, Jordan Baruch and Isaac Auerbach formed Baupost (an acronym using the first two letters of their four last names), and hired Klarman to manage their $27 million fortune (roughly $70 million in 2016 dollars) for a modest $35k salary. From those humble beginnings, Baupost has grown to be one of the largest, and most successful, hedge funds in the world with $30 billion in assets at the last count.
The original plan was for Klarman to be the portfolio manager and Stevenson to serve as part-time President, since he was still teaching Entrepreneurship at Harvard. Baupost would then allocate the capital out to other managers. However, a problem quickly arose when the principals began to meet with investment firms. After just a few meetings they made two observations. First, there was a disconnect between the way the managers described how they managed their own money and that of their clients. Second, the young protégé, Klarman, was asking routinely insightful questions that they were often more impressive than the portfolio managers pitching them. Poorvu recalled in the interview how he was drawn to Klarman’s “curiosity and desire to explore things in depth” and his “fearlessness, in that he was not afraid to challenge anyone.” The group quickly decided that they would change the investment model of Baupost and Klarman would be the actual portfolio manager. Jim Grant (author of the famous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer newsletter) later described Klarman in a similar fashion in a profile, saying he was “ferociously smart, notoriously prickly and not one to engage in many soft preliminaries in a business context.” Grant went further to tell a story of how brokers at Goldman Sachs, afraid to endure Klarman’s barrage of questions on their investment ideas, would often chose not to answer the phone if the Caller ID flashed Baupost’s name on their screens, essentially forfeiting a potential commission in order to avoid Klarman’s fierce intellectual prodding. Armed with this intelligence and Value discipline instilled in him by Heine and Price, Klarman came to the conclusion that the best way to compound wealth was to avoid losing money and keep the power of compounding working in your favor (Baupost has only had three negative years in thirty-three, and none of them were significant). In order to not lose money, his differentiating insight was that an investor couldn't traffic in the most widely covered (and therefore over-owned and over-priced) names on Wall Street, but had to focus on buying those out of favor names he calls “bargains.” Klarman has described bargains as securities where “you are buying a big discount, buying a margin of safety.” Another key element of the philosophy was that an investor had to be patient in waiting for things to “go on sale,” and be willing to hold cash when securities (and markets) were overpriced. Perhaps one of the most remarkable things (among many) of the Baupost track record is that it is routine for them to hold 30% to 50% in cash while they are looking for things to buy. To generate the types of returns they have for over three decades with a huge percentage of the portfolio in cash offers a strong challenge to the traditional mantra that portfolio managers should be fully invested at all times. When one of Klarman’s chief lieutenants retired last year, he discussed the use of cash in his farewell letter saying, “one of the most common misconceptions regarding Baupost is that most outsiders think we have generated good risk- adjusted returns despite holding cash. Most insiders, on the other hand, believe we have generated those returns BECAUSE of that cash. Without that cash, it would be impossible to deploy capital when we enter a tide market and great opportunities become widespread.” In other words, cash has protective and option value, keeping portfolios safe during dislocations and providing liquidity to buy bargains with high margins of safety after the corrections occur.
The concept of margin of safety is so important to Klarman and his Value investment style that he penned a book in 1991 with the simple title Margin of Satety (pictured above). This book has achieved a nearly cult-like status as one of the “Bibles” for Value Investors. Furthermore, due to its limited printing (only 5,000 original copies and has never been reprinted) copies now sell on Amazon and eBay for prices between $1,000 and $2,000 (depending on condition). There are many theories on why there have not been more printings. Some