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Compounding – if you live long enough to enjoy it.

I have just finished reading Edward O Thorps autobiography A Man For All Markets which is an excellent little read and a good addition to any traders library. In the book Thorp talks about he value of compounding returns. There is no doubt that success is trading or investing is based upon compounding your gains over the long term. Compounding is a wonderful tool in that what seem to be small quanta of difference can over time lead to an enormous difference in returns. For example an investment with a return of 10% compounded annually for 10 years yields $259,374 whereas the same investment compound at 11% yields $283,942. Extend the holding time to 20 years and the figures becomes $672,750 and $806,231 respectively. Time is the key to compounding and this is a point Thorp makes, he also makes the important point that most lack the patience to do this.

However, there is a sting in the tale of compounding that I have noticed that those on the sell side of the business either abuse or simply do not understand and that is one of scale. You will often see very long term charts of an index or an instrument and it shows a wonderful upward trajectory (well you wouldn’t show things that didn’t work) and the message is that you simply have to hold for whatever the requisite time is and you will eventually have a small pot of gold. The key word here is eventually because what is often overlooked is the time to achieve these mythical gains. There is no doubt at all that compounding is a very powerful tool and when combined with consistency and patience achieves remarkable things.

However there is always a but we need to be aware of. To demonstrate this I found a centuries worth of data on the All Ords and using $1 as the starting investment plotted what the return would be over the next 116 years.

$1

If you had started with $1 in 1900 and simply let the compounding returns of the index take its course you would have $487,801.23. At first glance this is quite impressive – the markets very long term rate of return sits at about 9% and if you let it do its thing for a long period of time then you get an impressive number at the end. However, there are two things to be aware of in viewing this data. Firstly, the time taken to achieve your goals, not only is the time itself a problem but the erosion of the value of your investment over time is a problem. I had a cursory look for long term inflation data but couldn’t find much dating back beyond the 1940’s but if you assumed an average inflation rate of 4% then this puts a large hole in the real end value of your investment. The second issue that is not addressed is the trajectory of the journey – the chart above is not of a capital guaranteed term deposit but of an index. The somewhat linear trajectory of the graph is deceiving since it does not take into account the extended and deep bear markets that were experienced. There were years when the market went nowhere and these events are testing for even the most hardened buy and hold advocate.

Time is both the ally and enemy of those who understand how to use compounding and it is this dualism that we need to be aware of. The practical implication of this is to leave your money in your trading account for as long as possible before taking it out and spending it. The impact of large withdrawals is quite remarkable in the damage it does to accounts but some people cannot resist spending in the short term to ensure they live in poverty in the long term

Timing Is Everything

It is no secret that I am not a fan of fund managers of any kind, be they the more exotic style of hedge fund that exists as an idiot tax for those who invest in them, the standard vanilla equity investment fund or the legally mandated rip off that are superannuation funds. My objection is simple, if you are going to take billions in fees  from people then you had better deliver something other than perpetually under performing the market. In a puff piece that looked somewhat like a marketing exercise Morningstar the ratings agency has named the top investment funds in Australia and the list was picked up by Fairfax and covered here. I have copied the list of top funds below.

1491953010731

Source – Fairfax

The article talks about the value of investing in the number one ranked fund since it has outperformed the index over the last 10 years – this point got me thinking about using 10 years as a point of comparison and the notion of starting points in general. As a general point I find selecting 10 years interesting since it makes certain that the funds are compared against the index during and post the GFC and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the average return from the index since that time has been poor.

I decided to have a deeper look at the impact of starting times upon portfolios by digging up some data on the All Ordinaries Accumulation Index which is now referred to as Total Return Index since it includes the return from both gains in the index and dividends. Starting in 1960 I looked at what your average return would be to the present day if you had started investing at a given point. For example if you had invested in an index linked fund in 1960 your average return up until the present date would have been 13.53% whereas if you had begun your investment journey in 1994 your average return would be 9.99%. This might not seem to be a substantive difference but over time it adds up to a small fortune.

Capture

What interested me when I looked at this data was the remarkably consistent nature of the returns – they are all positive. Whilst, this is to be expected it is nonetheless interesting that the index doesn’t put together strings of negative years and this is shown in the raw data that I will look at later. What is also evident is that there seems to be a tailing off in average returns which is more obvious when this data is plotted as a chart.

r2

The reason for this drop off can be found in the raw data as shown below. This data is the true return for the index for each year in the sample.

r1

In this table I have highlighted each year where the return was over 25%. You can see a cluster of such returns in the 1970’s and 1980’s with a drop off in 1990 and 2000 and since 2010 there has not been such a year. In performance outliers count disproportionately and when they are lacking things look bleaker. I have no real explanation as to the rationale for the drop off in returns although I would surmise it may be simply due to a lack of funds flowing into the market due to the real estate boom. My recollection of the lift in 1991 and 1993 where due in part to the pent up recovery in the market post the 1987 crash but also that real estate struggle under the regime of high interest rates so we had an asset rotation underway.

