Musings on the “400% Man”

Musings on the “400% Man”

Musings on the “400% Man”When I read the following article at SmartMoney, I said to myself. “I have done almost as well, I am more diversified, and I am willing to explain more of what I do.”

Truth is, clever investors, or lucky investors can get an attitude, saying that they don’t have to explain themselves to outsiders.    Not a good place to be. I am not saying that the performance is due to luck but there is a certain amount of respect due to investors for investing with you.

Before I write more, let me state that I respect Allan Mecham.  He manages more money than I do, and has a better track record.  If I were in the shoes of the investors who were analyzing him, I probably would have placed $5 million with him, and would have watched what he did carefully.

The Role Of Knowledge In Asset Management

Active Management FundsIs there a link between intelligence, knowledge and successful investing? At first glance, it might appear as if there is. Wall Street is known for only hiring the best and brightest. However, some of the world’s most successful investors didn’t attend the world’s best universities and don’t claim to have a higher than average I.Q. Read More

Why would I take the risk?  It’s tough to find non-consensus views that make significant money.  I wouldn’t want to make it a huge allocation initially, but I would put a toe in the water to see what he would actually do.  If it didn’t work over 5 years, I would pull the plug.

All that said, when you run a very concentrated portfolio, it is possible for a few decisions to drive a lot of performance.  I would feel more confident regarding someone who had made more correct decisions, because it would indicate a higher likelihood of a repeatable process.

Let me give you an example from my own portfolio.  I own SABESP [SBS], one of the largest water utilities in the world, which provides water and other services for the city of Sao Paulo in Brazil.  I got the idea from Cramer.  It’s the only idea I have ever gotten from Cramer and acted on.  I have held it for eight years, and the stock has quintupled.  Beyond that, I have made trading gains, because it has been somewhat volatile, as most Brazilian stocks have been.  And what proportion has this been in my portfolio?  Around 3%.  The largest position in my portfolio over the last 12 years has been 8%, and it has been rare to have a position larger than 4%.

One strength of what I do in asset management is that I don’t force trades.  I’m patient.  I trade 3-4 times a year, swapping out 2-6 companies each time.  The portfolio turns over once every three years.   But that means that roughly one-third of the portfolio I have held more than three years.  It’s not that those companies are old friends, but they continue to survive the tests that I give the whole portfolio.  That said, when I sell one of those held longer, I do feel a slight sense of loss; it’s like losing a close friend.  I know I contradicted myself here, but that’s because my views are ambiguous here.  My summary would be that I love the companies that I have held for a long time, but they have to pass the test 3-4 times a year.  There are no free passes, and no sentimentality.

I know more about my own processes than I do of Mecham’s.  But I have felt the cold appraisals from institutional managers over the last five years, with the implicit complaint — “you have done well, but you don’t manage enough money, so we are not going to invest with you.”  This is the same response as “we don’t buy anything other than IBM.”

I can talk about my own processes until my face turns blue.    They will still work in most environments.  But the article tells a story of investors that are risk-averse, but without any good sense of what true risk is.

For those that are looking for the next great investor, he does not look like the next great investor, but he looks odd, like Buffett did in the 50s and 60s.  Take the chance, and invest with the odd value investor.  Invest with several of them, diversify.

If I were managing assets for a pension fund, I would assemble a stable of new-ish value managers, and that would be 70% of my portfolio, with 30% investment grade bonds.  Boring and beautiful.

Without reviewing Allan’s trades, I can’t say how certain I am of his abilities.  But I would have a bias in favor of small value managers with good track records, particularly those who have been diversified.

Full disclosure: long SBS

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.

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