Distinguished Speaker Series: Jane Buchan, PAAMCO

Jane Buchan

The hedge fund industry has been assailed by the media as a costly, underperforming asset class, yet according to PAAMCO CEO Jane Buchan, that rhetoric simply isn’t true. On April 18th, the founder of the Irvine, CA-based hedge fund-of-funds presented to CFA Society Chicago to share her views on the hedge fund landscape.

Buchan is tired of hedge funds getting beat up in the press, and her talk both defended the industry and talked about new opportunities currently being developed. She said that the environment lately has been difficult for active equity managers and interest rates and volatility continue to remain stubbornly low. Some results of this backdrop include:

  1. Investors are focused on beta
  2. Perceived differentiation is low, causing allocators to emphasize fees
  3. Simplicity is key

The market climate has affected the hedge fund industry by giving rise to Alternative Risk Premia (ARP) strategies, which focus on fees and simplicity, and deals and co-investments, which can offer investors lower fees. PAAMCO has been active in developing risk premia solutions, which can be described as a means to access a hedge fund-like return at a lower cost with enhanced liquidity than typical hedge funds. Buchan cited Albourne’s research on ARP that shows $216 billion is invested in these types of strategies today. Somewhat surprisingly, 80% is managed by sell side broker / dealers and only 20% is managed by asset managers.

Despite the media’s negative coverage of the hedge fund industry, there is still a lot of capital in hedge funds at around $3.2 trillion, which has been growing at a fast pace. “It seems like hedge funds are the dog you want to kick,” said Buchan of the media’s view on them, saying she “suppose[s] somebody has to be the villain.” Buchan mentioned news such as the wager between Buffet and Tarrant on hedge funds outperforming the S&P 500. Given the lower market exposure of hedge funds, it is a tough bet for them to win, she said.

Considering the market environment we’re in, what’s an investor to do? “The only free lunch is diversification,” opined Buchan. One example of that is volatility strategies. Buchan said that they often look horrible on a standalone risk-adjusted basis, but on the portfolio level, adding volatility can offer significant benefits. “It’s hard when [investors] add hedge funds for downside protection and there’s no downside,” she said.

“Now let’s have some fun with data,” said the former Dartmouth professor. Buchan showed the audience a number of return histograms and asked them to figure out which asset class they were. One surprise was how concentrated the hedge fund returns were compared to high yield, which had larger tails. Private equity, also a top performing asset class, also had a much fatter tailed distribution of returns than hedge funds. One of the benefits of lower volatility is higher compound returns over time, Buchan said. This is something that current hedge fund investors are well aware of, she said, pointing to the previously referenced $3.2 trillion invested in the industry.

Another positive trend for the hedge fund industry can be found in corporate 10k filings. Buchan said that PAAMCO has been tracking them and has found that corporate defined benefit pensions are moving cash from private equity into more liquid, alpha strategies such as hedge funds. Like all asset classes, there will be periods where hedge funds underperform and outperform, but there is still a lot to like given their high return to risk ratios compared to other asset classes.

Lastly, Buchan encouraged attendees to support women in finance with the organizations Women Who Invest and 100 Women in Finance. Despite a number of studies showing that women can often make superior investors than men, Buchan said that some research indicates that a female hedge fund manager must outperform a male counterpart by 150-200 bps in order to achieve the same level of AUM.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Rupal Bhansali, Ariel Investments

Rupal Bhansali was the featured guest speaker at CFA Society Chicago’s March Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon held at the Chicago Club. Bhansali is chief investment officer and portfolio manager of Ariel Capital Management’s international and global equity strategies. Her presentation was called The Power of Non-Consensus Investing.

Bhansali began with two examples of non-consensus thinking: the micro-lending phenomenon that has helped eradicate poverty in places like India and the rise of Silicon Valley business model that was radically different from what was conventionally accepted. These examples highlighted that non-consensus thinking can be applied to a variety of situations and disciplines, including investment management. Also, this type of non-consensus thinking can drive alpha in investment portfolios. Considering the non-consensus aspect of your research is a great way to determine if there may be alpha.

The aim of institutional asset management is to be correct – correct in your assumptions, correct on your earnings estimates, correct with rates of growth. The problem with being correct is that it gets you to the same place as other good investors. A research analyst that is correct along with the rest of the institutional market is not necessarily rewarded. Fundamental research is about finding alpha, which in most cases is akin to proving everyone else wrong. Being correct and non-consensus provides rewards. The question then is how to be behaviorally different but remain analytically sound?