Despite this drop off in returns over the past decade there is still no compelling reason to buy a managed fund. However, it is important to note that these are average returns over deep time – it in no way diminishes the importance of not being in the market when the market has nothing to give you. What also amazes me about fund managers is that they believe timing is so hard when in fact with simple mechanical rules it is remarkably easy as I have already demonstrated here using the ETF STW. Trading is only as hard as you make it or in the case of fund managers it is only as hard as you want to make it appear.

 

 

 

 

Even The Best Stock Pickers Cant Beat Bots

BlackRock shook the world of active management on Tuesday when it announced that it had fired five of its 53 stock pickers. BlackRock will also move $6 billion of the $201 billion invested in traditional active management to quant strategies.

The announcement may not sound earth-shattering, but it augurs a larger trend: Traditional active management is dying, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.

 The evidence has piled up in recent years that the vast majority of active managers fail to beat the market net of their fees. A common reaction is that beating the market is too difficult and that it’s therefore a waste of time and money to try.

But just the opposite is true. As I’ve previously noted, the problem is not that active managers fail to outperform the market; it’s that they keep that outperformance for themselves through high fees. In the meantime, index providers have turned traditional styles of active management — such as value, quality and momentum — into shockingly simple indexes run by computers. Those indexes have beaten the market and are now widely available to investors as low-cost smart beta funds.

Smart beta has proved to be a popular alternative to traditional active management. According to Morningstar, investors pulled $313 billion out of actively managed mutual funds over the last five years through 2016. At the same time, they invested $314 billion in smart beta mutual funds.

More here – Bloomberg Gadfly

PS: This is not so much fear the bots as fear the model. It has long been known that humans cannot beat simple models that can be run on home computers. Stock pickers or analysts generally do not have a model for stock/instrument selection rather they have a very loose aggregation of factors that are based around the need for a compelling narrative. And narrative is the least reliable mechanism we have for making a judgement since it more often than not flies in the face of data.

WTF Is All The Fuss About

This article is apparently doing the rounds and it purports to look at the supposedly new development of predatory short selling and uses the attack on Quintix by the US group Galucus as proof of this and along the way we get the usual dose of perceived wisdom from Gerry Harvey. Whenever such a piece on short selling appears it is predicated on a few basic assumptions.

  1. Short sellers drive down the price of instruments thereby engaging in a form of pseudo market manipulation
  2. Short sellers tend to target decent businesses and decent people and are therefore un-Australian
  3. Short sellers know what they are doing and are always profitable.
  4. Knowing which stocks are being shorted will give you an edge.
  5. Predatory short selling is a new development.

The article identifies a series of stocks that are among the most shorted on the ASX and I have reproduced this list below since it gives me a starting point for looking at some of the actual data surrounding these stocks.

shorts

What I wanted to look at was some of the performance figures that you might derive from shorting these stocks. The first thing I did was assume that exactly one year ago 1 shorted $1 of each of these stocks. I then valued these stocks as of last nights close and generated the following table.

value of $1

The current value of this basket of stocks is $10.9, so in a year I have made $0.10, if I had simply bought the index and held it passively for the same period I would have made $0.11. Speculation has to be worth the effort, particularly speculation such as short selling that exposes you to substantial risks and can be regulatory and management nightmare. However, this sort of comparison is unfair since short selling is a trading strategy – it requires active management. So it would be more appropriate to look at the peak to trough movements in these stocks over the past year and this is what the table below tracks.

up_down

As can be seen some of these stocks have had substantial movements in the past year and there are only three where movement to the upside outpaces the move down. Interestingly, as a statistical fluke the average gain and average loss sits at 31%. From a trading perspective there always needs to be a recognition that stock prices move in both directions – unfortunately for passive investors fund managers only seem to accept that stocks prices move up. The value of short sellers is the knowledge that markets move in both directions and that this provides an opportunity for profit. However, this raises the additional question of whether short selling has both an influence on price and is utilized to make a profit. For this to occur large short selling positions need to be put in place whilst the stock is stagnant and then used to drive prices down. Therefore we should see an increase in the number of shorts before a stock falls and for this number to accelerate as pressure was brought to bear. To test this assumption I looked at some charts from the Shortman.com.au site which is used as the basis for the first graph in this piece and I have reproduced them below.

table

To be honest I am buggered if I can see a relationship between the lift on the number of short sellers and a decline in price. What I see is a mixed bag of short sellers being late, being early, not being there at all and getting lucky. Granted using the old Mark 1 eyeball is a dangerous thing and I cant extract the data to look at the true correlation between short sellers and price. But if it isn’t obvious then crunching it statistically to find some form of relationship isn’t reliable. So we come back to the basic questions I posed above and it is worth summarising an answer to each –

Short sellers drive down the price of instruments thereby engaging in a form of pseudo market manipulation

Not from what I can see. In fact if anything short selling is a boon to the market since it aids in liquidity, price discovery and as ASIC found much to its chagrin during the GFC it dampens volatility.

