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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.

A Question I Often Ponder

Is can you be too stupid to trade and the answer is obviously yes. If you are defeated by how your toaster works then trading is not for you, nor is anything else probably. However, my observation over the decades has been that despite what the industry would have you believe trading is not that hard. The cognitive skills one needs are quite limited, in fact the smarter you are the harder trading seems to be as there is a constant desire to tinker or set off on a quest for the Holy Grail. LB often says that you need to be smart enough to write a trading plan and dumb enough to follow it religiously and this seems about right.

What does inevitably defeat people is their own psychology and inability to either adapt or let go of their most deeply held beliefs about trading and themselves. As an example I was in the background when LB had a conversation with a trader recently and this particular individual was so wedded to things they had heard on internet chat forums that they simply couldn’t let them go despite them being wrong.  A major point of contention was their belief that you had to get the majority of your trades right or you just couldn’t make money. This is clearly incorrect and can be shown to be show quite quickly. The table below looks at the percentage of winning trades needed to be profitable based upon the average R multiple of each trade.

Ruin

As you might expect the larger your average R the larger the effective buffer you have to insulate you from being incorrect and since being incorrect is the default state for traders this is a handy thing to know. This is of course a simulation and the real world is a little bit dirtier than this so I went back and looked one of my short term systems for the past four years. Surprisingly, for a short term system it trades quite infrequently. The results presented below are from the S&P/ASX200 which is one of the instruments in the portfolio I trade with this approach.

R

If you were simply judging this system on the number of trades it got right then you would consider it to be a bit of a disappointment but each year it has been profitable. This profitability is based upon catching one or two big moves during the year and simply hanging on. This is what saved the system in 2015 when it made no money for the bulk of the year. This highlights the dichotomy that appears in trading – there are traders who trade for entertainment and part of this is having your ego massaged by thinking you are correct. And then there are those of us who trade simply for money. If I am to be charitable it is quite natural for people to think that you need to get the majority of trades correct in order to win since we are geared to accept reward as being commensurate with being right.

All of the above is predicated on two things – they are average returns over time and it is this notion of the deep time needed in trading that causes people difficulty. You have to allow the system time to build momentum and for you to get used to its ebbs and flows. As I seem to repeat endlessly trading is not a lottery you dont suddenly wake up one day and make $20 million. You grind away over time.

Talk A Good Game

Interesting snip from the abstract of this piece

We show that investors base their decisions on perceptions of the responsible investment manager shaped by manager-written texts. Relying on a novel dataset of a European social trading platform including self-descriptions from portfolio managers, we show that a positive emotional tone of these descriptions lowers portfolio inflows. We find no significant differences in performance and risk taking of managers. By testing the underlying mechanism in an experiment, our results reveal that the use of positive tone leads to lower portfolio inflows because managers are perceived as less competent. Our results thus provide evidence of taste based discrimination with investors misattributing less competence to managers.

It seems at least in Europe that if a money manager talks positively about their performance then they experience lower capital inflows compared to those who opt for more toned down or negative approach. The more positive you are the less money you get to manage. My initial thoughts are I wonder if this is a distinctly cultural phenomena – that is a reflection of a more conservative European mindset and perhaps not universal. Alternatively it could be a function of the human desire to buy something that it is not doing well or which they perceive to be a bargain. To investors negative self  descriptions may reflect a chance of a turnaround. In some ways akin to the Australian notion of a crap football team being due for a win and therefore worthy of a punt.

Starting Dates

When I was banging on about EFT’s last week I made the point in passing that when you are looking at trading systems that the start date is everything and it is the point at which most of the fudging of results occurs. As an example I took a hypothetical passive system and began to change the starting date of the system to highlight this problem. The chart below shows a series of start dates counting down from ten years ago to today. So if I had started this system and traded it for ten years its annualised return would be 3.6%. Whereas if I had started the system seven years ago my annualised return would only be 1.1%.ReturnsAs you can see changing the start date changes the annualised return that is generated by the system. The worst returns have occurred in recent times with the best being five years ago. It doesn’t take much to work out which you might include in your marketing material if you wanted to cast yourself in the best light. This problem can occur on even shorter time frames such as moving the start date from one month to another.