Bhansali provided an example of applying non-consensus thinking to the investment prospects of a global tire company. The consensus view of this company (and tire industry) was that tires were a conventional part of a car, low tech in terms of manufacture (it is just rubber and steel bands right?), and that the market is driven by new car sales. That view seemed reasonable, certainly a consensus view at the time. She then offered a non-consensus view. Is the manufacture of a tire a simple process that can be copied by a competitor? Turns out no, tire manufacturing is an involved process that cannot be easily reverse engineered. Do consumers consider tires interchangeable? No – they have brand affiliation. The consumer also cares about safety, fuel economy, and performance, which provides the company a value proposition. What drives this market is miles driven, not new car sales. A sector and business that was consensus branded as a low tech, interchangeable auto part, turned out to be a high tech, branded, mission critical good. If you had a non-consensus view on this market/brand, outsized returns were made.

A second example of a non-consensus investment view was provided on the mobile phone market. There was a time when BlackBerry and Nokia were market darlings. In part, these views were based on advanced technology, great user experience, superior growth, and competitive product advantage. The market took those factors to be insurmountable barriers. In fact these companies suffered from an eroding advantage where their products were surpassed by other brands. Apple seized the opportunity to displace these companies with a better product and user experience, offering the market exceptional growth of its own – for a time. Bhansali remarked that the consensus view on Apple has been positive for too long. Apple also suffers from many of the factors that doomed Blackberry and Nokia: alternative options and equivalent user experience for a cheaper price. She also noted that the iPhone is the dominate driver of revenue for Apple. If iPhone sales falter, Apple returns will suffer.

Bhansali’s last example of consensus/non-consensus thinking was particularly pertinent to the audience. Currently passive management is the go to option for investors. It is consensus – low entry cost, simple, easy, a no-brainer decision, while active management exhibits high costs, might have hidden risks, and is an active decision. Seems like there is no hope for active management given this view. Passive management and ETFs are winning and the outlook for active management is bleak. However, what would a non-consensus view of this subject consider? Although passive management is low cost, it is not low risk. Passive management has come of age in a prolonged bull market. It has not been stressed in a recessionary, or bear market. What might occur when large passive funds try to liquidate at the same time? For starters, the bid/ask spread will widen – a crowded trade is a risky trade. The scale that helps keep the cost of passive management low also exposes it to be too big to liquidate. A non-consensus view of active management might consider that the ease of ETF investing doesn’t equal being right, that real active management pays for itself when true active management is identified with active share, fundamental research, and management that has skin in the game.

The audience then offered some questions to Bhansali:

Q: If you believe that alpha is everywhere then the universe of securities is huge, how do you screen down to a manageable amount of securities?
A: Start from a rejection perspective not a selection perspective. Good securities will be the residual.

Q: In your portfolio what type of downside protection do you use or recommend?
A: I do not use derivatives as they are too short term in nature, and one must get the timing and thesis right for them to be effective. Protection can be obtained via investment ideas – using securities that have low correlation with the portfolio.

Q: What makes a great research analyst?
A: Bhansali noted that although it less common today, that being a generalist was helpful to her evolution as a research analyst. She also advised that a good analyst should follow multiple sectors, and always examine the counterfactual – understand what will cause a company to underperform as much as you understand the factors of outperformance.

Don Wilson, DRW Founder, on Why Cryptocurrencies Will Change

Over 200 professionals joined CFA Society Chicago for the February Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon at the W in Downtown Chicago to hear Don Wilson opine on one of the most popular topics in the financial industry today—the $450 billion cryptocurrency marketplace. The mood was focused and inquisitive, as Wilson, the founder of DRW Trading, doesn’t make public appearances often and rarely talks about the relatively new financial asset class of cryptocurrencies. Wilson’s vast knowledge in the relatively lesser known field can be attributable to researching the marketplace since early 2012 and eventually forming Cumberland in 2014, a subsidiary of DRW Trading, to provide market making services as well as hold principal positions in crypto coins and tokens. Today, Cumberland is one of the largest OTC liquidity providers in the cryptocurrency market.  I believe it is safe to say that Mr. Wilson was one of the earliest to have a vision of what a world of cryptocurrencies could look like, which makes his view on the future of this space very interesting.

Wilson echoed that in 2017, an inflection point was reached in the cryptocurrency market.  Bitcoin rose from $963 at the beginning of 2017 to close the year at $14,679—a roughly 1,500% increase that largely took off in the final quarter of 2017. In September of 2017, the CBOE and CME launched futures contracts for Bitcoin giving the asset a much larger and more sophisticated institutional audience. Even the most novice cryptocurrency investors – including those family members talking about it over the holidays —were talking about the price of bitcoin and the hottest new cryptocurrency they got wind of. Although we should pay close attention to the price of bitcoin because it was the first pioneering technology and currently is the largest coin by market cap, Wilson argued that by only doing so we would be missing the bigger picture of cryptocurrencies. The marketplace would also agree with his point.  For reference, in 2013, bitcoin made up 95% of the overall market cap of the cryptocurrency market. Today that number is closer to 40% of total crypto assets.

The technology behind Bitcoin known as the blockchain is predicated upon a framework that enables the transferring of value to anyone in the world without having to go through a centralized agent, today, most commonly known as a bank. Cryptocurrencies instead operate on a decentralized and/or a distributed platform. Benefits of switching form a centralized environment to a decentralized/distributed environment is it removes the need to trust a single organization to both hold your assets and control transfers in and out of your account. The decentralized system creates a much more resilient network that could operate even if one node of the structure went dormant. In a centralized system, if for example a bank is hacked or loses data, the entire system falls apart. In a decentralized/distributed system, there are thousands of independent “verifiers of the truth”, also called “bitcoin miners” who validate transactions for the price of small transaction fees.

 

Beyond bitcoin, there are other types of cryptocurrencies called utility tokens that are the result of ICO’s (Initial Coin Offerings) which raise money with a particular purpose or intent. Wilson believes it is the utility tokens that will have the most meaningful impact on the world going forward. Some examples he noted were Iota (MIOTA) and Civic (CVC). Iota is controversial because the underlying technology of the blockchain is different from Bitcoin. The Iota token was created in an attempt to solve the problem of how machines connected to the internet communicate to one another. For example, your household appliances will eventually all have the functionality internet connection and Iota embarks on how these appliances can communicate to one another in one language. The Civic (CVC) token is another example that in intended to facilitate identity validation. For example, Civic sets out to validate the presence of someone who lives in a remote country that may not have a birth certificate let alone a bank account, but they potentially have an internet connection that can confirm identity and allow for a financial transaction to occur.

There was ample time left for questions and as expected, most questions were in regard to what we should expect for the future. Wilson said we will continue to see great institutionalization of not only Bitcoin but all utility tokens. Investors are finally coming to the realization that the blockchain technology is here to stay and can be beneficial to societies in meaningful ways. When asked if we’ll be handing in our greenbacks for electro crypto tokens, the answer was that we probably shouldn’t expect that anytime soon as they are “unlikely” to replace standard government-issued currencies. Further, we can expect greater regulatory overview going forward which may have initial negative price implications in the very near term but should be positive longer term to strengthen the element of trust in the market place. Greater regulation, further institutionalization, and a nice near-term pull back might be all I need to buy my first (or likely only partial) bitcoin.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Few encapsulate the time-honored principles of value investing as Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO). On January 23, close to 400 attendees gathered at the Standard Club for CFA Society Chicago’s January Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon where Grantham gave CFA charterholders and guests alike the tools needed to spot bubbles before they burst, as well as some food for thought on the environment and renewable energy. Several hundred others watched the presentation via webcast.

“I put this talk together on Halloween which is very suitable for this topic,” Grantham said before going through some ways to determine if the market has reached a stage of irrational exuberance. He thinks that the market is racing towards a near term melt up. But first, Grantham wanted to talk about cryptocurrencies.

In a talk in 2017, he said that he expected Bitcoin to crash before the real crash of equities prices. Since then, Bitcoin has retreated from a high of nearly $20,000 down to just over $10,000, giving the first part of Grantham’s prediction some credibility. “I know nothing about Bitcoin, I just look at it as a historian would look at it,” admitted Grantham.

The question “Are we near a melt up?” kicked off Grantham’s presentation. The expression “melt up” is becoming a frequently searched term on Google, which is another sign Grantham identified as a possible sign of a bubble. The term refers to a sudden flow of cash that drives stock prices higher, often related more closely to momentum and sentiment than underlying market fundamentals. Melt ups tend to lead to their dreaded cousin, the meltdown, and are a key concern for allocators such as Grantham’s firm GMO.

Some other classic bubbles from history include the South Sea Stock bubble, the 1929 S&P 500 bubble and the Dotcom bubble of the late 90s. The 2007 housing bubble was “the best looking bubble I’ve seen,” said Grantham, admiring the chart’s perfect conical shape.

Comparing today’s price chart with prior bubbles gives Grantham some relief. Right now, the S&P 500 doesn’t resemble a classic bubble. Prices would need to accelerate by 60% in the final bull phase over 21 months for it to rank in the same league as some of history’s more noteworthy bubbles.

While markets appear to be frothy yet not quite a true bubble, it’s important to watch out for clues that can help identify a bubbly market. First we can look at the advance/decline ratio. As the ratio declines, that can be seen as anearly warning sign for the broader market, with fewer stocks carrying the market higher.

Valuation is another clue investors often look at to determine if we’re in a bubble. Grantham agrees that markets are very expensive. Looking at a modified Shiller CAPE ratio, there was only one time in history where equities were this pricey. That year was 1929, and it led to a precipitous fall and the largest stock market decline in history. While expensive, looking at price-to-earnings ratios tells you very little about the likelihood and timing of a bubble bursting, opined Grantham. He gave the example of exploding PE ratios in 1990s Japan as one example where a very high ratio led to an even higher ratio.

So if looking at valuation doesn’t work for spotting bubbles, what does? Grantham said that using indicators of market participants’ euphoria is a much better route. Margin buying of equities and outperformance of quality stocks vs high beta stocks are a couple items to explore. The US housing market also is showing some signs of bubbliness. Nobody is talking about housing looking like a bubble right now but there are definitely some signs, according to Grantham.

One absolute requirement for a bursting bubble is a Republican Presidency, Grantham said, pointing to Hoover, Nixon and G.W. Bush as some Republicans who’ve presided over bursting bubbles. Grantham said that he believes that there is a greater than 50% chance of a melt up that would bring the S&P 500 to 3200 – 3800. If so, then he thinks that there will be a 90% probability of a meltdown from there.

Climate change and renewable energy was Grantham’s second topic. “The good news is that technology is accelerating along with the damage [being done to the environment],” said Grantham. Wind and solar power are quickly becoming cheaper than coal and nuclear power. Those developments are forcing investors to consider how they are positioning their portfolios in light of climate change. Alternative energy represents “the biggest transformation since the introduction of oil”.

Oil consumption is set to peak in 2020. With many shale companies remaining unprofitable, Grantham thinks that capital will flow towards renewable energy. His firm GMO has a climate change fund that offers opportunities in this space as do a number of other investment managers. “We live in a world where chemical poisons are deeply penetrating everything, “Grantham said, highlighting reduced sperm count among men, deep declines in flying insect populations and reduced grain production as some of the many troubling signs he sees with the environment today.

Right now GMO favors Emerging Markets and EAFE stocks over US stocks and has positioned its portfolio for foreign outperformance over the next few years. Capitalism has produced its benefits, but fails to account for the tragedy of the commons, with pollution, rampant use of fossil fuels and marketing of opioids still taking place despite the harm caused to human life.

Grantham’s talk was indeed as spooky as advertised, and gave attendees plenty to mull over while considering how to position their portfolios against the backdrop of high asset prices and troubling environmental issues.

 

Distinguished Speaker Series Webcast – Jeremy Grantham, GMO

Recorded January 23, 2018

 

Distinguished Speaker Series: Myron Scholes, Ph. D., Janus Henderson Investors

Nobel Laureate and co-originator of the Black-Scholes options pricing model Myron Scholes, Ph. D., gave a crash course to a sold-out crowd on utilizing risk management over stock selection at the Palmer House Hilton on November 17th. Over 250 CFA Society Chicago members and finance professionals braved a dreary day to learn how options might be used as a predictor of market prices.

Scholes maintains that as investors pursue compound returns, tracking error and portfolio mandates constrain managers to stay close to the benchmark. Management of portfolios is left to asset allocators and active managers will hug the benchmark in times of risk. Relative performance constraints or not deviating from the benchmark is an implicit cost. The take away is that average returns produce average performance.

When looking at bell curve distributions, Scholes suggests focusing on the gains and losses in the tails to manage risk and not paying attention to the averages or the “stuff in the middle”. Every performance period matters and as time compresses, risk increases with compound returns being asymmetric. Letting risk fluctuate around an average can reduce returns. He also opined that with time diversification and cross-sectional diversification being free, time diversification is more important.

So, given all of this, how do we get measures of risk?  This is where options markets come in to provide risk prices. Per Scholes, people ignore valuable options information when they are constrained. As Scholes expanded on this theme, the audience learned about the fallacies of some of our industry’s well-known and highly utilized risk measures. For example, our much loved and used Sharpe ratio does not fit in with this thought process because it is a mean variance measure. The closely watched Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX) gives correlations that are in the center of the distribution. Knowing the limitations of traditional risk measures, how can investors use option information? Back tested options information should be used to see the risk distribution allowing reallocation and management of risk in a portfolio.

The presentation concluded with a question and answer session. Attendees were clearly thirsty for information about this methodology from this industry icon and were interested in comparing it to momentum investing and other popular valuation methodologies.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Mario Gabelli, CFA, GAMCO Investors Inc.

Well known value investor Mario Gabelli, CFA, chairman and chief executive officer of GAMCO Investors Inc. and LICT Corp., addressed a capacity audience of CFA Society Chicago members and their guests at the Standard Club on September 14th. In a wide-ranging presentation, Gabelli drew on his four decades as a money manager to offer his insight and wisdom on the current state of the economy and investment markets. He began by extoling the virtues of a CFA Charter, pointing out that only through the detailed analysis of a charterholder could one understand a business well enough to see how it fits into the economy and how to value it correctly. He encouraged everyone to “keep doing what you are doing” to help our country and make capital markets work even better.

Gabelli touched briefly on two topics he believes need regulatory change. The first was ETFs and the advantage they have over mutual funds because of their tax-efficiency.

He strongly advocated for leveling the playing field with an end to the requirement that mutual funds distribute realized capital gains annually, thereby creating a taxable liability for investors even though they have made no transaction. Every other type of investment requires a sale to generate a capital gain, and mutual fund shares ought to be treated the same.

Second, on tax reform, he said Congress needs to cut the corporate income tax rate to make American firms more competitive with foreign ones.  The protracted debate is only serving to delay new investment that our economy badly needs.

Without going into great detail, Gabelli listed several sectors that he thinks currently offer attractive investment opportunities, including:

  • Infrastructure: Although this is on the top of many favored lists, he pointed out that the American Society of Civil Engineers rates infrastructure in the U. S. as D+, which will require new investment regardless of the political environment.
  • Health and Wellness: Drawing on the trend of an aging population, he recommended investments in vision and hearing care, joint replacement, and obesity treatment.
  • Live entertainment: Gabelli described this as being immune to competition from Amazon (or, more generally, the internet). Noting the high valuations put on sports teams in private transactions, he has calculated that a sum-of-the-parts analysis on Madison Square Garden Entertainment yields a value of zero for the New York Knicks.
  • Equipment rental: A secondary play on infrastructure, but one that he expects to do well even without that tailwind.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Jean-Marie Eveillard, First Eagle Funds

Value investing makes sense; it works over time, so how come there are so few of us?

On August 9th, CFA Society Chicago welcomed Jean-Marie Eveillard, senior investment adviser to First Eagle Funds, at the Chicago Club. The famed investor behind $110 billion First Eagle Investment Management has long believed that value investing can be a lonely place.

The septuagenarian still follows the advice of Warren Buffet and his predecessor Benjamin Graham. “The best book on investing ever written is [Ben Graham’s book] Intelligent Investor,” he said. Despite the sustained popularity of those pioneers today, pure value investing is becoming increasingly rare, Eveillard said.

Value investors must shun the wisdom of the crowds, and more importantly, they must be right. Sometimes value investing is fashionable, oftentimes it is not. Eveillard estimates that only 5% of the investment industry practices value investing. The limited embrace of a value tilt is partially due to the career risk portfolio managers face when choosing out-of-favor stocks. Sometimes investing in these stocks may take years for an investment thesis to play out, and asset owners are frequently less patient. The fear of losing a job causes herding into more socially acceptable stocks, and this dynamic makes it very hard for an investor to commit to value. This often tilts mutual funds towards becoming “closet indexers”, said Eveillard.

Eveillard discussed how he uses both qualitative and quantitative in his process. As a value investor, he marches to the beat of his own drum, eschewing the tactics used by marketing-focused money managers.

Jean-Marie Eveillard, First Eagle Funds

“I never spent a penny on advertising,” said Eveillard, contrasting his near singular approach to investing to more commercially-minded mutual fund companies. In his talk, which connected his years working in the industry with the thinkers that most influenced him, one area mentioned was the Austrian school of economics, particularly its 1974 Nobel Prize winner Von Hayek. Margin of safety was also mentioned, with Eveillard saying that it was the secret of strong investors.

Interestingly, Eveillard reckoned that a great deal of his success as a portfolio manager didn’t come from the stocks he picked; it came from what he didn’t own. Eveillard cited a number of examples such as Japanese stocks in the late 1980s, tech stocks in the late 90s, both of which he avoided. Eveillard was asked if he thought there is currently a bubble reminiscent of the late 1990s in today’s tech stocks, and Eveillard opined that today isn’t as bad as the dotcom bust era defined by the epic failures of Webvan and Pets.com.

Covering his use of qualitative data, Eveillard told a story about Enron, saying that he asked a research analyst on his team to look into the firm for a possible investment. The analyst found Enron’s statement footnotes incomprehensible, to which Eveillard responded that if that was the case, they’d move onto something else and wouldn’t invest.

Eveillard noted that so many of the numbers you see in accounting estimates are estimates. He said that in the late 1990s, he would often spot crafty CFOs who would observe the letter of the regulation, but not necessarily the spirit. In some ways, Eveillard said, accounting is more a reflection of a cultural mindset, with more conservative, risk-averse cultures taking earnings provisions on potentially low risk items. A good international investor needs to be mindful of the cultural differences in preparing accounting statements.

