Archive for March, 2010

In A Crisis In Quant Confidence*, Abnormal Returns has a superb post on Scott Patterson’s recounting in his book The Quants of the reactions of several quantitative fund managers to the massive reversal in 2007:

In 2007 everything seemed to go wrong for these quants, who up until this point in time, had been coining profits.

This inevitably led to some introspection on the part of these investors as they saw their funds take massive performance hits.  Nearly all were forced to reduce their positions and risks in light of this massive drawdown.  In short, these investors were looking at their models seeing where they went wrong.  Patterson writes:

Throttled quants everywhere were suddenly engaged in a prolonged bout of soul-searching, questioning whether all their brilliant strategies were an illusion, pure luck that happened to work during a period of dramatic growth, economic prosperity, and excessive leverage that lifted everyone’s boat.

Here Patterson puts his finger on the question that vexes anyone who has ever invested, made money for a time and then given some back: Does my strategy actually work or have I been lucky? It’s what I like to call The Fear, and there’s really no simple salve for it.

The complicating factor in the application of any investing strategy, and the basis for The Fear, is that even exceptionally well-performed strategies will both underperform the market and have negative periods that can extend for three, five or, on rare occasions, more years. Take, for example, the following back-test of a simple value strategy over the period 2002 to the present. The portfolio consisted of thirty stocks drawn from the Russell 3000 rebalanced daily and allowing 0.5% for slippage:

(Click to enlarge)

The simple value strategy returns a comically huge 2,450% over the 8 1/4 years, leaving the Russell 3000 Index in its wake (the Russell 3000 is up 9% for the entire period). 2,450% over the 8 1/4 years is an average annual compound return of 47%. That annual compound return figure is, however, misleading. It’s not a smooth upward ride at a 47% rate from 100 to 2,550. There are periods of huge returns, and, as the next chart shows, periods of substantial losses:

(Click to enlarge)

From January 2007 to December 2008, the simple value strategy lost 20% of its value, and was down 40% at its nadir. Taken from 2006, the strategy is square. That’s three years with no returns to show for it. It’s hard to believe that the two charts show the same strategy. If your investment experience starts in a down period like this, I’d suggest that you’re unlikely to use that strategy ever again. If you’re a professional investor and your fund launches into one of these periods, you’re driving trucks. Conversely, if you started in 2002 or 2009, your returns were excellent, and you’re genius. Neither conclusion is a fair one.

Abnormal Returns says of the correct conclusion to draw from performance:

An unexpectedly large drawdown may mark the failure of the model or may simply be the result of bad luck. The fact is that the decision will only be validated in hindsight. In either case it represents a chink in the armor of the human-free investment process. Ultimately every portfolio is run by a (fallible) human, whether they choose to admit it or not.

In this respect quantitative investing is not unlike discretionary investing. At some point every investor will face the choice of continuing to use their method despite losses or choosing to modify or replace the current methodology. So while quantitative investing may automate much of the investment process it still requires human input. In the end every quant model has a human with their hand on the power plug ready to pull it if things go badly wrong.

At an abstract, intellectual level, an adherence to a philosophy like value – with its focus on logic, discipline and character – alleviates some of the pain. Value answers the first part of the question above, “Does my strategy actually work?” Yes, I believe value works. The various academic studies that I’m so fond of quoting (for example, Value vs Glamour: A Global Phenomenon and Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk) confirm for me that value is a real phenomenon. I acknowledge, however, that that view is grounded in faith. We can call it logic and back-test it to an atomic level over an eon, but, ultimately, we have to accept that we’re value investors for reasons peculiar to our personalities, and not because we’re men and women of reason and rationality. It’s some comfort to know that greater minds have used the philosophy and profited. In my experience, however, abstract intellectualism doesn’t keep The Fear at bay at 3.00am. Neither does it answer the second part of the question, “Am I a value investor, or have I just been lucky?”

As an aside, whenever I see back-test results like the ones above (or like those in the Net current asset value and net net working capital back-test refined posts) I am reminded of Marcus Brutus’s oft-quoted line to Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

As the first chart above shows, in 2002 or 2009, the simple value strategy was in flood, and lead on to fortune. Without those two periods, however, the strategy seems “bound in shallows and in miseries.” Brutus’s line seems apt, and it is, but not for the obvious reason. In the scene in Julius Caesar from which Brutus’s line is drawn, Brutus tries to persuade Cassius that they must act because the tide is at the flood (“On such a full sea are we now afloat; And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.”). What goes unsaid, and what Brutus and Cassius discover soon enough, is that a sin of commission is deadlier than a sin of omission. The failure to take the tide at the flood leads to a life “bound in shallows and in miseries,” but taking the tide at the flood sometimes leads to death on a battlefield. It’s a stirring call to arms, and that’s why it’s quoted so often, but it’s worth remembering that Brutus and Cassius don’t see the play out.

* Yes, the link is to classic.abnormalreturns. I like my Abnormal Returns like I like my Coke.

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In a post in late November last year, Testing the performance of price-to-book value, I set up a hypothetical equally-weighted portfolio of the cheapest price-to-book stocks with a positive P/E ratio discovered using the Google Screener, which I called the “Greenbackd Contrarian Value Portfolio“. The portfolio has been operating for a little over 4 months, so I thought I’d check in and see how it’s going.

Here is the Tickerspy portfolio tracker for the Greenbackd Contrarian Value Portfolio showing how each individual stock is performing:

(Click to enlarge)

And the chart showing the performance of the portfolio against the S&P500:

[Full Disclosure:  No positions. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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Zero Hedge has another interesting post, A Quick And Dirty LBO Screen, on the potential for a wave of going private deals. Zero Hedge uses “a simplistic template from UBS” to identify the thirty companies that would “generate the highest stock return should they get acquired.”

Zero Hedge assumes:

…a 4.5x Debt/EBITDA pro forma leverage (as much as TPG would like, 10x leverage is not coming back…Unless Joe Cassano is hired to run Chrysler’s take private group), and also assuming a 40% equity portion in the transaction. In other words, these are the companies that at least on paper have the highest equity expansion potential in a 7.5x EV/EBITDA.

Zero Hedge employs its typically elegant reasoning to identify the companies:

While this analysis ignores whether or not any of these companies actually generate substantial cash flow to cover pro forma interest, or are a logical fit for any financial acquiror, any company not on this list is likely already equity heavy and as a result even if acquired will not result in material upside.

This below list by no means suggests that any of these companies on it will be LBOed: it should merely be used a benchmark for modeling purposes.

Here’s the screen:

(Click to enlarge)

[Full Disclosure: No positions. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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Greenbackd Report

I’ve received sufficient inquiries about the subscription-only service aimed at identifying stocks similar to those in the old Wall Street’s Endangered Species reports to proceed with it. Thank you for your support.

If you would like to receive a free trial copy of the report when it is produced in exchange for providing feedback on its utility (or lack thereof), you can still send an email to greenbackd [at] gmail [dot] com.

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I’m considering launching a subscription-only service aimed at identifying stocks similar to those in the old Wall Street’s Endangered Species reports. Like the old Wall Street’s Endangered Species reports, I’ll be seeking undervalued industrial companies where a catalyst in the form a buy-out, strategic acquisition, liquidation or activist campaign might emerge to close the gap between price and value. The main point of difference between the old Piper Jaffray reports and the Greenbackd version will be that I will also include traditional Greenbackd-type stocks (net nets, sub-liquidation values etc) to the extent that those type of opportunities are available. The cost will be between $500 and $1,000 per annum for 48 weekly emails with a list of around 30 to 50 stocks and some limited commentary.

If you would like to receive a free trial copy of the report if and when it is produced in exchange for providing feedback on its utility (or lack thereof), would you please send an email to greenbackd [at] gmail [dot] com. If there is sufficient interest in the report I’ll go ahead and produce the trial copy.

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Zero Hedge has an interesting article, How To Capitalize On The Upcoming Irrationally Exuberant LBO Bubble, about “the imminent tidal wave of going private deals.” Privatisations are one of the means by which undervalued small capitalization stocks can “close their value gap.” Said Daniel J. Donoghue, Michael R. Murphy and Mark Buckley in Wall Street’s Endangered Species:

Management buy-outs can provide shareholders with the attractive control premiums currently experienced in the private M&A market. Alternatively, strategic mergers can immediately deliver large cap multiples to the small cap shareholder.

Bank of America’s Jeffrey Rosenberg sets the scene for what Zero Hedge calls “the LBO bubble v2:”

They’re back. The combination of the credit market resurgence and tight spreads, attractive equity valuations and ample private equity “dry powder” create the conditions for increasing the volumes of [leveraged buy-outs (LBOs)]. Whether deals will strike at the heart of the high grade market in the form of mega size transactions ($10b+) remains unclear, though the possibility clearly now exists. Unlike the most recent era, lower leverage and more prevalent change of control protections help to limit cram down losses. The IMS Health LBO illustrates the new LBO market dynamics – a $5.9B LBO funded with $3B in debt – where bank and mezzanine debt investors now augment the role of CLOs as key debt providers.

CLOs are “collateralized loan obligations,” which Wikipedia says “are a form of securitization where payments from multiple middle sized and large business loans are pooled together and passed on to different classes of owners in various tranches. A CLO is a type of collateralized debt obligation:”

Each class of owner may receive larger payments in exchange for being the first in line to lose money if the businesses fail to repay the loans. The actual loans used are generally multi-million dollar loans known as syndicated loans, usually originally lent by a bank with the intention of the loans being immediately paid off by the collateralized loan obligation owners. The loans are usually “leveraged loans”, that is, loans to businesses which owe an above average amount of money for their kind of business, usually because a new business owner has borrowed funds against the business to purchase it (known as a “leveraged buyout”) or because the business has borrowed funds to buy another business.

Rosenberg argues that the total pool of available LBO capital is ~$70B. Zero Hedge says, “Should CLOs indeed come back, look for this number to explode:”

Figure 1 below highlights our estimates of the maximum aggregate LBO volume supported by debt and equity fund raising capacity. These amounts represent only the limit on the size of LBO volumes, not our expectations of volumes in 2010. What is clear is that the return of the availability of senior debt financing is key to the ability to fund LBOs and this availability is supported by the new (relative to the earlier era) role of mezzanine debt in the “typical” LBO structure. According to these estimates of market capacity across senior, mezzanine and equity financing, expansion in senior debt financing capacity appears the constraint on the aggregate amount of LBO activity.

Note that this aggregate analysis does not describe the limits on mega size transactions – the $10B and above size transactions that garner greater attention and potential losses to cram down debt holders – as well as gains to public equity holders. That constraint remains the ability to absorb concentrated positions in a single fund. And as we describe more here, that constraint includes the new mezzanine debt financing capacity that contributes to today’s increasing amounts of debt funding capacity for LBOs.

Rosenberg has a noteworthy approach to identifying LBO candidates:

After having argued for the potential for increasing volumes for LBO risk, the starting point for managing that risk is to identify names that are more likely candidates. Since definitively identifying LBO candidates is impossible, we take the other approach: exclude names in which an LBO is infeasible. By limiting the universe down to feasible LBO candidates, we create a starting point for designing hedging strategies. Moving beyond this step is both an art and a science. In the sample trading strategies below, we employ both quantitative approaches as well as bottoms up input from our team of fundamental analysts to identify this small sample of feasible (though not necessarily probable) LBO candidates.

Click here to see Rosenberg’s LBO risk hedging strategies (via Zero Hedge).

Most useful for predominantly long equity investors like us, Zero Hedge also provides a copy of Goldman Sachs’ recently updated LBO screener (.xls), which looks like this (click to enlarge):

Says Zero Hedge:

The companies included represent the names most likely to be looked at actively by PE firms, and where a go private outcome would seem the highest. As such, buying the stock in a basket of the likeliest LBO candidates would be a relatively sure way to shotgun out a few quick LBO-type returns.

This is similar, in essence, to the approach of Donoghue, Murphy and Buckley as described in Wall Street’s Endangered Species, a strategy that performed well over the last 10 years.

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Dr. Michael Burry has been a very popular topic on Greenbackd recently as a result of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short and the Vanity Fair article Betting on the Blind Side. I have posted a link to Burry’s techstocks.com “Value Investing” thread (now Silicon Investor) and another to Burry’s Scion Capital investor letters, but the thirst for all things Burry remains undiminished. The New York Times now has an article, The Origins of Michael Burry, Online, discussing some of Burry’s early postings on his techstocks.com thread. Here Burry discusses his strategy for shorting:

I mentioned that I pick stocks to short based on valuation, not ratios (I ask you to find the correct free cash flow — I bet most people don’t kow they’re working with negative net working capital, either). But I ENTER based on technical analysis. KO could go up or down. The odds are down, technically, but that’s what buy stops are for. This isn’t a long term short by any means. Research on shorts show that profitable shorts make money with small gains, not by waiting for businesses to bankrupt. The small gains are usually there for the picking. Another indicator — if it’s mentioned in Barron’s as a buy three different times <g> — set me onto Wells Fargo.

What’s there to understand about Coke? The business is a KISS model. This gets to my value/short strategy. When people start claiming a business deserves a special valuation above all reasonable fundamental analysis (because of the “franchise”, because there’s so little institutional ownership for a big cap growth stock, because Buffett’s in it, because global expansion will provide endless opportunity, because ROE is so damned high, because it’s nearly a monopoly, because Buffett’s in it…), that’s a short, IMO.

I just read a bunch of Graham, and he doesn’t deal with shorts (I assume it would be “speculation”), but EMT isn’t all that its panned to be either, IMO.

Just trying to think independently,


The NYT has also unearthed a Forbes magazine article from 2000:

VALUESTOCKS.NET www.valuestocks.net Supposedly for value investors, though Warren Buffett might not agree with this definition of value. Run by a 28-year-old neurology resident, Dr. Michael Burry, Valuestocks.net showcases Burry’s own $50,000 portfolio, which includes some surprising choices including Pixar, the maker of Toy Story. Has good information on how to identify net-net stocks (trading for less than assets minus all conceivable liabilities). Accompanying all this are Burry’s incisive reports, as good as anything from Wall Street. One of the site’s best features is a list of essential finance texts, including thumbnail reviews and links to Amazon.com (Burry’s only source of revenue, since he doesn’t accept banner ads). BEST: Original analysis, links to great finance sites, and a must-read book list for value investors. WORST: Limited content is sometimes dated.

It seems Greenbackd is rapidly, if unintentionally, becoming Mike Burry’s Of Permanent Value, which is Andrew Kilpatrick’s encyclopedic collection of stories about Warren Buffett. Incidentally, my copy of Of Permanent Value is around ten years old, which means it’s one-third the size of the 2010 edition (I’m not even joking. Mine came in a single volume, and it now seems to be a three-volume extravaganza. Buffett has been busy over the last 10 years).

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