The Investor’s Paradox

The Investor’s ParadoxThe Investor’s Paradox

Book Review: The Investor’s Paradox by David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog

Investing is paradoxical, as many that read my blog would know. The market has cycles.  There are overall boom/bust cycles.  There are minor cycles between the major cycles.  Strategies fall in and out of favor.  What is an investor to do?  Even harder, what should one who selects assets managers do?

It is hard to select talented investment managers.  I know this, because I have done it many times in my career.  This book points out the difficulties in selecting managers.  Were the returns due to skill, or did he hit a lucky streak?  If you are looking at the numbers only, it would be hard to tell.  Asking managers detailed qualitative questions could help, as could looking at the current portfolio, and asking:

  1. Does the portfolio fit the stated style of the manager?
  2. Does it fit his description of how he tries to make money?

This book summarizes many issues in picking managers:

  • Strict mandates vs looser mandates
  • The ways in which we deceive ourselves willingly, to believe a nice manager, or con man
  • How hedge funds grew and changed
  • Can managers adapt to new market environments successfully, or should they persist with their model which used to work, but is now out of favor?
  • How do you deal with funds that are too complex for the ordinary retail investor to understand? (I would say avoid them.)

The book includes a chapter on Madoff, and while it doesn’t break new ground, it does point out why custodians and auditors are important.  If there had been an independent custodian, or a real auditor, Madoff’s scam could never have happened.  I also appreciated the reference on page 125 as to the methods that scammers use to gain the confidence of those they scam.  This is one case where bright people get fooled.  I would encourage readers to read “The Big Con,” or even marketing books, to make themselves skeptical.

The book has a firm hand on what leads to risk/return among managers — Concentration, Directionality, Compelexity, Illiquidity, and Leverage.  LTCM is held out as an example of a disaster waiting to occur.

The book explains different types of investors, and why they take the risks they do.  Different investors take different risks.

The author gives his own summary of how to interview fund managers, though I found it to be light.  As a former buy-side analyst, I had to interview CEOs, and while I used a few techniques of the author, there are more techniques that can be used.  I appreciated the allusion to “Colombo,” because purposely dumb questions can reveal the honesty of the one being interviewed, and may reveal details that could not be gotten through a smart question.

At the end, he points out how pension plans will not be likely to meet their return goals.  He is right, and efforts to break that paradigm through allocations to alternative investments are also unlikely to work.  Hedge funds don’t respond well to volatility.

This is a good book, but I have one further main objection.

Quibbles

When the author discusses Simon Lack’s analysis of hedge funds (P 190), he wrongly dismisses the significance of dollar-weighted versus time weighted rates of return.  If a manager’s returns are so volatile that it leads investors to buy high and sell low, that is the manager’s fault.  Good managers limit risk so that their investors don’t panic.  Also, since dollar weighted returns are what investors receive as a whole, that is the actual result of the investing, and is the way that all investment managers should be measured.  And as such, Lack’s arguments are correct.  Investors would have gotten more out of investing in T-bills, which absolutely, would not be much more, but less is less.  Lack is correct, and the author is wrong.

Also, it should be noted that value managers have client bases that often invest more in bad times, and take profits in good times, so their dollar-weighted returns are often higher than the time-weighted returns.  Educated, contrarian investors do better.

Who would benefit from this book: If you hire mutual fund managers, you could benefit from this great book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: The Investor’s Paradox: The Power of Simplicity in a World of Overwhelming Choice.

Full disclosure: I asked the PR people for a copy of the  book, and they sent it.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

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About the Author

David Merkel
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 RealMoney.com. 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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