Date: May 1st, 2012
Cate: Finance, Risk & Stability

Clarity of thinking and risk: 20 lessons forgotten from 2008 (Seth Klarman)

Seth Klarman manages an estimated $23 billion for his hedge fund Buapost group. He has an excellent sense of risk and an ability to convey his thoughts. Here is an excerpt:

Nowhere does it say that investors should strive to make every last dollar of potential profit; consideration of risk must never take a backseat to return. Conservative positioning entering a crisis is crucial: it enables one to maintain long-term oriented, clear thinking, and to focus on new opportunities while others are distracted or even forced to sell. Portfolio hedges must be in place before a crisis hits. One cannot reliably or affordably increase or replace hedges that are rolling off during a financial crisis.

Risk is not inherent in an investment; it is always relative to the price paid. Uncertainty is not the same as risk. Indeed, when great uncertainty – such as in the fall of 2008 – drives securities prices to especially low levels, they often become less risky investments.

Do not trust financial market risk models. Reality is always too complex to be accurately modeled. Attention to risk must be a 24/7/365 obsession, with people – not computers – assessing and reassessing the risk environment in real time. Despite the predilection of some analysts to model the financial markets using sophisticated mathematics, the markets are governed by behavioral science, not physical science.

Full text with all 20 lessons is available here at the top notch blog, Farnam Street.

Date: April 18th, 2012
Cate: Finance, Risk & Stability
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When central bank balance sheets go boom.

As liquidity disappeared in 2008, central bank’s balance sheets as a percentage of GDP exploded as the public/private central banks stepped into the liquidity breach buying everything in sight while simultaneously lowering rates. The interesting lack of inflation during this period of monetary expansion/creation is a serious indication of the destruction of money and credit that went on in the private sector.

With corporate balance sheets groaning with cash and liquidity appearing to have returned, the question remains; what next? Low rates and massive balance sheets for the next few years, or try to deflate central bank balance sheets.  Current interest rate levels and swollen balance sheets indicate central banks believe the crisis to be far from over. Or, perhaps like Japan the dominance of  central banks in the debt markets is now fashionable. It all feels quite uncomfortable and the Spanish party hasn’t even started yet.

Date: January 26th, 2012
Cate: Finance, Systems
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Long/Short Hedge fund alpha to disappear by 2019?

As a specialist in understanding sources of business value and applying that to investing I was interested to see how the Long/Short Hedge funds are doing. Running through some data from the EDHEC database, I created the charts below. The first chart is a visual showing the L/S hedge fund index vs. the S&P 500.  There isn’t a lot to see there. You would find that the L/S index outperformed the S&P 500 etc. There are of course back-fill, survivorship and other biases associated with any fund database which significantly lead to over stating performance. The L/S hedge fund index shows a .77 correlation with the S&P 500.

Long short equity hedge fund vs. sp 500

The more interesting graph is the one below.  It is a 60 month rolling annualized return alpha calculated by taking the last 60 months of hedge fund returns and subtracting the S&P 500 returns. This shows an annualized alpha experienced on a rolling 5 year period.  From the hedge fund index perspective it seems L/S hedge fund alpha has a negative trend and is due to hit zero by about 2019.

Now hedge fund alpha isn’t really running out, the more likely story is that over the last decade more and more managers having been piling into hedge funds recognizing them firstly as a great compensation class and then selling them to others as an asset class. The alpha hasn’t disappeared, but the number of the participants without alpha generating skill has likely grown so much as to mask the real alpha making it difficult to find the signal amongst the noise of the 2/20 crowd.

Generating long term positive returns means applying a stable allocation process over time and possessing a deep understanding of the source of value from that process. If you run a fund and want a good analyst or portfolio manager call this guy He has delivered 1,000 bps of alpha each year since starting out in 2007 without a down year and is looking for a place to put his analytical and portfolio management skills to work. Columbia University Press is publishing his book The Nature of Value later this year.

Date: January 13th, 2012
Cate: Finance, Risk & Stability, Systems
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Equity drawdowns 1871-2011, the long wait.

People experience risk as a visceral reaction in the form of anxiety, anger and depression related to a sense of loss. The drawdown is a graphic way of showing this experience. The peak to trough drawdown is shown by plotting the last high water mark of a data series as 0 and showing how declines unfold before equalling or creating a new high water mark.

The drawdown tool only makes sense with an ever increasing time series.  Quantitative analysts use volatility to express risk, but many decisions are made based on perceptions. Drawdown is a good way of understanding those perceptions and the patience that may be required with paper loss experience. Being a value investor helps some people to ignore price fluctuations while they focus on intrinsic value.

Plotting a drawdown series is also a good way to understand what holding an asset may feel like. 20 years can seem like a long time to get up to break even. The graph below doesn’t include dividend payments or the impacts of inflation on purchasing power of the asset.

The graph below is taken from a full article available on Seeking alpha entitled The trillion dollar trading system 1871-2011.

S&P 500 peak to trough drawdown 1871 to 2011

Date: November 22nd, 2011
Cate: Uncategorized

On leadership.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them to tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” 

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)