Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Portfolio Management: The Job

So basically portfolio management boils down to over or underweighting some benchmark stocks. Now that doesn't sound too difficult, why should the portfolio managers or PM be paid exorbitant salaries? And despite getting paid so much, they FAIL to deliver the results?

Well first we talk about the skills needed. The portfolio manager needs to know a lot to do his job. And I really do mean A LOT. If you think in terms of those 300 page university textbooks, it's probably 30-40 of them (CFA has 18 for 3 levels). Plus, 10-20 years worth of global news material, that is maybe volume to fill another 5-10 textbooks.

On academic subjects, first, he needs to know about security analysis, that is the basic bread and butter. Then the financial statements, ie accounting. Of course there are the relevant subjects like economics, finance, business, statistics etc. Well most these are covered in CFA, but CFA just gives a basic flavour. To be well-versed takes years more and there are also subjects outside CFA, like psychology etc.

Then on the non-academic side, there are the 6 major industry groups: Financials, Resources, Industrials, Staples, IT and Utilities. The portfolio manager needs know the dynamics/drivers/issues of all of them. Not to mention there are perhaps close to 100 different sub-industries and businesses in all. On top of that, he needs to be in tune with global current affairs.

Of course, you don't really need to learn and know everything to be a good portfolio manager or PM. Warren Buffett knows nothing about tech and the 21st century new glamour industries right? Though he reads a lot.

Well, you can get away with that when you are your own fund manager and people beg you to manage money FOR them. Alas most portfolio managers are salaried employees and they need to show senior management that they have the knowledge and experience before they get the job. But they certainly are not required put 50% of their net worth in the fund that they manages for others.

That perhaps also partly explain why they are so good at failing to meet their KPI!

Anyways, PMs need to know a lot and be capable of continuous learning in order to make better investment decisions. In most global fund management houses, their jobs go beyond just portfolio management. They need to do marketing, recruitment of analysts, monitor trades and settlements, prepare reports etc. All these perhaps partly explains their high pay. If you ask me, maybe it justifies like 20% of the total package!

Yeah, no matter what, we can never forgive them for not delivering the most basic result right?

But let's go back to over or underweighting stocks. So all the knowledge is just the preparation for the most important part of their jobs: to decide which stocks to over or underweight. This is what determines the portfolio return over the long run.

The irony of this all is that PMs don't think or act accordingly to deliver this result. Partly bcos of the institutional imperative that Buffett talks about. Partly bcos PMs are also humans, subjected to peer pressure and emotions.

Let's just have an example: Say we have PM Ah Gou managing the Singapore portfolio with STI as his benchmark. Naturally, NOL our beloved container shipping company, is in the benchmark.

Now the container shipping industry is very similar to the airline industry. Over the past 20 years, if you add up the culmulative profits of the whole industry, it is a negative number. The whole container industry has never made money for two decades, or perhaps even longer. However, in the boom years from 2005-2007, huge profits were made, NOL became a darling of the stock market. But all the profits were wiped out in just 18 mths. And NOL went from darling to dog. Yeah, the biggest underdog. The co. bled money through its hull and finally came hand in hat to investors, multiple times!

If you are even half a value investor, you would have avoided NOL at all cost. Even traders with sense know NOL is a risky trade, you could lose everything with this one. After all, Singapore is moving to value added services. We are talking about bio-tech, financial hub, education centre, casinos and more high end stuff, more service oriented industries. It was mentioned that SIA can be allowed to fail. Even Chartered got sold finally. How many times can Temasek bail out this loser in a losing industry like container shipping?

But if you are a PM Ah Gou managing singapore stocks, the story is different. After NOL lost a billion dollars and then got funding from its rights issue, analysts are shouting BUY bcos the industry has bottomed. Global trade is picking up, freight rate negotiations ended with huge price increase for the shippers. Indeed NOL rallied 80% or more from the bottom. If you did not overweight NOL, how are you going explain yourself?

So that's the dilemma for PMs, in the next post, we explore in depth about why they never beat the benchmark.

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