Michael Lipper: two avoidable investment mistakes

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I have just returned from the quarterly meeting of the Caltech Board of Trustees.

At the meeting we discussed the appropriate preparation of the graduates for their entry into the business world.

A survey of the students felt very comfortable in entering the academic world on the basis of their superb education from Caltech. However they did not feel as prepared to enter the business world and particularly the financial world of Wall Street.

As one of a very small number of voting trustees with current investment activities, I pondered how I could help.

It occurred to me that the very education that graduates from Caltech achieved actually could be somewhat counter-productive to their early success in investing.

This is particularly true for those who go to Goldman Sachs* and elsewhere as “rocket scientists.”

In their scientific courses, particularly Physics, they look for natural laws. These require exactly the same results to be achieved under all conditions of their experimental work.

To the extent that they take Classical Economics they will learn from the works of Adam Smith about comparative advantage where one nation can produce something cheaper than another serving the same marketplace.

The differences in my world are that known conditions are never totally identical and definitely some critical elements of information are not known (the unknown unknowns).

For example, some of my fellow aging portfolio managers and analysts are suggesting that the current stock market price structures are similar to the markets that fell dramatically in 1987 and 2007.

I recognize the incomplete parallels, but I suffer from Physics Envy in that I cannot completely accept the inevitability of a meaningful decline. That is why we have been cutting back on our equity exposure rather than complete elimination.

To me a general balanced account with a spending time horizon of up to five years should never have less than 50% in stock or stock alternatives.

There are other differences between their academic exposure and the world of Wall Street. As investors we are not interested in comparative advantage, but competitive advantage.

We need to find ways to bring to our clients and seniors better risk/reward ratios. I suggest the graduates pay particular attention to the risk part of the equation. In the laboratory it does not matter how many experiments you conduct.

In the financial world each experiment has some costs in terms of money or more importantly, time. This is definitely not to say that you should only make an investment when you are absolutely sure.

The late and great Ace Greenberg, the last great chairman of Bear Stearns, built a very profitable and effective trading desk by urging his traders to take quick losses. When I was involved with a trading desk I tried to always remember that the first loss was often the best loss.

Learning to use news

Another useful attribute for the graduates is to learn how to read the news. They need to look for the non-headlined stories. (By the way, most headlines are fully discounted in a short time after they appear.)

Very few of the “talking heads” with their 20 second sound bites will spend much time dissecting the following facts:

In discussing mutual fund net flows they do not make the distinction between the net flows of the traditional mutual fund buyer and the hedge fund and other institutionally-oriented players.

For example, two weeks ago the headline was that mutual funds were net redeemers of equity funds to the tune of $7.6 Billion.

Few people noted that the net result was the combination of the traditional mutual funds having net purchases of approximately $379 million and the Exchange Traded Funds (ETF) redeeming $7.97 Billion in equities. Even those that noted the difference chalked it up to different levels of speculation.

While I am not positive of this, I suspect that a number of macro oriented funds were unwinding their Quarter-end statements which showed a reasonable equity commitment rather than a significant under-investment in stocks. We use to call this approach “window dressing.”

Other potential straws in the wind from the Financial Times include:

1.    John Dizard’s opinion piece stating that there is “…greater systemic risk in fixed income as it easier to leverage.”

2.    John Authers is worried about prime and sub auto loans in his article, “Bubbles are Forming in the Credit Market.”

3.    The three highest dollar volume securities traded on the NYSE last week were ETFs. One of the reasons that I focus on ETFs is that according to the CEO of BlackRock which manages iShares, some hedge funds which are its clients have been using ETFs rather than futures to adjust their portfolios.

These items suggest that the market structure has changed and therefore sole reliance on back data can be misleading. Investors and traders today need to understand the changing structure. The old needs are still there, but they are being expressed in different ways.

Policy makers not thinking

All too often various politicians react strongly to pressure “to do something” about their political base’s current problem.

An old example was the reaction to Walmart when it wanted to open stores in strong union towns.  The local politicians colluded and made it difficult for Walmart to open in their communities.

The politicians and their supporters did not pay attention to the fact that many from the poorer communities lined up to get job applications. Further, there is some good analysis that demonstrates that Walmart itself has lowered food price inflation by at least 1% point.

The latest element of short-sightedness by politicians is the attack on the traitors to the US that practice the art of inversion; i.e. moving their tax domicile offshore.

To the best of my knowledge none of my individual company  investments have inverted. (I can not attest to all of the companies owned by the funds that we own for ourselves or clients.)

On Friday of this past week I listened in on the quarterly earnings call for Moody’s*. While there was no discussion about the company shifting its tax domicile, I started to think about the implications if Moody’s or other companies moved overseas.

Under the law, the management is elected by and responsible to its shareowners. In the case of Moody’s and most “American” companies the vast majority of their direct and indirect holders are Americans. Either they own shares directly or they are part of  some collective; a mutual fund, 401(k), defined benefit plan, non-profit endowment, etc.

Each would benefit if his or her investment paid lower taxes which should translate into higher earnings and dividends and in turn should increase the investor’s wealth and ability to spend money largely in the US. Thus the economy would benefit.

*Stock owned by me personally and/or by the private financial services fund I manage.

There is another class of company that is growing faster outside the US than within perhaps due to both taxes and regulations. Moody’s is one of these. The needs for its services continues to grow faster outside. In order to serve those needs, they employ people overseas.

Years ago when I was the owner of Lipper Analytical Services two of our five offices were overseas. We had these offices to service our American Mutual Fund clients.

We like many others were in effect, following the flag as carried by major financial institutions. This in turn led to discussions with a foreign buyer who recognized from its own global perspective the value of global suppliers to the global investment management business.

While I did not directly create an inversion, by selling to a foreign owner some of our taxable earnings went offshore. If the politicians attempt to stop US companies from reducing the potential returns to their US shareholders, these shareholders will be replaced in part by non-US holders and our tax take will be reduced.

For us to fully understand how our system works in reality, all of us need to follow the money throughout the cycle from initial  investment all the way through the spending cycles.

Question of the Week: In the long run how do taxes matter to you?

A. Michael Lipper is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and the president of Lipper Advisory Services, Inc., a firm providing money management services for wealthy families, retirement plans and charitable organizations.

A former president of the New York Society of Security Analysts, he created the Lipper Growth Fund Index, the first of today’s global array of Lipper Indexes, Averages and performance analyses for mutual funds. His blog page can be found here.