Preserving Alpha through Successful Execution

Alpha is the ability to generate superior risk-adjusted returns compared to the return of an appropriate index. The purpose of most equity trades for managed portfolios is to hopefully create alpha for that portfolio. The hidden costs of not obtaining the best execution can destroy that alpha.

How does the trader know his trade is being treated fairly with respect to other trades being placed at the same time? Is the trade being shown to the right people? The SEC website lists 20 exchanges approved for securities trading. What drives the decision by a trader to use one exchange over another?

CFA Society Chicago’s Education Advisory Group hosted a panel discussion on insights on market structure in the equity market and how this structure affects equity trading today. The moderator was Michael Thompson, CFA. The panelists were Haim Bodek, Nanette Buziak and Larry Harris, CFA. Their backgrounds are as follows:

Michael Thompson, CFA – Mr. Thompson is a Partner and Head of Domestic Equity and Derivatives Trading for William Blair Investment Management. Mr. Thompson began his career in the late 1980s as a securities trader associate with Principal Financial.

dsc_3238Haim Bodek – Mr. Bodek is a Managing Principal of Decimus Capital Markets, LLC a tactical co nsulting and strategic advisory firm focused on high frequency trading (“HFT”) and U.S. equities market structure. Mr. Bodek is the author of two books on market structure and is known as a whistleblower that brought attention to the questionable practices of HFT.

Nanette Buziak – Ms. Buziak is Head of Equity Trading at Voya Investment Management. Ms. Buziak manages a team of equity traders and is responsible for all facets of equity trading and related operations at Voya.

Larry Harris, Ph.D., CFA – Dr. Harris holds the Fred V. Keenan Chair in Finance at the USC Marshall School of Business.  Dr. Harris addresses regulatory and practitioner issues in trading and investment management in his research and consulting.

Mr. Thompson began the panel discussion by briefly speaking about his background and introducing each panelist. Mr. Thompson provided a brief history of the changes in equity trading since the late 1980s. When Mr. Thompson began his career, there were only two exchanges and orders were brought to brokers who announced the bid or offer on the floor of the exchange. There were only two recognized equity markets, the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange. By his estimate there are now 13 well known exchanges and 40 dark pools that can trade, with all trades done electronically. Each panelist made a brief presentation which is summarized below:

Dr. Larry Harris

  • The need for speed critical, you need to be the first in line for execution or the first to cancel if you don’t want to get hit.
  • A buyer grants a “put” option to the market and the market will move away from a buyer over time.
  • Brokers can hide orders or search for hidden orders. Dark pools will not show orders.
  • Limit trades often come with price discretion. Someone with a limit order of 23 might accept a price of 21; however this fact is not shared with everyone.
  • “Maker-taker” fee structures have become more common. The broker will typically extract a fee from the taker and rebate part of that fee in the form a liquidity rebate to the maker.

Haim Bodek

  • There are basically two worlds in equity trading, HFT and non-HFT. Firms that specialize in HFT exploit the structure of the market to take advantage.
  • HFT is not really a quant strategy.
  • The two biggest HFT firms paid substantial fines to the SEC in 2012 due to the work of Mr. Bodek in exposing the unfair advantage of firms using HFT when competing with traders not using HFT.
  • HFT comprises around 40% of equity volume and is still legal to use as long as those firms use proper disclosure.

Nanette Buziak.

  • Her team is composed of traders, analysts and portfolio managers who are all cognizant of trading costs. The team strives to limit the implicit costs of trading.
  • The average print size of an equity trade is around 217 shares; her typical trades at Voya are in the millions of shares.
  • Need to assess what venue is appropriate for what trade. Does the name trade in dark pools?
  • HFT is not an issue as long as she feels her positions are not compromised. Some venues can be more toxic than others.
  • Liquidity appears to be coming out of the market at this time since the dwindling amount of IPO’s are not able to replace firms lost to M&A.

There was a brief Q&A session following the panel’s presentations that touched on the following topics:

  • There was some frustration expressed on how slowly the SEC responds to complaints. Since the SEC must follow due process, it is up to institutions to do their own due diligences on these venues and brokers.
  • Firms that do large equity buybacks in many cases use minority brokers.
  • In assessing what algorithm to use when trading it’s important not to use those that are repeatable and can be used against you.
  • Voya’s portfolio managers know what names are not liquid and they will not build a large position in a thinly traded stock.

In response to where they see the market in 5 years, most participants felt there would be little change in that time. With the new administration, Dodd-Frank might be in jeopardy

The Art of Negotiating Compensation: Getting Paid What You Are Worth

Laurel Bellows is the Managing Partner of her namesake, boutique firm, The Bellows Law Group, P.C. whose practice areas include Executive Compensation, Business Consultation, Business Litigation, Employment Law & Human Resources, and Personal Legal Services.

Bellows focused on tips and topics for negotiating compensation packages, yet frequently widened the scope by noting these strategies are applicable in any type of negotiation.

dsc_3183A key takeaway was preparation is power. Bellows suggested writing out your own, ideal or dream deal to have as goal which you can test to ensure your expectations are realistic. Likewise, one must also take into account whether or not the company’s goal to determine your performance/bonus is also an achievable goal. To assist in this process, Bellows had a novel approach. In addition to using resources such as trade associations, public data (if one is lucky), and informational dsc_3159interviews, she suggested a brainstorming session. Inviting friends over for a candid discussion and feedback over drinks could enhance your preparations.

The key to negotiation is determining what you are worth, regardless of previous earnings. Determine your level of responsibility, skills, and efforts beyond simply whether you are generating a cost or revenue. Ideally monetizing your value will create leverage. More importantly, it will establish a connection to the employer’s perspective with your understanding of the position and potential role in the greater organization. Nevertheless, employers’ key challenges remain; identifying, motivating and retaining talent.

dsc_3162During the initial negotiations, if the employer asks for your compensation target, then assure them that they can come to an agreement. Emphasize you are really interested in joining the team and would prefer an offer before discussing specifics. With an offer in hand, force the employer to specify the numbers of the compensation package first. With a significant pause and a flinch or “hmm…,” counter with a nearly “blush-level” offer. From this dsc_3167point on, your research and preparation becomes your support to confidently negotiate with informed certainty. You have anticipated their counter argument and able to support your case. You may concede a lower initial package if you can have a six-month performance review to have the opportunity to earn a package closer to your initial offer.

Finally, always have a best alternative at any moment. If you are fortunate, it may be taking an offer from different employer or realizing the negotiation will not end in an agreement and walking away.

Check out Laurel’s 10 pointers below:

Bullets by Bellow: 10 Pointers for Successful Negotiations

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare
  • Determine the extent of your counterpart’s authority
  • Set a precise goal. Be able to justify your goal and quantify your demands
  • Put your dream agreement in writing
  • Keep your best alternative in mind
  • Identify other party’s principal goal and best alternative
  • Role Play: Practice your questions. Anticipate answers to questions you will be asked
  • Strategize Timing
  • Your name and your reputation are inseparable
  • Remember: Not every negotiation ends in agreement

Investing in Innovation

 

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From L to R: John Pletz; Bruno Bertocci CFA; Tricia Rothschild, CFA; Matt Litfin, CFA; Daniel Nielsen

If you compare the list of Fortune 1000 companies from ten years ago to today, over 70% of its members have been replaced due to disruptive market forces and mergers and acquisitions. In the next ten years another large batch of less-innovative firms will likely be erased from the index as groundbreaking technology continue to affect long-running corporations, causing a frenzy of movement for companies to stay relevant against an incredibly competitive global landscape. Innovation isn’t just a buzzword for corporations these days, but a means toward survival.

Dr. James Conley teaches a course at Northwestern on intellectual property and made for a perfect moderator to lead a discussion on investing in innovation. To begin, he used the same video he plays for his students as an introduction to the panel discussion. The five minute video introduced concepts around the value and management of intangibles by corporations. There has been a marked shift in the asset composition of corporate assets from tangible (factories, buildings, equipment) to intangible (patents, ideas, processes, code). Now over 80% of companies’ market value stems from intangible resources. The video explained how patents protect IP owners and the difference between utility patents (20 year life) and design patents (14 year life). It also laid out the rules for what can be patented and why the patent system matters. Copyright protection was also discussed, and this can give authors and creators 100+ years of protection. Trade secrets, such as the recipe for Coca Cola, receive the highest level of protection and can last indefinitely. The benefits of intellectual property regimes include providing incentives to inventors to create and advance collective knowledge. They also help consumers avoid confusion from competing products. Intellectual property has been receiving a lot of attention lately from many sources, not just in the startup and corporate world. Conley said that Christine Lagarde of the IMF mentioned the phrase six times during a recent address to Kellogg students.