Short sellers tend to target decent businesses and decent people and are therefore un-Australian

People who complain about short selling fail to understand the basic mechanics of all trading is to elicit price discovery. The marekt then votes on its future view of this discovery – markets look forward not nackswards. So when you see the price of groups such as HVN get the wobbles it is the market voting about what it perceives to be the future prospects of this company in light of changes in technology, consumer bahvious and competition.

Short sellers know what they are doing and are always profitable.

Not from what I have seen

Knowing which stocks are being shorted will give you an edge.

See above – also consider the most you can make is 100% and that is functionally impossible. Simply Google best performing stocks of 2016 and this will give you an idea of the side of the market you want to be on.

Predatory short selling is a new development.

From my historical perspective I would say that short selling now is harder than it used to be. There are restrictions on naked short selling and the settlement system we operate under makes it hard to game the system. Back in the day when we had 14 day settlement you could short sell a company and buy it back before settlement and if you were careful no one was any the wiser. With instantaneous settlement this is actually very hard to get away with. As I said from a simple back office perspective short selling equities is a pain in the arse.

 

 

 

 

Financial Disclosure

The disclosure statement below is currently doing the rounds and it is apparently from a long defunct fund called the IPS Millennium Fund. Apparently it is being lauded as being an honest example of what a disclosure statement should be instead of the usual corporate speak that these things are comprised of.  However, the tone of the language indicates to me that the fund was always going to go broke simply because of the cavalier attitude of the funds owners with other peoples money. The statement seems to indicate no understanding whatsoever of trading and risk management. Granted corporate speak is a pain in the arse and once you are subject to any sort of regulatory regime it becomes part of the territory. However, it is not an excuse to be a dickhead with other peoples money and the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. If you are a dickhead in the way you frame your understanding of risk then you are going to be a dickhead when it comes to managing that risk.

First of all, stock prices are volatile. Well, duh. If you buy shares in a stock mutual fund, any stock mutual fund, your investment value will change every day. In a recession it will go down, day after day, week after week, month after month, until you are ready to tear your hair out, unless you’ve already gone bald from worry. It will insist on this even if Ghandi, Jefferson, John Lennon, Jesus and the Apostles, Einstein, Merlin and Golda Maier all manage the thing. Stock markets show remarkably little respect for people or their reputations. Furthermore, if the fund has really been successful, you might be buying someone else’s whopping gains when you invest, on which you may have to pay taxes for returns you didn’t earn. Just try and find somewhere you don’t, though. Dismal.

While the long-term bias in stock prices is upward, stocks enter a bear market with amazing regularity, about every 3 – 4 years. It goes with the territory. Expect it. Live with it. If you can’t do that, go bury your money in a jar or put it in the bank and don’t bother us about why your investment goes south sometimes or why water runs downhill. It’s physics, man.

Aside from the mandatory boilerplate terrorizing above, there are risks that are specific to the IPS Millennium Fund you should understand better. Since most people don’t read the Prospectus (this isn’t aimed at you, of course, just all those other investors), we thought we’d try a more innovative way to scare you.

We buy scary stuff. You know, Internet stocks, small companies. These things go up and down like Pogo Sticks on steroids. We aren’t a sector tech fund, we are a growth & income fund, but right now the Internet is where we think most of the value is. While we try to moderate the consequent volatility by buying electric utility companies, Real Estate Investment Trusts, banks and other widows-and-orphans stuff with big dividend yields, it doesn’t always work. Even if we buy a lot of them. Sometimes we get killed anyway when Internet and other tech stocks take a particularly big hit. The “we” is actually a euphimism for you, got it?

We also get killed if interest rates go up, because that affects high dividend companies badly. Since rising interest rates affect everything badly, we could get killed even worse if the Fed raises rates, or the economy in general experiences higher interest rates beyond the control of those in control, or gets out of control. Whatever.

Many of the companies we buy are growing really fast. Like, 50% – 100% per year sales growth. Many of them also don’t make any money, although they may be relatively large companies. That means they have silly valuations by traditional valuation techniques. We don’t know what that means any more than you do, because we have never seen anything like the Internet before. So we might overpay for these companies, thinking we are really smart and can get away with it because they are growing so fast. It doesn’t take a whole lot for these companies to drop 50% or more, because nobody else knows what they are worth either. Received Wisdom can turn on a dime in this business, and when that happens prices fall off a cliff.

