Archive for the ‘behavioral finance’ Tag

The scariest thing a fund manager’s ever told me

I was just organizing some old notes from last year and ran across this gem of a quote from a mutual fund manager. My notes were hasty, and this is an old interview. So you should definitely take this as paraphrasing, but here goes:

Sometimes you have to know when to ride stocks on the way up even when you know they’re overvalued. I mean, if I didn’t do that, I’d miss out on some serious profits. You ride on the way up and then get out before the bottom falls out.

I’m not going to say who this was, because I don’t even remember the context of the interview. But good lord, does that kind of sentiment send shivers down my spine. Normally, when we think of mutual fund managers, we make a distinction between “growth” and “value”. Value fund managers invest in companies based on its low share price relative to its earnings. Growth fund managers are willing to pay a higher share price because they’re in the business of predicting what those earnings will be several years from now.

Dancing with a bull market

Dancing with a bull market

I feel like “momentum” fund managers deserve their own category — the quoted fund manager was definitely one of them (at least a component of his strategy was, anyway). Momentum investors are quintessential market timers or stock timers. They invest in a stock, not based on any valuation metric or growth estimate, but simply on how the stock price has moved in the past. I can’t say that their strategy is bunk. In fact “positive feedback” has become a pretty well established fact as the driving force behind bubbles like the real estate and tech stock booms. (For an early take on the subject, see a paper by the director of the National Economic Council and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers.)

What bothers me is that those irrational swings in market sentiment that drive price are far from predictable. The fund of the manager I quoted trailed the market each year between 2005 and 2007 (he underperformed the market by more than 25% in 2007) before outperforming in 2008 and so far in 2009 (he outperformed the market by more than 25% last year.)

When you add those periods of under and overperformance up, you get a mutual fund that’s performed a little bit under the average for the market, a little bit over the average for its category, and I imagine has given quite a few investors heart attacks in the process. I wonder how many even stayed in the fund after those underperforming years.

There’s no question that the market has irrational tendencies. But personally, I prefer strategies that count on the market’s return to reason rather than count on its continued deviation from reason. Why? Well for one, ultimately, a company (or the companies a fund holds) is only as good as the profits it gives you. If a share of Company X had an earnings yield of 10%, that means your money is earning a 10% return no matter where the stock price goes. Alternately, and more accurately, you might look at the dividend yield.

Investing with the expectation that the share price will go up is kind of like buying into a Ponzi scheme. The stock will only give good returns as long as other suckers step in and drive it up even further. If you’re the last one holding the bag, and the company doesn’t make enough money to justify the share price, the price comes tumbling down.

As mentioned in a previous post, investors might already be starting to put a renewed interest in dividends. Some studies have shown that dividends, not rising stock prices, have been the source of market returns for some time.

I think of it this way: Pretend the market shut down, and you were stuck holding all the companies you own in your portfolio right now. Wouldn’t you want companies that are paying you money? Shouldn’t a fund manager want the same?

– Joe Light