The problem is also has nuance that catches the unwary; annualised returns are simply a nonsense measure when viewed in isolation because of problems with the construction of averages. For example imagine you invest $100,000 in a fund that in the first year generates a 100% return and then in the second year losses 50%. How much have you made, if you were to a look at the yearly average return you would calculate that 100%-50%/2 = 25% and the fund manager could rightly claim to make this average figure. However, your true return which is the only one that matters is zero.

True returns are given by an equity curve with as much data as possible – this gives you some idea of the trajectory of an account under a variety of conditions. This is then supplemented by looking at the drawdown curve of the system to give you an idea of how rough the ride. So for our hypothetical system above if I take the start date of 10 years ago I get an annualised return of 3.6% but a maximum drawdown of 44.5% because the system is caught by the GFC and being passive it takes no defensive action. Yet if I take our preferred kick off date of five years ago I get a drawdown of only 20.8%. So my system at this point has nearly twice the annualised return and half the drawdown.  Yet the ten year figure is the more complete since it also includes a global shock so it shows the true performance of the system whilst under pressure.

This leaves us with the problem of how to deal with this in a real world situation where this data might not be forth coming. Fortunately we can reduce this problem to a simple rule. If a system does not immediately show a drawdown or has a smooth equity curve something is not right.

Position Sizing As A Source Of Alpha

In trading we have a concept known as alpha – that is the measure of skill we bring to the investment process as measured by comparison to a given benchmark. Traditionally we think of generating alpha via our instrument selection or timing. The aim of being a trend follower or momentum trader is to buy instruments that are moving in the right direction. The naive trader or investor see;s this as some form of prediction when in actual fact it is simply a bet. The philosophy behind this is that the ones you get right pay for the ones you get wrong and once or twice a year you get a trade that does extremely well. The trick is not to go broke waiting for the one that does extremely well. And it is this not going broke that is the key to the entire equation.

If you look at fund managers or hedge funds who have gone broke you notice that what has sent them broke has been what I would called a conviction bet. The are absolutely and completely convinced of their opinion, as such they effectively bet the farm on a given trade or series of trades. This is much more common than you would think and has been responsible for some spectacular collapses, the most notably was Long Term Capital Management in 1998. More recently we have seen Bill Ackman of Pershing Square drop what is conservatively estimated at in excess of $500 million on a bet that Herbalife was a pyramid scheme. The notion of conviction bets reveals more about the psychology of the traders placing the bets than it does about their methodology since their methodology is simply to bet big and hang on.

This recent paper by Novus looks at the notion of position sizing/money management as a source of deriving alpha, that is profitability is derived by sizing bets correctly and as you might assume not going broke. Novus make an interesting point –
Many elite managers owe most of their winnings to their ability to consistently generate value through sizing decisions. In other words, they consistently make accurate sizing decisions. To that end, position sizing alpha is a good measure to evaluate the sizing decisions made by a manager and assess their skill at optimizing a portfolio – at least with regards to relative performance of their own positions.

This underlines survivability as the key issue in being profitable – it might seem obvious but to the funds management industry it isn’t. You can read the entire report here but there is a point they make that I want to concentrate on

We found that more than half of the managers in our universe benefit from position sizing in absolute return terms. Since January 2010 through the end of last year, 57.5% of our HFU managers outperformed equally-weighted versions of themselves, and 41% underperformed. The remainder saw no difference in annualized return due to sizing.

My view of this is that it is not the winning positions that they sized correctly but rather the losing ones which were sized correctly which influenced their performance. This meant that no single trade had a disproportionately negative impact upon the portfolio. None of them experienced a situation where they had the bulk of their fund in a single instrument that tanked taking them with it. As an historical example of what can happen when you have a concentration of bets consider the fate of the somewhat aptly named Tokyo based Eifuku Hedge Fund. This fund in the space of nine days lost effectively all of its capital due to its bets in three trade groups.

If there were a take home lesson in this it would be to pay defence and wait for the winners to reveal themselves. However, this presents a problem since it requires the trader to admit when they were wrong and to admit that mistake and act accordingly. The means that the traditional mechanisms we put in place to defend our ego have to disappear in order for us to be successful.

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.