Friday, September 28, 2012


I’m a huge golf fan. I’m a bigger Ryder Cup fan. So Friday morning was the start of a golf fan’s “best 3 days”. The TV was on but I was not tuned in. I had to work.  I looked up every once in a while to see how my American favorites were doing against their European counterparts, and every time I did something bad was  happening to the  Americans. I saw Tiger hit balls into the woods, I saw Furyk “ lip out” putts, so I naturally assumed we were getting our “collective American butts” kicked in the morning session. Much to my surprise this was not the case. Americans and Europeans were tied when the morning session concluded. It occurred to  me that this must be how many  individual investors feel about stocks and the stock market.

Research points out that this is exactly the case. Franklin Templeton surveyed one thousand Americans in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and asked them how they thought the stock market had finished at the end of the previous year. For the year 2009, in which the S&P 500’s total return was 26.5%, 66% of the thousand respondents said that it had been down or flat. For 2010, when total return was 15.1%, 48% of those surveyed said that it had ended down or flat. For 2011, the return was 2.1%, and 53% of respondents said that the market had been down or flat. What’s worse is that, based on these “embedded impressions” and the continuous negative media drumbeat, these same folks are likely deferring investments or vacating well thought out financial plans. Over $300 billion has been withdrawn from actively managed equity mutual funds since the market bottomed in March of 2009(The S&P 500 is up 115% since then). The money is still trickling out because when people glance up at the screen it looks like Phil or Tiger missed another putt.

I guess the  choice is to pay attention or turn the TV off. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Institutional Bias and the Story of Allied Capital

Over the past weekend, I started and finished the real-life tome Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by famed hedge fund manager David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital.  You could be forgiven for reading the book and thinking it fiction, as the story takes some unexpected twists and turns and at times reads more like a detective novel than a financial narrative.  It's a quick but thrilling read (although that may be over-selling it; I'm the kind of guy whose blood starts pumping when reading a really good 10-K).

The heart of the story is this: really smart hedge fund guy uncovers accounting irregularities at said public company and wages a years-long campaign to raise awareness of the likely-fraud and to ultimately force regulators to intervene.

While the mere existence of practices of aggressive accounting, management opacity, and outright fraud at a public company are distressing, unfortunately they are more common than many investors think.  Mr. Einhorn has done an exception job over the years of rooting out other public companies with such questionable practices.

What is more distressing to me was the burning, unanswered question I was left with at the end: why did it take so long--years, in fact--for the issues at Allied Capital to ultimately be recognized by its shareholders, by the market, and eventually by its regulators?  The stock price of Allied over the ensuing three years from May 2002 (when allegations were first made public) did not visibly discount this information (except in short blips) and actually outperformed the S&P 500 by over 7% per year.

More simply, it paid to be an investor in a company that had decent odds of being fraudulent!

I think the answer to my question, at least in part, lies in the "institutional biases" that motivate many shareholders, private and professional alike, and prevent markets from being perfectly efficient.

To wit:

1.  Few investors do their homework.  While the nitty-gritty details of Allied's accounting practices were laid bare for all to see in the company's regular SEC filings, few investors were willing to roll up their sleeves and do the analysis that ultimately proved incriminating.

2.  Investors love a check in the mail.  Allied's shareholder base had a large contingent of individual shareholders who, as long as they received regular, predictable dividends, did not pay much attention to how those dividends were generated.  They ate the sausage and didnt really care to see how it was made.  These dividend payouts also formed the basis of valuing the company.

3.  Wall Street is a deal machine.  Despite evidence of "irregularities" that should have been as plain as the nose on the face of your average Wall Street analyst, bulge-bracket analysts defended the company "to the death."  Addicted to Allied's regular and lucrative securities offerings, these analysts did not dare to jeopardize investment banking revenues for the sake of honesty.

And so it was, with this biases cemented in the minds investors and professionals alike, that Einhorn's allegations were taken less-than-seriously, and the stock was allowed to work its magic.

*     *     *

In our own search for investment ideas, we constantly remind ourselves to be on the lookout for these biases in other investors.  They are the means by which securities become over-priced and by which they become under-valued.  They are the reason that markets always have been and always will be inefficient.

Many times, these recognizable biases can be a starting point for finding undervalued securities:

Companies with complicated financials whose small but meaningful nuances dont make it into the quarterly press release.

Companies that dont pay dividends in an industry where all of their peers do.

Companies who have no interest in playing the Wall Street game: no continuous equity offerings, unending road shows, or investment bankers on the payroll.

These biases lead other investors to shortcut their decision-making process, usually reaching a conclusion as to whether they should or should not own a stock based on reasons that don't always relate to the fundamental value of the company.  That is our opportunity, and one we seek to exploit every day.