I have been on the road quite a bit recently, appearing at several professional conferences around the country. One fellow speaker at a conference in San Diego was Dr. Christopher Geczy, a finance professor at the Wharton School and the new academic director of the Wharton Wealth Management Initiative. His impressive resume features a B.A. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in finance and econometrics from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago. Professor Geczy’s talk was both much anticipated and well received.
There is an entire school of investing that would have you screening for stocks that are making new lows in price on the assumption that the best values can be found in that group. I recently wrote about the strange psychological wiring of value investors who believe that they can outsmart Mr. Market and find investment ideas that are mispriced by the crowd. They are supported in their belief by the study of momentum and crowd psychology which shows that investors often over react to bad news and sell securities at prices well below their intrinsic value. With steely nerves and an ability to see value that the rest of the market doesn’t see, value investors are the heroes of the professional investment universe (foremost among them, of course, is Warren Buffett).
The way we explain our process for managing portfolios has significantly changed over the past few years. It seems that both retail and institutional investors want to hear more about how ‘the sausage is made’ than they did a decade ago. And why not? The financial markets have been difficult to navigate since the market topped in the year 2000 and good consumers want to know how we might fare if the markets remain challenging in the future. While I appreciate the work that has gone into fine-tuning our message, one aspect of our investment process is just as relevant as it was when we started tactically and actively managing portfolios in October 2002: We try to find investment opportunities that have a great story.
How to determine the proper time horizon to evaluate portfolio performance is always a subject for an interesting conversation. In a recent client survey on investment issues, we asked our clients “What time horizon do you feel is the best time frame to evaluate portfolio returns?” The results varied: 16% said “Monthly,” 43% said “Quarterly,” 37% said “Annually,” and 4% said “Over a complete market cycle.” (As an investment professional, I would have selected the last option.)
Most Pinnacle Advisory Group clients are familiar with our view of secular (or very long-term) market cycles. My partner, Michael Kitces, and I first published a paper on secular bear markets in the Journal of Financial Planning in 2006, where we predicted correctly that stock prices were likely to deliver much less than average returns for years to come. In my 2009 book, Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Case for Active Portfolio Management in Dangerous Markets, I reviewed in some detail the rationale for why stock prices can disappoint investors ‘on average’ for decades. (In fact, the “(AGAIN)” in the book title referred to the fact that we’re currently laboring through the fourth secular bear market since the 1900’s.)
Few people bothered to see Trouble with the Curve, a recent baseball movie starring Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams, and most critics didn’t like it. I did see the movie, and without giving away the plot, it is fair to say that the film is a cry against quantitative analysis in sports. Eastwood plays an aging baseball scout with failing eyesight who has to rely on his daughter (Amy Adams) to evaluate the home office’s number one prospect. In the end, all of the number crunching in the world can’t come up with a better analysis than Eastwood, who can hear the sound of the bat on the ball and subsequently knows better than to sign the prospect. It was impossible to watch this movie without thinking of last year’s hit film Moneyball.
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows that the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That’s how it goes,
Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”
October 31rst marked the ten-year anniversary of Pinnacle’s Global Investment Performance Standards (GIPS) compliant track record. That’s a big deal in the institutional investment community — it means that we’ve met the GIPS standard for reporting performance (often required by institutional investors). It also means that we have a legitimate ten-year track record, which is a long time in the investment business. If nothing else, we can show investors our performance over several different market cycles, which is a very useful way to evaluate a firm’s investment process. Importantly, we also have the same investment team today that we had a decade ago. After all, what good is a ten-year track record if the analysts who are responsible for the past returns are no longer at the firm?
“Is poker more a game of skill or of chance?”
For the past three years our insistence on maintaining a globally diversified portfolio has not been especially helpful in outperforming our blended benchmark on a consistent basis. If we use the EAFE Index (the MSCI Europe Australasia Far East Index) as a proxy for international markets, the returns versus the S&P 500 Index (the stock index in our benchmark) look unattractive: