Friday, July 30, 2010

Portfolio Management for Retail Investors

Ok so much so for institutional portfolio managers. On average, they are crap. Once in a while, you find stars like Peter Lynch, Seth Klarman and Warren Buffett. But these exceptional people are far and few in between.

The interesting story about Seth Klarman is always about this book that he had written like ages ago, called “Margin of Safety”. It talks about value investing and it didn’t sell well at all. So it went out of print. But recently, some Wall Street people started to bid for it on Ebay and it was sold for US$1,000!

Well, I got a free internet copy and am reading it. Cost me like S$10 to get it printed and binded.

Anyways, today we talk a little about portfolio management for the retail investors. How can a retail guy like you and me try to do some portfolio management?

Well, first, we must have like a couple of tens of thousands to start with. If you only have $10k. Then you can basically only buy 1 or 2 stocks. There is not much portfolio management to talk about. Just buy the blue chips or maybe buy an ETF and wait for it to grow to like $50k.

The reason why $10k can only buy 1-2 stock is bcos if you divide $10k up buy 10 stocks, you will be paying $40-60 of transaction cost for each stock, which makes the cost 4-6% for each stock and this will eat too much into your return per stock (which is like 8-10%pa).

So for those who do have $50-100k, then you might want to think a bit about which 5-10 stocks you want to buy. Here are some guidelines... Well actually it’s the same guideline, which is to diversify across everything. You definitely don’t want 5 stocks all in airlines or airline related industries.

1. Diversify across industries

So first we think across industries. If you are a conservative guy like me, you may want to allocate like 50% or more of your money to defensive industries like staples, food, utilities, telcos etc. Of course there are some megatrends happening in our lifetime, so maybe put some into resources, China related, or even tech. But you must definitely understand the risks here.

2. Dividends

This is one big criteria for me. I would want to put 70-80% of the stocks into good dividend stocks. Stocks with rising dividend over time, these are the best. Actually, these stocks will usually come from staples or food. So there is no contradiction bet 1 and 2.

3. Geographical exposure

China and Asia are the darlings of the stock market for the next 10-20 yrs. It makes sense to put money with exposure to these regions. This also means that you should look for Singapore co.s with such exposure. I would put maybe 30-50% in Asia, but also provided I can find cheap and good stocks. This might be the hardest thing to do today.

4. Asset Classes

For those who need more security, you can definitely consider 10-20% of the portfolio into bonds. However, since bonds usually pay 4-5% interest only, which you can get with some stocks in Singapore. It really doesn’t make too much sense to buy them, unless you can buy them like 80c to the dollar or something.

5. Structure

So just to round things up, if you can have a 10-12 stock/bond portfolio, it may look like this:

5-6 stocks in staples/food/telco, which includes 3-4 dividend stocks
2 Asia stocks/ETFs
2 Resource/Energy stock
1-2 bonds

One last note, unless you are really good at market timing, it pays to avoid value destroying industries like most of the tech industry, airlines, container shipping, oil refining etc and industries in secular decline like newsprint, general textile etc.

Hope this helps!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How to Fail in Portfolio Management

Portfolio managers as a group has not contributed anything to the society at large. I mean a barber helps to cut people's hair, a doctor saves lives and a teacher educates our children. Lawyers, politicians, portfolio managers, as a whole, subtracted value from the society, if you ask me.

The famous stats is this, and I must state again: more than 80% of all fund managers fail to beat market indices over long periods of time. Some of them do beat the index for like 1 or 2 yrs, only to falter in the 3rd or 4th.

The market is really terribly efficient. The S&P500 has returned 10%pa on average over the last 80 years. Most other indices don't go that far back but academic studies have shown that stocks or equities, returned high single digit to low double digit per annum, on average.

Hence it is not easy to beat the market over the long run. Yes you may have a lucky trade, like buying BP at 250p and now it's close to 400p, a 60% return in 2 mths. But to replicate this for 10 years is another story.

Value investors don't fare too much better. Some studies showed that 20-40% of value funds outperform market indices. That still means that majority of so-called value investors still fail to beat their benchmark! Although they are about twice as good as the average fund manager.

I think there are several factors that explain why portfolio managers fail so spectacularly and it serves to remind us that if we can just adopt the right philosophy, we can avoid most of their mistakes.

1. Herd Mentality

Just a simple analogy. In a shopping mall, when we see crowd gathering near certain stores, bcos there is some event, we gravitate towards the crowd. If we see everyone running for the exit, bcos there is a bomb threat, we run! The market is a transparent place. Prices move every day as investors buy and sell stocks. Portfolio managers eat, breath and think prices daily. Hence when prices move up, they want to follow, and when prices move down, they avoid. Most retail investors also do the same. Maybe some kind of wiring in our heads tries to follow this flawed logic with prices but I think the analogy with the crowd sort of makes sense.

2. Short Investment Horizon

This is a very amazing trend. In the 1980s, the average holding period for a stock on NYSE was 5 yrs, as derived from the turnover volume. ie annual turnover was 20% of NYSE total stock volume or something. Today, the turnover is 200%! The average holding period is then 6 mths! As we know, institutions make up the bulk of trading volume. Hence portfolio managers are the main culprits here. Every one of them is just looking for the next BP trade. Long term investing is for the dinosaurs. But true value cannot be realized in 6 mths. Franchises take time to build. Firms take years to grow. Sadly, nobody is interested. Buy-and-hold value investors are a dying breed on Wall Street.

3. Information overload

Portfolio managers are bombarded by useless information daily. In today's world, we are talking about probably 300-500 emails from brokers, analysts, colleagues etc. Most of these are daily reports of newsflow happening in the world, analysts' upgrades or downgrades and other non-relevant stuff. But PMs, being paid to do some job, are basically salaried workers and couldn't just delete all these emails right? So they spend significant amt of time reading junk emails when they should be reading the real good stuff like articles on this blog. And seriously, when you hear a hundred opinions about a stock, you lose track and get confused.

4. Misaligned incentive

PMs are being judge by their annual performance and not long term performance. If they make money this year, they get the fat bonus. If they lose money, they eat grass. So this scheme basically drive their behaviour to find a 6 mth trade that works. Value stocks that will make you money in 3-5 yrs? Sorry, talk to my hand. Hence it's not a big surpise why the average holding period is 6 mths.

So I guess these are the major reasons why portfolio managers cannot beat their benchmark over the long run. Bcos of the strange nature of their job, some inherent human biases and perhaps most importantly, misaligned incentives that shaped their behaviour. The rest of us, we should do exactly the opposite and generate good long term return!

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.