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!


  1. One of the best post I've read on this blog which I 100% agree with. However there are great PMs and the one that I always look to is Baupost Group by Seth Klarman

  2. They do window dressing to get performance bonus