Terry Howerton focuses on tech investing and has built a technology community in Chicago called TechNexus. He said that he believes that innovation will drive industry performance and most innovation will come from an entrepreneurial community, not from incumbent corporations. His firm became an accidental incubator for startups as he found himself acting as a conduit between major corporations looking to be linked up with startups in order to drive innovation.

Conley said that the shift in corporate assets from things like factories and machines to intellectual property and ideas is as significant as the Industrial Revolution. In his investment process he identified 300 companies with the most valuable patent portfolios. This was based upon his own research that indicated companies with stronger intellectual property outperformed companies with weaker intellectual property. The question he often hears is “How can a single factor model (in this case, IP) outperform the market (often to the tune of 200-300 bps a year)?” He says it is due to most investors’ lack of knowledge on which companies actually own good intellectual property assets, and as a result, those firms go undervalued.

dsc_3136On the financial reporting side, Janine Guillot of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) said her group’s goal is to provide reliable valuation measures to intangible assets, which is often hard to do. She discussed how financial reporting needs to evolve as the percent of a company’s overall market value coming from intangible assets continues to increase. This goal will be accomplished by creating a common accounting language across IP and intangibles that is industry-based. The board has created a set of material, non-financial factors that are grouped into five themes:

  • Human Capital
  • Social Capital
  • Environmental Capital
  • Business Innovation
  • Leadership and Governance

The panel noted that corporate ventures are difficult. Not too many Alphabets (parent of Google), with its strong investing capabilities, exist in the corporate world. Time horizons often pose a challenge, as corporate earnings are measured by the quarter while success in the VC world can take many years. The primary goal of a corporate venture also needs to be due to strategic reasons, not to drive short-term returns.

Howerton told a story about an insurance firm that was bragging about undertaking an IT project that would be the biggest of all time, taking over 36 million man hours. Successfully completing the project, with its immense cost, would be seen by many as incredibly risky. Yet that same corporation would view sending four people off to an idea lab to try to come up with innovative solutions as “too risky”. Companies need to recalibrate to the new realities of risk and failure as the pace of the economic landscape moves increasingly rapidly and longstanding businesses find themselves irrelevant in the new economy.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jimmy Levin, Och-Ziff Capital Management

dsc_3148With interest rates at historic low levels and equity markets at concerning valuations, the subtitle of Distinguished Speaker Jimmy Levin’s presentation on October 4th, Finding Value in the Current Investment Environment, was alluring to say the least. Levin is Executive Managing Director and Head of Global Credit at Och-Ziff Capital Management, a manager of alternative asset strategies for institutional investors. The firm focuses on equity, real estate, credit, and—in particular–multi-asset strategies.  As of the presentation date Och-Ziff was managing approximately $36 billion in assets with nearly half that falling within the firm’s broad definition of the Credit sector. They separate Credit into two categories: Institutional (primarily Collateralized Loan Obligations—CLOs) and Opportunistic. They further separate Opportunistic Credit into Corporate (meaning any single-payer form of debt including sovereign and municipal debt) and Structured Credit which includes all manner of securitized, or asset-backed pools.  Distressed situations are common to both products, and often involve litigation and liquidations. A defining feature of the situations Och-Ziff finds attractive is the opportunity for the firm to exert influence over the resolution of these distressed situations. They prefer to exert this influence in a cooperative manner, but circumstances may require them to play an adversarial role.

Levin asserted that finding value in the current environment requires searching in pockets of the market that are less efficient because institutions, mainly investment banks, are less involved than was the case prior to the financial crisis of 2008-09. Situations involving corporate restructurings were once very big for Och-Ziff but this niche has become very competitive in recent years with more players crowding into the space. Instead Och-Ziff has found success by concentrating their efforts in three areas:

Structured Finance, or working out broken-down, asset-backed products: The securitized market is many times larger than the U.S. High Yield market and the products are more complicated, making for a much less efficient market. The structures were designed to be “bankruptcy- remote” and, therefore, the governing documents do not provide any rules or guidelines for restructuring. That allows a manager able to do its homework and understand the situation to exert a great deal of influence on the resolution.

