Against the Grain: Countering the ETF Craze


I need to tread lightly in this post for a few reasons, not the least of which is that there is overwhelming evidence that a long-term passive index investment strategy has significantly outperformed active investment managers (including mutual funds and hedge funds) over the past several years.  In fact, I feel so uncertain about this post that I have to rely on a cute picture of one of my children to market the post!

Below is a passage from a Forbes article in August 2013 succinctly summarizing the data on active vs. passive investing:

“Using Morningstar’s fund database, we examined the performance of more than 2,000 active US equity funds during the 15-year period from July 1, 1998 to June 28, 2013. Result: only 25.6% of the active funds currently in existence outperformed their benchmarks (nearly 75% trailed the benchmark or had an insufficient track record to compare). Many other studies over extended time periods have reached a similar conclusion, including Standard & Poor’s, which found that 69% of all domestic equity funds were either outperformed after expenses by their benchmarks over the prior five years or had been liquidated during the period from Jan. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2012 (Source: S&P Indices Versus Active Funds Scorecard).”

I don’t dispute the data.  I also would never claim to be smarter than the average professional investor.  But I truly believe that we are at a point where smart, active investment strategies grounded in value-investing principals are going to crush the index returns over the next twelve months, provided the fees are reasonable.  The rationale boils down to timing- passive strategies tend to do their ass-kicking relative to active strategies in strong bull markets  vs. sideways/ bear markets.  And with the huge institutional investors like CalPERS now abandoning active investment managers for ETF’s, it will drive down the fees that active managers will charge and create opportunities for smaller investors to partner with the better active managers.   

For everyone’s sake I hope the market continues to climb steadily, but muted GDP and real wage growth suggests we have a lot of catching up to do in justifying a continued stock market climb.  The U.S. economy and stock market has amazing advantages relative to other investment options in the world due to job growth, a strong dollar and oil production, amongst other factors, but in the end it’s hard to build an argument for outsized U.S. stock market returns next year.  There are still plenty of legitimate headwinds for continued growth- continued deficit woes, ineffective government, historically low labor participation rates, European stagnation, military instability via ISIS and Russia/ Ukraine, not to mention future problems from countries like Venezuela if oil prices spark political instability.  Don’t get me wrong- I’m still bullish on the American economy in particular- I just think healthy investment returns over the next 12 months will require a manager who knows how to pick the right spots vs. the consensus view of an a passive index approach.

Recently Bloomberg published a great article about the demise of many hedge funds in light of their under-performance to passively-managed portfolios.  Specifically, it references that through June 2014, 461 hedge funds had closed shop, the worst year for hedge fund closures since 2009.   Check out the link for a full flavor of their perspective and video dialogue on the commentators’ perspective:


At the end of the day, I don’t have a crystal ball.  But I do have my own personal investing experience over the past 20 years and gut intuition to believe that the current passive investing and ETF craze feels a bit like a bubble to me, despite ample amounts of credible evidence to the contrary.

Intuitively, how on earth can a competitive market be set for the fair value of investment securities if the majority of investment capital is being funneled via a passive vehicle that pays no heed to the intrinsic value of the asset?  In other words, an asset needs to be rationally valued somehow- the less that the value is determined by informed investors vs. index allocations, the more that opportunity arises for smart, active investors who can pick their spots.

Did I mention that the ATG Fund will be open to outside investors January 1, 2015?  Let me know if you are interested in learning more about the ATG investment fund and our specific strategies for 2015.



How to Invest like Bill Ackman  

Businessman Speaking Through Megaphone


Over the last few years Ackman has been a mainstay in financial news for his concentrated bets and loud public voice.  He launched a multi-billion dollar fund that invested in one stock (Target).  He is one of the most well-known activist investors in the business.  (Ackman is an activist for his own hedge fund, not for anything noble or worthwhile.) 

Ackman was in the news this week because he promised the “presentation of his life” about Herbalife (HLF), a stock he has been short for nearly two years.   This announcement alone drove the stock down 11% on Monday.  After actually finishing his “bombshell presentation” Tuesday, Herbalife responded by rising nearly 25% by the end of the day.  I think this proves once and for all how efficient the market can be.  Bill’s power point presentation lasted nearly 3 hours- after recently sitting through the movie Boyhood I cant attest that 3 hours is TOO LONG.  If you need 3 hours to make your compelling case about a stock, you’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole.  In fact, if you can’t tell someone your pitch in 5 minutes it’s likely you are too far up your own ass for any stock idea.

Over the last few years there has been a rebirth of “activist investors,” a title that used to signify shareholders fighting for value for other shareholders over incumbent management that was doing a poor job.  Success as an activist has led Ackman and Einhorn to become kings of self-promotion.   Today activism appears to be a code word for pumping your own positions.    

I figure with our follower count approaching 30’s (in 3 continents no less), ATG is reaching that level where some self-promotion could help move the market in our favor.  I’ll have to work on a fancy slide presentation.  But next week expect some bombshell news about one of our positions.  Or maybe a new positions, it depends on what graphics I think fit the stock choice the best.