On the Efficient Market Hypothesis, Eveillard said that “it denies human nature.” He’d often debate the EMH with his academic friends and they would say that although they might agree, they needed to find a new theory before abandoning an old theory.

He mentioned the topic of moat, a means of ensuring that a company has a long run sustainable advantage. One reason that Warren Buffet rarely sells stocks is because it is hard to find companies with sustainable advantages, and once one is identified, an investor simply needs to be patient.

Given the strong outperformance of growth vs value stocks in the US over the past decade and the dearth of dedicated value investors, a change in investor mindset might be needed before value investing returns to vogue. But patient investors such as Jean-Marie Eveillard will be willing to wait it out.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Brian Singer, CFA, William Blair

CFA Society Chicago hosted Brain Singer, CFA, on July 19, 2017 at The Standard Club to present on the topic – Riding the Waves: Dynamic Asset Allocation (DAA) and Evolution of Top-Down Investing.

Singer is the head of the Dynamic Allocation Strategies team and a portfolio manager at William Blair where he shares responsibility for strategy setting and portfolio construction across all DAS portfolios. He serves on the endowment investment committee for Exeter College at Oxford University and on Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Foundation’s board. He is also the chairman of the “Free to Choose Network.”

In 2015, Singer received CFA Institute’s Distinguished Service Award and has formerly served as a board member and chair of the CFA Institute board of governors. He has written extensively on global portfolio, currency, and performance issues. In 2015, he was also inducted into the Performance and Risk Management Hall of Fame by The Spaulding Group.

While the hot debate of traditional active vs. passive consumes most talks in the investment industry, Singer focused on the other leg of liquid investment strategies, Liquid Alternative Investing. He focused his presentation on the following four broad strategies:

  • Risk Parity;
  • Smart Beta;
  • Risk Premia; and
  • Active currency.

Quest for a superior investment strategy has given birth to many new ideas and terms that have changed the investment landscape as it was known two decades ago. After the advent of efficient market hypothesis and rise of CAPM, we now live in the world of smart beta and where CAPM is seen as dead by many. However, Singer believes CAPM is not all that dead. He advised to consider long-term horizons rather than the short-term when evaluating the relevance of CAPM as his initial remarks. He expressed how Modern Portfolio Theory post financial crisis has been seen as wounded where risks are known to be non-static and non-symmetric and that tail size does matter. He recommends focusing on the Macro investing models with dynamic allocation strategies for dealing with systematic risks in line with return expectations.

He re-iterated validity of CAPM while discussing risk parity strategies from a passive (35% Global Equity – 65% Global Fixed Income) and an active (traditional asset allocation) standpoint.

He also presented how the understanding of betas and alpha in the pre and post CAPM world has changed. In the advent of Smart Beta – Systematized Alpha, he cautioned against considering it as a free lunch and discussed smart beta strategies. He noted that such strategies aim at exploiting “Persistent” systematic risks following an auto-pilot strategy. He also cautioned against them as being static in nature relying on back tested rule sets. Further along in the presentation, he explained how such narrow rule sets can bring about volatility and fragility in the investment process and later provided recommendations to overcome such issues.

While discussing the risk premia strategy, Singer stressed on macro diversification based on fundamentals with a long term focus. For the short term, he advised to utilize unique rule set disciplines to navigate a dynamic path and ignore the media ripples which tend to make investment management process more fragile. He explained differing strategies using an example of a village at the foot of a mountain facing the risk of an avalanche taking extreme actions such as complete evacuation of the area vs. building fences to contain the snow to tackle the risk. He discussed different strategies to cope with risks faced in the investment world based on narrow vs. broad rule sets and impact of such rule sets on the overall investment process and asset allocation.

The speaker also spent a fair amount of time to share the active currency investment strategy. Despite not being an asset class, Singer explained that active currency investment is an effective alternative investment strategy as correlation of passive and active currency with assets is very low. He noted that currencies tend to converge to equilibrium prices (using PPP and IRP) faster (average of ~4-5 years) compared to assets (average of ~8-10 years). He presented varying half-life of currencies and asset classes along with correlation of USD index with monthly MSCI returns being as low as 30%.

He shared his Antifragile Investment Process methodology consisting of identifying and assessing opportunities of value to price discrepancies and designing portfolios with integrated risk exposures. He noted that such investment processes are dynamic, imperfect, progressive and make use of evolving tool set stating it to be analogous to growth of a living organism.

