Posts Tagged ‘Warren Buffett’

My piece on S&P 500 forward earnings estimates and the overvaluation of the market generated a number of heated emails and comments. I didn’t know that it was so controversial that the market is expensive. I’m not saying that the market can’t continue to go up (I’ve got no idea what the market is going to do). My point is that there are a variety of highly predictive, methodologically distinct measures of market-level valuation (I used the Shiller PE and Tobin’s q, but GNP or GDP-to-total market capitalization below work equally as well) that point to overvaluation.

The popular price-to-forward operating earnings measure does not point to overvaluation, but is flawed because forward operating earnings are systematically too optimistic. It’s simply not predictive, mostly because it fails to take into account the highly mean reverting nature of profit margins. Here’s John Hussman from a week ago in his piece Investment, Speculation, Valuation, and Tinker Bell (March 18, 2013):

From an investment standpoint, it’s important to recognize that virtually every assertion you hear that “stocks are reasonably valued” is an assertion that rests on the use of a single year of earnings as a proxy for the entire long-term stream of future corporate profitability.  This is usually based on Wall Street analyst estimates of year-ahead “forward operating earnings.” The difficulty here is that current profit margins are 70% above the long-term norm.

Most important, the level of corporate profits as a share of GDP is strongly and inversely correlated with the growth in corporate profits over the following 3-4 year period.

While I believe the Shiller PE and Tobin’s to be predictive, there are other measures of market valuation that perform comparably. Warren Buffett’s favored measure is “the market value of all publicly traded securities as a percentage of the country’s business–that is, as a percentage of GNP.” Here he is in a 2001 interview with Fortune’s Carol Loomis:

[T]he market value of all publicly traded securities as a percentage of the country’s business–that is, as a percentage of GNP… has certain limitations in telling you what you need to know. Still, it is probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment. And as you can see, nearly two years ago the ratio rose to an unprecedented level. That should have been a very strong warning signal.

A quick refresher: GDP is “the total market value of goods and services produced within the borders of a country.” GNP is “is the total market value of goods and services produced by the residents of a country, even if they’re living abroad. So if a U.S. resident earns money from an investment overseas, that value would be included in GNP (but not GDP).” While the distinction between the two is  important because American firms are increasing the amount of business they do internationally, the actual difference between GNP and GDP is minimal as this chart from the St Louis Fed demonstrates:

FRED Graph

GDP in Q4 2012 stood at $15,851.2 billion. GNP at Q3 2012 (the last data point available) stood at $16,054.2 billion. For our present purposes, one substitutes equally as well for the other.

For the market value of all publicly traded securities, we can use The Wilshire 5000 Total Market Index. The index stood Friday at $16,461.52 billion. The following chart updates in real time:


Here are the calculations:

  • The current ratio of total market capitalization to GNP is 16,461.52 / 16,054.2 or 103 percent.
  • The current ratio of total market capitalization to GDP is 16,461.52 / 15,851.2 or 104 percent.

You can undertake these calculations yourself, or you can go to Gurufocus, which has a series of handy charts demonstrating the relationship of GDP to Wilshire total market capitalization:

Chart 1. Total Market Cap and GDP

GDP WIlshire Total Market

Chart 1 demonstrates that total market capitalization has now exceeded GDP (note the other two auspicious peaks of total market capitalization over GDP in 1999 and 2007).

Chart 2. Ratio of Total Market Capitalization and GDP

Total Market Cap GDP Ratio

Chart 2 shows that the current ratio is well below the ratio achieved in the last two peaks (1999 and 2007), but well above the 1982 stock market low preceding the last secular bull market.

But, so what? Is the ratio of total market capitalization to GDP predictive?

In this week’s The Hook (March 25, 2013) Hussman discusses his use of market value of U.S. equities relative to GDP, which he says has a 90% correlation with subsequent 10-year total returns on the S&P 500:

Notably, the market value of U.S. equities relative to GDP – though not as elevated as at the 2000 bubble top – is not depressed by any means. On the contrary, since the 1940’s, the ratio of equity market value to GDP has demonstrated a 90% correlation with subsequent 10-year total returns on the S&P 500 (see Investment, Speculation, Valuation, and Tinker Bell), and the present level is associated with projected annual total returns on the S&P 500 of just over 3% annually.

Here’s Gurufocus’s comparison of predicted and actual returns assuming three different ratios (TMC/GDP = 40 percent, 80 percent, and 120 percent) at the terminal date:

Chart 3. Predicted and Actual Returns

Predicted and Actual Returns GDP Total Market Cap

Chart 3 shows the outcome of three terminal ratios of total market capitalization to GDP. Consider the likelihood of these three scenarios:

  1. A terminal ratio of 120 percent (equivalent to the 1999 to 2001 peak) leads to annualized nominal returns of 8.1 percent over the next 10 years.
  2. A terminal ratio of 80 percent (the long-run average) leads to annualized nominal returns of 3 percent over the next 10 years.
  3. A terminal ratio of 40 percent (approximating the 1982 low of 35 percent) leads to annualized nominal returns of -5 percent over the next 10 years.

For mine, 1 seems less likely than scenarios 2 or 3, with the long run mean (scenario 2) the most likely. For his part, Buffett opines:

For me, the message of that chart is this: If the percentage relationship falls to the 70% or 80% area, buying stocks is likely to work very well for you. If the ratio approaches 200%–as it did in 1999 and a part of 2000–you are playing with fire.

Gurufocus’s 80-percent-long-run-average calculation agrees with Hussman’s calculation of average annualized market return of 3%:

As of today, the Total Market Index is at $ 16461.5 billion, which is about 104.3% of the last reported GDP. The US stock market is positioned for an average annualized return of 3%, estimated from the historical valuations of the stock market. This includes the returns from the dividends, currently yielding at 2%.

Here’s Buffett again:

The tour we’ve taken through the last century proves that market irrationality of an extreme kind periodically erupts–and compellingly suggests that investors wanting to do well had better learn how to deal with the next outbreak. What’s needed is an antidote, and in my opinion that’s quantification. If you quantify, you won’t necessarily rise to brilliance, but neither will you sink into craziness.

On a macro basis, quantification doesn’t have to be complicated at all. Below is a chart, starting almost 80 years ago and really quite fundamental in what it says. The chart shows the market value of all publicly traded securities as a percentage of the country’s business–that is, as a percentage of GNP. The ratio has certain limitations in telling you what you need to know. Still, it is probably the best single measure of where valuations stand at any given moment. And as you can see, nearly two years ago the ratio rose to an unprecedented level. That should have been a very strong warning signal.

The current ratios of total market capitalization to GNP and GDP should be very strong warning signals. Further, that they imply similar returns to the Shiller PE and Tobin’s q, suggests that they are robust.

Order Quantitative Value from Wiley FinanceAmazon, or Barnes and Noble.

Click here if you’d like to read more on Quantitative Value, or connect with me on LinkedIn.


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This letter from Howard Buffett, the highly libertarian “Old Right” United States Representative father of Warren, to anarcho-capitalist historian and economist Murray Rothbard, if real, is incredible. Buffett the Elder wrote to Rothbard that he “read that Rothbard had written a book on ‘The Panic of 1819‘” and wanted to know where he could buy a copy for his son “who is a particularly avid reader of books about panics and similar phenomena.”

Here is the letter:


The timing of the letter – July 31, 1962 – is interesting. The first “flash crash” occurred in May 1962, and was at the time the worst crash since 1929. Time LIFE described the 1962 “flash crash” thus:

The signs, like the rumblings of an Alpine ice pack at the time of thaw, had been heard. The glacial heights of the stock boom suddenly began to melt in a thaw of sell-off. More and more stocks went up for sale, with fewer and fewer takers at the asking price. Then suddenly, around lunchtime on Monday, May 28, the sell-off swelled to an avalanche. In one frenzied day in brokerage houses and stock exchanges across the U.S., stock values — glamor and blue-chip alike — took their sharpest drop since 1929.

Memory of the great crash, and the depression that followed, has haunted America’s subconscious. Now, after all these years, was that nightmare to happen again?

The article continues that, “although the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell almost 6 percent on that one vertiginous Monday and the market was anemic for a year afterwards, the markets as a whole, at home and abroad, did bounce back.” Good to know.


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Robert Novy-Marx, whose The Other Side of Value paper we quoted from extensively in Quantitative Value, has produced another ripping paper called The Quality Dimension of Value Investing (.pdf). Novy-Marx argues that  value investment strategies that seek high quality stocks are “nearly as profitable as traditional value strategies based on price signals alone.”

Accounting for both dimensions by trading on combined quality and price signals yields dramatic performance improvements over traditional value strategies. Accounting for quality also yields significant performance improvements for investors trading momentum as well as value.

Novy-Marx’s The Other Side of Value paper showed that a simple quality metric, gross profits-to-assets, has roughly as much power predicting the relative performance of different stocks as tried-and-true value measures like book-to-price.

Buying profitable firms and selling unprofitable firms, where profitability is measured by the difference between a firm’s total revenues and the costs of the goods or services it sells, yields a significant gross profitability premium.

Most intriguingly, Novy-Marx finds that “the signal in gross profits-to-assets is negatively correlated with that in valuation ratios.”

High quality firms tend to trade at premium prices, so value strategies that trade on quality signals (i.e., quality strategies) hold very different stocks than value strategies that trade on price signals. Quality strategies tilt towards what would traditionally be considered growth stocks. This makes quality strategies particularly attractive to traditional value investors, because quality strategies, in addition to delivering significant returns, provide a hedge to value exposures.

Novy-Marx argues that investors can “directly combine the quality and value signals and, in line with Graham’s basic vision, only buy high quality stocks at bargain prices. By trading on a single joint profitability and value signal, an investor can effectively capture the entirety of both premiums.

Performance of Quality, Value and Joint Strategies

(Click to enlarge).

Novy-Marx 2.1

Figure 1 shows the performance of a dollar invested in mid-1963 in T-bills, the market, and strategies that trade on the quality signal, the value signal, and the joint quality and value signal. The top panel shows long/short strategies, which are levered each month to run at market volatility (i.e., an expected ex ante volatility of 16%, with leverage based on the observed volatility of the unlevered strategy over the preceding 60 months). By the end of 2011 a dollar invested in T-bills in 1963 would have grown to $12.31. A dollar invested in the market would have grown to $84.77. A dollar invested in the quality and value strategies would have grown to $94.04 and $35.12, respectively. A dollar invested in the strategy that traded on the joint quality and value signal would have grown to more than $2,131.

The bottom panel shows the performance of the long-only strategies. While a dollar invested in the market would have grown to more than $80, a dollar invested in profitable large cap stocks would have grown to $241, a dollar invested in cheap large cap stocks would have grown to $332, and a dollar invested in cheap, profitable large cap stocks would have grown to $572.

Drawdowns to Quality, Value, and Joint strategies

(Click to enlarge).

Novy Marx 2.2

Figure 2 shows the drawdowns of the long/short strategies (top panel) and the worst cumulative under performance of the long-only strategies relative to the market, i.e., the drawdowns on the long-only strategies’ active returns (bottom panel). The top panel shows that the worst drawdowns experienced over the period by the long/short strategies run at market volatility were similar to market’s worst drawdown over the period. The joint quality and value strategy had, however, the smallest drawdowns of all the strategies considered. Its worst drawdown (48.7% in 2000) compares favorably to the worst drawdowns experienced by the market (51.6% in 2008-9, not shown), the traditional value strategy (down 59.5% by 2000), and the pure quality strategy (51.4% to 1977). Similar results hold for the worst five or ten drawdowns (average losses of 35.5% versus 41.1%, 38.9%, and 35.6% for the worst five drawdowns, and average losses of 25.8% versus 28.5%, 28.7%, and 26.5% for the worst ten drawdowns).

The bottom panel shows even more dramatic results for the long-only strategies active returns. Value stocks underperformed the market by 44% through the tech run-up over the second half of the ‘90s. Quality stocks lagged behind the market through much of the ‘70s, falling 28.1% behind by the end of the decade. Cheap, profitable stocks never lagged the market by more than 15.8%. Periods over which these stocks underperformed also tended to be followed quickly by periods of strong outperformance, yielding transient drawdowns that were sharply reversed.

Importantly, the signal in gross profitability is “extremely persistent,” and works well in the large cap universe.

Profitability strategies thus have low turnover, and can be implemented using liquid stocks with large capacities.

Novy-Marx’s basic message is that investors, in general but especially traditional value investors, leave money on the table when they ignore the quality dimension of value.

Read The Quality Dimension of Value Investing (.pdf).

Tomorrow, I show in an extract from Quantitative Value how we independently tested gross-profits-on-total-assets and found it to be highly predictive.

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Two recent articles, Was Benjamin Graham Skillful or Lucky? (WSJ), and Ben Graham’s 60-Year-Old Strategy Still Winning Big (Forbes), have thrown the spotlight back on Benjamin Graham’s investment strategy and his record. In the context of Michael Mauboussin’s new book The Success Equation, Jason Zweig asks in his WSJ Total Return column whether Graham was lucky or skillful, noting that Graham admitted he had his fair share of luck:

We tend to think of the greatest investors – say, Peter Lynch, George Soros, John Templeton, Warren Buffett, Benjamin Graham – as being mostly or entirely skillful.

Graham, of course, was the founder of security analysis as a profession, Buffett’s professor and first boss, and the author of the classic book The Intelligent Investor. He is universally regarded as one of the best investors of the 20th century.

But Graham, who outperformed the stock market by an annual average of at least 2.5 percentage points for more than two decades, coyly admitted that much of his remarkable track record may have been due to luck.

John Reese, in his Forbes’ Intelligent Investing column, notes that Graham’s Defensive Investor strategy has continued to outpace the market over the last decade:

Known as the “Father of Value Investing”—and the mentor of Warren Buffett—Graham’s investment firm posted annualized returns of about 20% from 1936 to 1956, far outpacing the 12.2% average return for the broader market over that time.

But the success of Graham’s approach goes far beyond even that lengthy period. For nearly a decade, I have been tracking a portfolio of stocks picked using my Graham-inspired Guru Strategy, which is based on the “Defensive Investor” criteria that Graham laid out in his 1949 classic, The Intelligent Investor. And, since its inception, the portfolio has returned 224.3% (13.3% annualized) vs. 43.0% (3.9% annualized) for the S&P 500.

Even with all of the fiscal cliff and European debt drama in 2012, the Graham-based portfolio has had a particularly good year. While the S&P 500 has notched a solid 13.7% gain (all performance figures through Dec. 17), the Graham portfolio is up more than twice that, gaining 28.5%.

Reese’s experiment might suggest that Graham is more skillful than lucky.

In our recently released book, Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors, Wes and I examine one of Graham’s simple strategies in the period after he described it to the present day. Graham gave an interview to the Financial Analysts Journal in 1976, some 40 year after the publication of Security Analysis. He was asked whether he still selected stocks by carefully studying individual issues, and responded:

I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.

Instead, Graham proposed a highly simplified approach that relied for its results on the performance of the portfolio as a whole rather than on the selection of individual issues. Graham believed that such an approach “[combined] the three virtues of sound logic, simplicity of application, and an extraordinarily good performance record.”

Graham said of his simplified value investment strategy:

What’s needed is, first, a definite rule for purchasing which indicates a priori that you’re acquiring stocks for less than they’re worth. Second, you have to operate with a large enough number of stocks to make the approach effective. And finally you need a very definite guideline for selling.

What did Graham believe was the simplest way to select value stocks? He recommended that an investor create a portfolio of a minimum of 30 stocks meeting specific price-to-earnings criteria (below 10) and specific debt-to-equity criteria (below 50 percent) to give the “best odds statistically,” and then hold those stocks until they had returned 50 percent, or, if a stock hadn’t met that return objective by the “end of the second calendar year from the time of purchase, sell it regardless of price.”

Graham said that his research suggested that this formula returned approximately 15 percent per year over the preceding 50 years. He cautioned, however, that an investor should not expect 15 percent every year. The minimum period of time to determine the likely performance of the strategy was five years.

Graham’s simple strategy sounds almost too good to be true. Sure, this approach worked in the 50 years prior to 1976, but how has it performed in the age of the personal computer and the Internet, where computing power is a commodity, and access to comprehensive financial information is as close as the browser? We decided to find out. Like Graham, Wes and I used a price-to-earnings ratio cutoff of 10, and we included only stocks with a debt-to-equity ratio of less than 50 percent. We also apply his trading rules, selling a stock if it returned 50 percent or had been held in the portfolio for two years.

Figure 1.2 below taken from our book shows the cumulative performance of Graham’s simple value strategy plotted against the performance of the S&P 500 for the period 1976 to 2011:

Graham Strategy

Amazingly, Graham’s simple value strategy has continued to outperform.

Table 1.2 presents the results from our study of the simple Graham value strategy:

Graham Chart

Graham’s strategy turns $100 invested on January 1, 1976, into $36,354 by December 31, 2011, which represents an average yearly compound rate of return of 17.80 percent—outperforming even Graham’s estimate of approximately 15 percent per year. This compares favorably with the performance of the S&P 500 over the same period, which would have turned $100 invested on January 1, 1976, into $4,351 by December 31, 2011, an average yearly compound rate of return of 11.05 percent. The performance of the Graham strategy is attended by very high volatility, 23.92 percent versus 15.40 percent for the total return on the S&P 500.

The evidence suggests that Graham’s simplified approach to value investment continues to outperform the market. I think it’s a reasonable argument for skill on the part of Graham.

It’s useful to consider why Graham’s simple strategy continues to outperform. At a superficial level, it’s clear that some proxy for price—like a P/E ratio below 10—combined with some proxy for quality—like a debt-to-equity ratio below 50 percent—is predictive of future returns. But is something else at work here that might provide us with a deeper understanding of the reasons for the strategy’s success? Is there some other reason for its outperformance beyond simple awareness of the strategy? We think so.

Graham’s simple value strategy has concrete rules that have been applied consistently in our study. Even through the years when the strategy underperformed the market  our study assumed that we continued to apply it, regardless of how discouraged or scared we might have felt had we actually used it during the periods when it underperformed the market. Is it possible that the very consistency of the strategy is an important reason for its success? We believe so. A value investment strategy might provide an edge, but some other element is required to fully exploit that advantage.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger believe that the missing ingredient is temperament. Says Buffett, “Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ once you’re above the level of 125. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

Was Graham skillful or lucky? Yes. Does the fact that he was lucky detract from his extraordinary skill? No because he purposefully concentrated on the undervalued tranch of stocks that provide asymmetric outcomes: good luck in the fortunes of his holdings helped his portfolio disproportionately on the upside, and bad luck didn’t hurt his portfolio much on the downside. That, in my opinion, is strong evidence of skill.

Buy my book The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market from on Kindlepaperback, and Audible.

Here’s your book for the fall if you’re on global Wall Street. Tobias Carlisle has hit a home run deep over left field. It’s an incredibly smart, dense, 213 pages on how to not lose money in the market. It’s your Autumn smart read. –Tom Keene, Bloomberg’s Editor-At-Large, Bloomberg Surveillance, September 9, 2014.

Click here if you’d like to read more on The Acquirer’s Multiple, or connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. Check out the best deep value stocks in the largest 1000 names for free on the deep value stock screener at The Acquirer’s Multiple®.


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Richard Zeckhauser’s Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable (.pdf) is a fantastic 2006 paper about investing in “unknown and unknowable” (UU) situations in which “traditional finance theory does not apply” because each is unique, so past data are non-existent, and therefore an obviously poor guide to evaluating the investment.

Zeckhauser gives as an example David Ricardo’s purchase of British government bonds on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo:

David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.

The financing of 36 million pounds was floated on the London Stock Exchange. Ricardo took a substantial share. His frequent correspondent Thomas Malthus took 5,000 pounds on Ricardo’s recommendation, but sold out shortly before news of the Waterloo outcome was received. The evidence is clear that Ricardo, in his words, understood the “dismal forebodings” of the situation, including “its consequences, on our [England’s] finances.”

Zeckhauser’s Table 1 below shows the UU world:

UU Table

Zeckhauser says that many great investors, from David Ricardo to Warren Buffett, have made most of their fortunes by betting on “UUU” or unique UU situations:

Ricardo allegedly made 1 million pounds (over $50 million today) – roughly half of his fortune at death – on his Waterloo bonds.5 Buffett has made dozens of equivalent investments. Though he is best known for the Nebraska Furniture Mart and See’s Candies, or for long-term investments in companies like the Washington Post and Coca Cola, insurance has been Berkshire Hathaway’s firehose of wealth over the years. And insurance often requires UUU thinking.

Not all UU situations are unique:

Some UU situations that appear to be unique are not, and thus fall into categories that lend themselves to traditional speculation. Corporate takeover bids are such situations. When one company makes a bid for another, it is often impossible to determine what is going on or what will happen, suggesting uniqueness. But since dozens of such situations have been seen over the years, speculators are willing to take positions in them. From the standpoint of investment, uniqueness is lost, just as the uniqueness of each child matters not to those who manufacture sneakers.

These strategies are distilled into eight investment maxims:

  • Maxim A: Individuals with complementary skills enjoy great positive excess returns from UU investments. Make a sidecar investment alongside them when given the opportunity.

  • Maxim B: The greater is your expected return on an investment, that is the larger is your advantage, the greater the percentage of your capital you should put at risk.

  • Maxim C: When information asymmetries may lead your counterpart to be concerned about trading with you, identify for her important areas where you have an absolute advantage from trading. You can also identify her absolute advantages, but she is more likely to know those already.

  • Maxim D: In a situation where probabilities may be hard for either side to assess, it may be sufficient to assess your knowledge relative to the party on the other side (perhaps the market).

  • Maxim E: A significant absolute advantage offers some protection against potential selection. You should invest in a UU world if your advantage multiple is great, unless the probability is high the other side is informed and if, in addition, the expected selection factor is severe.

  • Maxim F: In UU situations, even sophisticated investors tend to underweight how strongly the value of assets varies. The goal should be to get good payoffs when the value of assets is high.

  • Maxim G: Discounting for ambiguity is a natural tendency that should be overcome, just as should be overeating.

  • Maxim H: Do not engage in the heuristic reasoning that just because you do not know the risk, others do. Think carefully, and assess whether they are likely to know more than you. When the odds are extremely favorable, sometimes it pays to gamble on the unknown, even though there is some chance that people on the other side may know more than you.

The essay is brilliant. Zeckhauser acknowledges in the conclusion that it offers “more speculations than conclusions,” and its theory is “often tentative and implicit” in seeking to answer the question, “How can one invest rationally in UU situations?” but, if anything, it’s the better for it. Thinking as Zeckhauser proposes about UU situations may vastly improve investment decisions where UU events are involved, and should yield substantial benefits because “competition may be limited and prices well out of line.”

Read Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable (.pdf).

h/t @trengriffin via @mjmauboussin

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What do requests for confidentiality reveal about hedge fund portfolio holdings? In Uncovering Hedge Fund Skill from the Portfolio Holdings They Hide, a paper to be published in the upcoming Journal of Finance (or see a February 2012 version on the SSRN), authors Vikas Agarwal, Wei Jiang, Yuehua Tang, and Baozhong Yang ask whether confidential holdings exhibit superior performance to holdings disclosed on a 13F in the ordinary course.

Institutional investment managers must disclose their quarterly portfolio holdings in a Form 13F. The 13(f) rule allows the SEC to delay disclosure that is “necessary or appropriate in the public interest or for the protection of investors.” When filers request confidential treatment for certain holdings, they may omit those holdings off their Form 13F. After the confidentiality period expires, the filer must reveal the holdings by filing an amendment to the original Form 13F.

Confidential treatment allows hedge funds to accumulate larger positions in stocks, and to spread the trades over a longer period of time. Funds request confidentiality where timely disclosure of portfolio holdings may reveal information about proprietary investment strategies that other investors can free-ride on without incurring the costs of research. The Form 13F filings of investors with the best track records are followed by many investors. Warren Buffett’s new holdings are so closely followed that he regularly requests confidential treatment on his larger investments.

Hedge funds seek confidentiality more frequently than other institutional investors. They constitute about 30 percent of all institutions, but account for 56 percent of all the confidential filings. Hedge funds on average relegate about one-third of their total portfolio values into confidentiality, while the same figure is one-fifth for investment companies/advisors and one-tenth for banks and insurance companies.

The authors make three important findings:

  1. Hedge funds with characteristics associated with more active portfolio management, such as those managing large and concentrated portfolios, and adopting non-standard investment strategies (i.e., higher idiosyncratic risk), are more likely to request confidentiality.
  2. The confidential holdings are more likely to consist of stocks associated with information-sensitive events such as mergers and acquisitions, and stocks subject to greater information asymmetry, i.e., those with smaller market capitalization and fewer analysts following.
  3. Confidential holdings of hedge funds exhibit significantly higher abnormal performance compared to their original holdings for different horizons ranging from 2 months to 12 months. For example, the difference over the 12-month horizon ranges from 5.2% to 7.5% on an annualized basis.

Read a February 2012 version on the SSRN.

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I’ve been closely following on Greenbackd the Kinnaras stoush with the board of Media General Inc (NYSE:MEG) over the last few months.

Kinnaras has been pushing the Board to “take advantage of the robust M&A market for both newspaper and broadcast television and to sell all operating units of MEG in order to retire existing corporate and pension debt and achieve a share price shareholders have rarely seen in recent years.”

It looks like Kinnaras has succeeded, with the board announcing recently that it had reached an agreement to sell its newspaper division, excluding the Tampa Tribune, to Warren Buffett’s BH Media Group for $142 million. In addition, Buffett would also provide MEG with a new Term Loan and revolver in exchange for roughly 20 percent of additional equity.

MEG is a provider of local news in small and mid-size communities throughout the Southeastern United States. It owns three metropolitan and 20 community newspapers and 18 network-affiliated broadcast television stations Virginia/Tennessee, Florida, Mid-South, North Carolina, and Ohio/Rhode Island.

Kinnaras’s Managing Member Amit Chokshi has a new post analyzing the sale and the valuation of the remaining rump of $MEG. Chokshi sees the valuation as follows (against a prevailing share price of $3.50):

A 6.8x multiple would imply a valuation of about $8.50/share when using my estimates for how MEG’s capitalization will look post the BH Media transaction and accounting for BH Media’s warrants. By year-end, it is possible that another $10-20MM in debt is reduced which would bring share value up close to $1. The reason the jump is so significant is because each dollar of cash flow erases some very expensive debt. In addition, pure-play broadcasters are valued from 6-9x EV/EBITDA and one could argue that MEG deserves a valuation closer towards the mid point or higher for its peers when factoring the disposal of newspapers and accounting for the high quality locations of its key stations.

Lastly, as I’ve repeated in each prior post, another potential value creation event would be selling off the entire company. BH Media will now occupy a Board seat and I don’t expect the blind subservience other Board members have. Management has demonstrated a clear lack of competence in every facet of managing MEG. The only thing they have done thus far is get lucky in terms of finding a buyer for their assets and providing them financing. As an owner of MEG, BH Media will get an up close look at the type of management this team brings and I suspect will compare the value management adds or detracts. To any sane observer, management is just pitiful and MEG’s value suffers for it.

Read the full post here.

No position.

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