Market Cycle Trades (essentially market timing): It’s impossible to call turning points perfectly, but a careful manager can make informed judgements on when a market is especially cheap or rich and adjust risk exposures accordingly.  Success here requires that the manager take a contrarian approach, maintain enough liquidity to support opportunistic trading, and be ready to take the opposite side of trades when others are either overly fearful or greedy. Equally important is maintaining moderate risk when the market is not at an extreme valuation.

Bank Disintermediation Trades: Opportunities presented by changes in the regulatory environment since 2009 have reduced the number of market makers as well as their level of activity.  During a period when the size of the credit markets has approximately doubled, sell side activity by any metric has declined by perhaps as much as 80%. The obvious result has been sharply diminished liquidity in all sectors of the market, especially during times of stress such as the first quarter of 2016. These present attractive risk/reward opportunities for managers who are ready, willing, and able to step in and provide liquidity when others can’t. Success here requires patience and flexibility, characteristics that are now lacking in banks because of tighter capital requirements.

The keys to success in all three of these strategies include smart, incisive analysis; astute trading; thorough understanding of complicated structures; and the discipline to be selective about when to enter or exit positions.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jeffrey W. Ubben, ValueAct Capital

Come so far…now the slog

dsc_3125CFA Society Chicago’s Distinguished Speaker Series hosted Jeffrey W. Ubben at the University Club. Mr. Ubben is Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment Officer at ValueAct Capital. Prior to founding ValueAct, Mr. Ubben was a portfolio manager at Fidelity and a managing partner at Blum Capital. ValueAct is a hedge fund that invests in companies in fundamentally “good” businesses that are available at depressed valuations. The company typically manages 10-18 investments with total assets over $11 billion.

Although Mr. Ubben’ s hedge fund is located in San Francisco, he spent part of his life in the Chicago area and is a graduate of the Kellogg School MBA program at Northwestern University. His appearance at the University Club was in part a homecoming; his parents were in attendance.

Mr. Ubben began his presentation with three charts that chronicled the history of the debt and equity markets beginning in the late 1970’s to its current state. They were as follows:

  • “Corporate Equities to GDP”
  • “Governance Timeline”
  • “US Total Credit Market Debt as % of GDP”

The corporate equities and credit market charts illustrated the rapid growth of the equity and debt markets in comparison to GDP. Mr. Ubben blames “fed-induced financial engineering” for the outsize growth of debt.  Historically low interest rates have fanned these flames as companies have gotten a free pass to increase leverage. He lamented the thinking that stocks are the new bonds and feels that stocks are currently priced nearly to perfection. The “Governance Timeline” showed a history of shareholder activism beginning with hostile LBO’s in the late 1970’s to current attempts by shareholders to change the composition of target companies Board of Directors.

Mr. Ubben stated that value investors like him are attracted to what he termed “pain” experienced by many corporations. This “pain” eventually incents corporations to make decisions that will benefit shareholders. His examples of “no pain” were corporate deal making and lavish pay to CEO’s like Google’s Eric Schmidt.

Mr. Ubben briefly discussed three investments recently made by ValueAct in companies currently experiencing “pain”. These were positions in Rolls Royce, Morgan Stanley and Baker Hughes. In each case Mr. Ubben state briefly what attracted ValueAct and what changes were being made to secure a brighter future for each company. Perhaps this was the “slog” he alluded to in the title of his presentation.

The role ValueAct had in the removal of Steve Ballmer from Microsoft was also discussed. Mr. Ubben stated that he merely encouraged management to listen to its major shareholders opinion of Ballmer’s performance. In contrast, Mr. Ubben made mention of Jeffrey Immelt’s action in selling GE Capital’s multibillion dollar portfolio of real estate assets. GE’s share price has since improved markedly.

There was a lively question and answer session following the presentation. Mr. Ubben was questioned further about ValueAct’s investments. These included questions concerning Morgan Stanley, Valeant Pharmaceutical, Trinity Industries and Alliance Data.

ValueAct’s investment in Valeant Pharmaceuticals was one of which Mr. Ubben spoke at some length. He was quick to admit that this was an investment where ValueAct had taken its eye off the ball. They were instrumental in the CEO change that occurred in 2008 which brought in Michael Pearson. However, Pearson became very aggressive and this led to bad decision making.

Mr. Ubben reiterated his advice to go where there is dis-investment as this is a place where there are lower costs and lower volatility. It is important to measure the quality of any business versus its valuation. Despite many stocks and industries being priced to perfection, there are still parts of the market where opportunities can be found.

 

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