Singer also shared the idea of forming an Antifragile Investment Team for which “cognitive diversity” is key as he believes such team resources back multiple ideas using “wisdom-of-crowd framework” for survival. Such teams work continually to Research, Implement, Perform and Review numerous ideas as opposed to fragile teams which resources back few ideas that cannot afford dismissal.

He concluded by making a recommendation to identify market inefficiencies as dynamic investment opportunities stating: “There needs to be a level of market inefficiency to have market efficiency”. He again stressed on following wider rule sets for asset allocation decisions for a less fragile investment process.

At the end of the presentation he commented on the following questions from the audience:

Big Geo-Political risks to consider

  1. Domestic to US – Impact of proposed regulatory changes to Volcker Rule which may cause tail risk.
  2. International – Follow European Union market especially outcomes of the Italian Election and monitor the risk of national banks going bankrupt.

How to tackle Behavioral Risk?

  1. Incorporate it in Risk Premium.
  2. Since behaviors cannot be predicted, focus on identifying significant behavioral shifts – both frequency and magnitude of signature behavioral shifts.

Near term opportunities in Active Currency

  1. Short on Developed market currencies including USD (currently expensive).
  2. Long on Emerging market currencies.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Gary P. Brinson, CFA, The Brinson Foundation

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On May 24th, a packed hall gathered for lunch at The Standard Club in Downtown Chicago to listen to renowned value investor Gary P. Brinson, CFA, while he shared his latest thoughts on the markets. Brinson founded Brinson Partners, a Chicago-based asset management firm that was acquired in 1994 by Swiss Bank, the predecessor of UBS, for $750 million. After the sale to Swiss bank, Brinson ran the asset management division of Swiss Bank to what later became known UBS Global Asset Management. Many consider Brinson to be one of the investment industries greatest thought leaders, although likely by design, he left the audience lots to ponder in his Investment Market Conundrums presentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using mean reversion with a 90-year historical lens. Brinson started off his presentation with a simple question: “What perplexes you?” and undoubtedly we moved on to what perplexes the investing legend himself. Despite volatility being at stubbornly low levels, the securities market today presents some very unique challenges and opportunities with macroeconomic datapoints that currently have meaningful deltas to their long-run mean. To start, real interest rates on long duration assets have turned negative in some countries across the world. Notably Germany (-0.9%), the United Kingdom (-2.0%), and Sweden (-1.2%) all have 10-year real interest rates that are in negatively territory and Switzerland, even further down the curve, with a negative -0.2% nominal 10-year interest rate. Theoretically it is an investment conundrum to hold capital to invest and to consider where you loan money to a government that inherently isn’t a risk free investment for a return that would leave you with less capital than when you started—and that is without a default!  Theoretically, it is very hard to compute the existence of long term negative nominal rates.

20170524_123647Europe has all sorts of problems; what about the U.S.? The U.S. has a 30 year nominal rate of 2.9% and after backing out a 2.0% inflation target a 0.9% real rate of return. Historically, from 1926-2016, the real return on a 30-year bond in the U.S. was 2.6% vs. 0.9% where it stands today. Mean reversion would call for this 0.9% real rate of return to increase 70bps closer to 1.6%. Turning to inflation, historically, inflation as averaged 2.9% from 1926-2016 and today stands at 2.0% as the difference between TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities) and the nominal yield. Semi-mean reversion says the likely inflation rate should be somewhere around 2.4%.  Inflation is largely governed by the velocity of money which beginning since the start of the financial crisis has plunged. This may or may not be permanent. If permanent, that estimate of inflation at 2.4% is woefully too low.  No economist seems to know why the velocity of money has slowed so meaningfully. Combining the mean reversion estimations, we should be observing a 30 year treasury rate closer to 4.0% real rate of return (1.6% nominal return + 2.4% inflation).  If the 30 year today (at 2.69% at the time of this publication) were to re-price to 4.0%, the value of that bond trading at a par value of $100 would fall to $81 market value.

Market expectations assuming mean reversion.  Now taking these mean reversion theme and looking at the equity market—one can estimate a nominal return for the S&P 500 at 10.0% with 5.8% in capital appreciation including inflation and 4.0% in income including dividends and share buybacks from operating cash flow (Note: ((1 + 5.8%) * (1 + 4.0%) – 1) = 10.0%). One can expect bonds to offer a 5.5% return, and net of a 2.7% inflation assumption a 2.6% real return compared to a 6.9% real return for US stocks. Comparing where we are today to 1926, P/E ratios are much higher, and dividend yields are much lower. There are a number of factors for this, but if one were to only consider mean reversion, one would expect a 2.2% real growth in earnings, leading to a lower market P/E ratio and a higher market dividend yield. If we consider the path were are on as a new investment equilibrium level and ignore the trends of the early 1900s, one could consider stocks to be fairly valued in this environment. Elevated P/E ratios shouldn’t be of concern and real growth rates of 4.8% (6.8% nominal) with real interest rate debt at 0.9%. However, if we believe real interest rates will increase to the long-term average of 1.6% and inflation to 2.6%, we should model returns on stocks to equal 8.0% (3.2% income and 4.6% capital appreciation) and the return on long term government bonds to be 4.0%. What is rather frightening is the market reaction we would see for the 30-year to trade at 4.0%– long term bonds would fall 19% in principal value and stocks would fall 25% in creating these forward desired return objectives.

