When I was starting out in the investment game I read Warren Buffett's letters from inception, Ben Graham, Phil Fisher, anything I could on Charlie Munger and the rest of the standard investing canon.
Buffett has often said, "I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only twenty slots in it so that you had twenty punches - representing all the investments that you got to make in a lifetime. And once you'd punched through the card, you couldn't make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you'd really think carefully about what you did, and you'd be forced to load up on what you'd really thought about. So you'd do so much better."
Several of my favourite phoney Buffett acolytes have been posting catastrophic losses. It was due. The phoney Buffett acolytes still here are just waiting for their turn to have catastrophic losses.
And I would be underperforming now. Quite badly, even though returns would be positive. Come to think of it, my longs mostly are underperforming now. So are the longs of many fund managers I admire.
And I underperformed an index fund.
And so to my knowledge there is absolutely nobody who is true to the formula and who really runs a concentrated 20 punch-card formula fund.
We have strategies to manage both those problems and the results have been and will remain satisfactory although they will not always glow. There can be sustained periods of dull performance. And whist this is not as hard to sell to clients (or yourself) as a true 20 punch-card portfolio after a couple of years dull performance can become exhausting. Clients who haven't lost any real money will leave - because there is always someone else who is making money - and the grass is always greener - and because clients see performance more than inherent risk in any portfolio - and low risk portfolios can be dull.
Portfolio managers I admire
I still admire Buffett's portfolio management more than I can say. He really is astonishingly good at what I have chosen to do for a living.
But I can't emulate Buffett and nor can anyone else I know. And if someone uses his name to describe their investment philosophy my (likely accurate) presumption is that they are a phoney.
There are other managers I admire. I still think Kerr Neilson at Platinum is a freak but it is awful hard to emulate him though in at least part of my portfolio I try. I worked for him for seven years and have some idea how he does it. [He is unbelievably good at cyclical stocks for instance - something Buffett professes no desire to do and which I lack some of the skills necessary to do.]
But almost every other portfolio manager I admire is a long-short manager who has come to an investing compromise like mine. They aspire to be world-class long investors but irregularly fill their portfolio with more diversified second-class stock picks. And they run short books.
And the short books hopefully make money on their own - but mostly make money at the right times - delivering their profits in down years like 2008, and stripping them of profits in super-strong markets.
The problem is that almost every one of these managers is having a dull patch at the moment. These are people I think are amongst the best in the world. And I think (without naming names) that they are having the dull patch the same way as I am. In particular it is devastatingly hard to find things that meet the 20 punch card test. [If you have one please email me. I am prepared to listen to almost anything.]
So instead they have been buying things which are "ownable" rather than "buyable". In other words things that are sort-of-okay in that if you owned them for a decade you would probably be happy enough but not thrilled with the result. And the results from doing this have - at least over the past year - been dull. [Exception: if you bought pure bond sensitives as an alternative to bonds you did really well - but alas I did not do that...]
And the good long-short managers have found it easy to find egregious crap to short. Stuff where the story has more resemblance to fantasy than reality. The typical tell is massive differences between "the story" and the GAAP accounts".
Some of these fantasy stocks have blown up (Valeant, Concordia) but many are alive and well and when I describe them as fantasy stocks I just get back hostility. And as a rule long "ownable", short "fantasy" has not worked that well. Truth be told it has produced results that somewhere between 5% positive and 5% negative. It has been hard work to go nowhere.
And there are fund managers who are doing better. Some of them have tricks I do not understand (I put David Tepper in this camp - I simply don't get how he does it and hence can't emulate it*). But the ones I do understand I don't like. Their chance of a plus 20 is clearly better than mine. And their chance of a minus 40 is alas even better than that, and that is something I find abhorrent even if the clients are seduced.
Its really hard out there. I don't think it is a time to be greedy, but low to negative yields make it a difficult time to be safe/fearful as well.