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Michael Lipper: be thankful for risk

Michael Lipper: be thankful for risk

In the northern Hemisphere, this is the season of festivals to celebrate the gathering of a good harvest. In the US, we recognize this tradition as Thanksgiving.

World Stock Markets have been quite kind to investors so far this year as seen through the eyes of mutual fund holders using category averages and highlighting some exceptional performance:

US diversified equity funds +14.34%
Sector funds +9.76%
World equity funds +16.73%
Mixed asset funds +11.25%
Domestic long term debt +3.51%
Leader Global: Science & tech 46.84%
Leader Pacific: ex Japan +38.22%


If the calendar year ended last Thursday night these results would be above average on a historical basis but shows that investing in Asia and in global science & technology issues has produced extraordinary results.

Performance always comes with risk

Investment history is a tale of gains and loses with hopefully some lessons that can be used in the current time frame. This last week we had an example of very long-term rewards from investing in the auction of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Salvator Mundi for $450 million.

In the Wall Street Journal, our friend and columnist, Jason Zweig made a good attempt to quantify the painting’s return, from presumably its first sale to this week.

By his calculations after an attempt to adjust for inflation using gold as a very rough measure, the annual return since the sixteenth century was an outstanding 1.35%.

But even this, by today’s standard low return, was better than cash, gold, and bonds, but not stocks. Another author has calculated the gain after inflation in the equivalent of the S&P500 since 1871 to be 6.9%.

There are two important lessons from this data:

  • First, accepting risk can produce better returns than perceived safer investments.
  • The second that the $450 million price compared to an auction house estimate of $100 million did not appropriately consider that this may be one of only 20 finished works by  the talented artist. Scarcity has a value

This is one of the reasons we favor individual stock selection over sector bets. This has implications for our fund selection process of favoring funds with less than 100 positions and even a few under twenty positions over broad index funds or passive sector funds. To us differences do matter.

Recently we have been reviewing reports on the 13F filings of a number of well-known investment managers. In an over generalization most seem not to have owned a lot of winners in the third quarter, but continue to own and enjoy good results from positions bought years ago.

Whether we like it or not we are all risk takers anytime we get out of bed or cross a street, let alone make a long-term investment decision. In an over-simplified model any portfolio’s strategy can be summed up as capital preservation or capital appreciation or for most, a ratio of the two.

In the above model of comparative returns to the value of Salvator Mundi’s portrait, it is important to note the better performance of the painting over cash, gold, and bonds.

To me there is a quotient of risk in all three of the under-performers that has been viewed as “safe.” For example, cash is not protected against inflation, particularly the virulent type that has been seen periodically through history.

In addition while most of the time the costs of holding cash on account is small, and with minor custodian risks, both have been known to create anxiety for cash owners.

Perhaps the biggest risk in holding cash is a dramatic change in the needed use of the cash to meet needs. If these are true for cash, similar risks may be present in other “safe assets.”

At this time holding US Treasuries could be more risky than generally perceived - based on two bits of news not generally appreciated. The first is analysis by Merrill Lynch echoed by others, that Treasuries are the most crowded trade in the market.

This suggests that there is a supply/demand imbalance with some of the participants not exercising price discipline which may explain why the yields on US treasuries are higher than agencies UK, German, and Japanese issues of similar maturity and perceived quality.

The second and perhaps related bit of news is an article headlined from the Financial Times which said “US Treasury dealers accused of collusion.” There are similar, other cases pending.

The results of these cases one way or another could cause disruption to not only the market for US Treasuries, but also to many markets that use treasury prices as benchmarks in setting the prices for other instruments and markets.

Accepting intelligent risks

Obviously not every single risk works out for long-term investors, but many do.  The key, particularly for our longer term investment accounts is in careful selection of mutual funds.

Two of the matrices that we study are prices and related valuations plus the underlying selectivity as evidenced in the portfolios of mutual funds.

Currently we appear to be in a two-tier market with a couple handful of good performers becoming price performance leaders. This not true for a second tier.

One study points out unlike in 2000 the fifty largest companies in the S&P500 were selling at 31 times earnings. Today the fifty largest is selling at 17.9% which is generally in line with historic records.

One explanation for the high valuations of some stocks is the Charlie Munger belief adopted by Warren Buffet that it is better to “buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

This philosophy depends on the ability to find wonderful companies at fair prices. In my mind, this is dependent on sound and smart investment analysis. A good investment analysis course could be taught exclusively on the wins and losses in Berkshire Hathaway’s* history.

Recently they have been reducing a large position in IBM which perhaps has not yet developed into a wonderful company and have been buying Apple*, still evolving as a wonderful company.

While Berkshire is a very long-term investor in a number of securities, it is price sensitive, currently sitting on $110 billion in cash and $180 billion in investments.

*Held either personally or in the private financial services fund I manage.


Accepting the risks of disappointing results from time to time does not diminish the odds in favor of long-term gains. One needs to balance the goals of capital preservation and capital appreciation. The ratio should probably shift inverse to near-term market performance.

Question of the week:

If you were forced in terms of your own account how would you divide your portfolio into only two buckets between capital preservation and capital appreciation and is the mix different in your professionally managed accounts?

A former president of the New York Society for Security Analysts, he was president of Lipper Analytical Services Inc. the home of the global array of Lipper indexes, averages and performance analyses for mutual funds. His blog can be found here.

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