20170524_130958Volatility expectations assuming mean reversion.  Standard deviation of large cap stocks was 19.9% from 1926 to 2016.  Over the past year, the markets have average 13.3%. Again if we assume semi-mean reversion, volatility should increase to 16.8%. The risk premiums have also been subdued across all asset classes and in a similar manner these should also increase. The conundrum is what we are now finding is both volatility and correlations are remarkably unstable. These lead financial analysts and portfolio managers with a very tough question – what should we use as the input for volatility? The correlations of returns between the S&P and the 10-year has declined meaningfully and recently went negative.

Share buybacks – A return “on” or “of” investment? Share buybacks should be viewed just as a dividend – a return on investment for shareholders. Today the companies that make up the S&P 500 offer a 2.1% dividend yield, and if we add share buybacks as an additional return on capital this figure increases 40bps to 2.5%. However, how much of these share buy-backs are being financed with debt? Brinson pointed out that using debt to subsidize share buy-backs is a return “of investment, not a return “on investment.

Active vs. Passive Management. To conclude, Brinson switched gears and discussed the hotly debated topic of active versus passive management that left many wondering if he and his firm was either an “expert” or “lucky” coin flipper. He gave the example of 10,000 people in a room where each person was tasked to call their coin flip correctly ten times in a row. Out of the 10,000 people in the room, only nine would be able to accomplish the feat of calling heads or tails correctly ten times in a row. Now these nine coin flippers were clearly one of the 10,000 that got lucky – randomness makes one think you’re looking at something meaningful when you’re really only lucky. Randomness is pervasive in the securities marketplace, and if you make the wrong assumptions thinking data has statistical significance is can lead investors to make very poor decisions.

Tying it all together – A Book Recommendation. Brinson concluded with a book recommendation – The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow written in 2008. The book dissects statistical concepts such as regression toward the mean and the law of large numbers, while using examples from wine ratings and school grades to political polls.

Distinguished Speaker Series: Joseph Scoby, Magnetar

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CFA Society of Chicago hosted Joseph Scoby on Thursday, June 8th at the University Club to discuss how markets may be in the early days of a third disruption. Scoby is the Head of Magnetar’s Quantitative Investments Group which includes Alternative Risk Premia and Tactical Trading and brings 30 years of market experience in investments and risk management.

The three stages of disruption can be thought of as 1) active vs. passive in long-only portfolios 2) the advent of smart beta and 3) improving transparency for asset allocation. Scoby then gave three larger themed disruptions in society today, the Human Genome, Horizontal Fracking, and Big Data then expanded to a number of companies which have also disrupted their respective industries, Uber, Amazon, and Netflix. Similar to these aforementioned examples, technology in the market place has allowed managers to see what is going into returns and may be causing a secular change in how we invest.

DSC_3784Scoby gave us three levers of a portfolio 1) asset allocation 2) the manager and 3) cost. When viewing what our portfolio actually mimics, the speaker argued that we could be paying too much for each respective exposure which could lead to increased transparency over time. For example, the systematic return stream of hedge fund managers produced a 0.45 beta, which in the old days or ‘hood closed’ cost investors 2 and 20. Today, the ‘open era’ (transparent era), investor may begin to pay for each part; Alpha, Alternative Risk Premium, Smart Beta, and Beta with varying fees. One may pay 100 basis points for Alpha, but only 0-15 basis points for beta as the Vanguards of the world can replicate comparable results for rock-bottom costs.

The speaker went on to say how alpha is harder to find today given crowding of knowledge and process, as well as capacity issues, which makes cost and execution that much more important (differentiation is harder to find). Going forward, more transparent portfolios may also begin to use alternative risk exposure (return stream derived from exposure to a specific alternative asset class) as a way to differentiate one’s portfolio, and as a result, may earn their higher fees. An example given of alterative risk premium was merger arbitrage; 7% of deals break but most are priced as if 13% break – enabling 5.02% annualized returns with 6.88% volatility for his defined period.

Purchasing alternative risk premium isn’t straight forward, Scoby said, a few firms like Magnetar, AQR, and DFA offer it as well as a few ETF’s.