Even if we were really smart and stole these companies, if their prices run way up we are still as vulnerable as if we were really dumb and paid that high a price for them to start with. If we sell them, you will get pretty irritated with us come tax time, so we try not to do any more of that than we have to. The pole of that strategy, though, is that if we are really successful, you will have a lot of downside risk in a recession or a bear market. Bummer.

Finally, if you haven’t already grabbed the phone and started yelling at your broker to sell our fund as fast as possible, you should understand the shifting sands of technology. It doesn’t take billions of dollars to start a high tech company, like it did U.S. Steel or Ford Motor. Anybody can do it, and everybody does. Many of our companies are small, even though they dominate their market niche. It’s much easier for a new technology to blow one of our companies out of the water than it was in the old days of canal, mining, railroad and steel companies.

Just so you know. Don’t come crying to us if we lose all your money, and you wind up a Dumpster Dude or a Basket Lady rooting for aluminum cans in your old age.

 

FINANCIERS FIGHT OVER THE AMERICAN DREAM

A long read but worth it. In the past I have written about the danger of combining hubris with concentration bets.

One day in the summer of 2011, Christine Richard arrived at the forty-second floor of a high-rise on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan to visit a hedge fund called Pershing Square Capital Management. Richard worked for a boutique research firm that identified “short” opportunities—companies that investors could profitably bet against—and she was there to present an idea to Pershing Square’s founder, William Ackman. On the way over, though, she was caught in a rainstorm, and by the time a receptionist directed her to a conference room she realized that she was dripping wet.

A few minutes past the appointed time, Ackman rushed into the conference room, trailed by an assistant who was listing a series of meetings for that day. Ackman couldn’t stay, so he summoned one of his most trusted analysts, a twenty-eight-year-old red-headed Texan named Shane Dinneen, to sit down with Richard. She placed the rain-spattered report she had prepared on the conference-room table. On the cover was a three-leaf corporate logo. Underneath it was the word “Herbalife.”

Pershing Square is what’s called an “activist” hedge fund. Ackman uses its considerable resources—around eleven billion dollars, raised from wealthy investors, institutions, and employees—to amass major stakes in publicly traded companies. The intention is then to push the companies to improve their businesses, or at least their stock price, which is how an activist investor generally makes money. There are debates over whether activist funds strengthen the companies they invest in or simply force them into taking short-term measures—laying off employees, selling off divisions—to drive up profits and the share price. Ackman, who is sensitive to stereotypes about profiteering, says that Pershing Square has fewer than a dozen investments in its portfolio at a time, and sees them as long-term commitments. He maintains that his firm puts tremendous resources into each one, gives strategic advice over a period of years, and often recruits C.E.O.s and board members.

More here – The New Yorker

The Misguided Beliefs of Financial Advisors

Below is the abstract from this paper – The Misguided Beliefs of Financial Advisors

A common view of retail finance is that conflicts of interest contribute to the high cost of advice. Using detailed data on financial advisors and their clients, however, we show that most advisors invest their personal portfolios just like they advise their clients. They trade frequently, prefer expensive, actively managed funds, chase returns, and under-diversify. Differences in advisors’ beliefs affect not only their own investment choices, but also cause substantial variation in the quality and cost of their advice. Advisors do not hold expensive portfolios only to convince clients to do the same—their own performance would actually improve if they held exact copies of their clients’ portfolios, and they trade similarly even after they leave the industry. These results suggest that many advisors offer well-meaning, but misguided, recommendations rather than self-serving ones. Policies aimed at resolving conflicts of interest between advisors and clients do not address this problem.

This paper is interesting because it posits a parallel explanation as to why the advice that individuals receive from financial planners is so poor. Traditionally it is thought that poor advice stems simply from a conflict of interest. Planners put their own financial interests ahead of the clients and recommend high fee rubbish. As the paper mentions measures are now being put in place in various domains to prevent this from happening – a move the financial planning industry has resisted with profound vigour. My reading of the paper is a somewhat cynical interpretation of this sentence from the abstract –

These results suggest that many advisors offer well-meaning, but misguided, recommendations rather than self-serving ones (See Dunning -Kruger, authors addition)

My interpretation of this is that financial planners as a population are simply stupid and unaware of the intricacies of either providing accurate, timely and relevant advice to clients and therefore they provide themselves with the same stupid advice. It is probably somewhat unreasonable to expect someone who gives themselves rubbish advice to demonstrate a schism between what they tell a client and what they tell themselves. The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.

General Advice Warning

The Trading Game Pty Ltd (ACN: 099 576 253) is an AFSL holder (Licence no: 468163). This information is correct at the time of publishing and may not be reproduced without formal permission. It is of a general nature and does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on any of the information you should consider its appropriateness, having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs.