People Decide, Numbers Report Investment Success

by: Mike Lipper, CFA


The actions of people drive investment results. Numbers are an abstraction of the various realities that people produce. Quantification is useful in reporting history, not motivation. As a long-term student of investing and the investment business, I have seen repeated failures of extrapolating a given set of numbers that produce very different results. At best past numbers are useful as to what has happened in the past of repeated results.
Why Repeated Numbers Won’t be Predictive
People are not machines. Most of us live, think, and emote in the current time period. While our memories do produce faulty or incomplete renditions of the past that we often use as judgments, we don’t always. We don’t follow the old paths, all the time because of change elements perceived or real.
Change Agents
I believe that the presence of change agents occasionally leads to change in behavior. Some but not all change agents are physical, emotional, political, and may be a result of new personalities entering the decision process; e.g., the titular or actual investment committee. Thus I believe it is useful to apply more weight to the study of people than numbers. (This is quite an admission for a green eye-shaded CFA® charter-holder.)
Investment Personalities
I suggest that it is worthwhile to practice the art form, not the science, of people watching with open eyes and empathy. The three useful areas of the study of investors are:

  • The specific investor
  • The collection of investors
  • Speculators called “the market” and financial intermediaries
Each is quite different, intermittently changing, making false starts and reversals and are sometimes unwilling or unable to state clearly their intentions and motivations. Our good friends the technical market analysts and other quant-type analysts and managers believe that their recorded actions are sufficient for predictive purposes. They will be right some of the time but often miss a major change in the mood.
The Decision-Making Investment Committee
As a practical matter for some individuals and institutions there is a singular decider who makes final decisions without benefit of external counsel. In addition they are legally empowered to make investment decisions, consult with others and/or are heavily influenced by external sources. Having chaired, sat on, or served various investment committees, I have learned some investment committees, in truth, make all the decisions. Others are essentially ratifiers of outsourced chief investment officers ((OCIOs)) or are driven by the chair or other dominant personality. What I have experienced even with a number of people on the formal or informal committee is: change one person, and the direction of the committee may change. The new person may be the change agent for a reluctant prior group, a dynamic leader, one with a different set of investment or management experiences. The informal committee may include a personal lawyer, tax accountant, neighbor, spouse, significant other or a friend of your golf buddy.
“Time to Judgment”
There are two interrelated statistical periods which could be the current quarter, year, length of term expected on the committee, lives of beneficiaries or eternity. (We have suggested that the portfolios be sub-divided in terms of payment streams into timespan portfolios from short operational needs all the way out to legacy considerations.)
Measures of Success
After the targeted investment period(s) are identified, a key question is what measures of success to use. The first duty of a fiduciary (and we are all fiduciaries for ourselves and others) is to deliver returns sufficient to meet expected spending levels. Thus one of the measures is in real, after-inflation returns. If the beneficiary is tax paying, the payment to the beneficiary should be after taxes.
That is the easy part. Much more difficult are the appropriate measures of investment success and prudence.
Indices made up of individual securities were never designed to be prudent portfolios, but rather a measure of perceived central tendencies. To me these are inappropriate measures.
Usefulness of Mutual Fund Performance Databanks

I suggest the comparisons should be with other investors which are operating under the same constraints as the account.

My experience is that the most transparent Databank on performance is mutual funds. These can be segmented by investment objective, size, expenses, turnover, tax efficiency, consistency of performance and other factors.

In most periods the bulk of investment performances will be centered in the middle of the performance array. Thus I suggest to divide performance into quintiles. The beauty is that one can treat those funds in the middle quintile (40-60). Then an interesting analysis would allow one to examine the frequency of quintile performance by quarters over long periods of time or when the portfolio manager or policy changes. This type of analysis will demonstrate the investors patience. (Over an extended period of time a number of different investment philosophies will produce similar results, but quite different interim results.)

In assessing the investor or investment committee, their actions over time will have a great deal to do with their ultimate success. The best time for them to make changes within their portfolios of securities or managers is when performance is so good that it is likely to be unsustainable. The other criteria for their future success is whether or not they are developing a long-term plan on how their assets will be managed beyond the Principal’s lifetime.

Measuring “The Markets’” Personality
A look at history will show that a high percentage of the time markets move within reasonably well defined price and valuation boundaries. Unfortunately, these periods produce pedestrian returns. It is the extreme periods which might be 10-20% of the time that will capture the big gains and losses. These periods are often tied to perceived external changes. Europe enjoyed a long period of economic expansion due to the use of Latin American gold that was brought back which made their currencies stronger and created inflation. Wars can be both good and bad for stock, bond, and commodity prices at different times. Discoveries of natural resources and technology can create important changes and reversals. The very same factors that cause dramatic change in one market will not in others due to the mood of the market. There are times almost every item will be positively at other times the same items will be viewed negatively.
At this moment the US stock and bond markets are highly priced but showing relatively little momentum except in certain narrowly defined sectors. There are two elements that other times would cause some concerns, but may not presently.
The first is what economists call a “Minsky Moment” after an economist that many felt should have been awarded a Nobel Prize. His concern was for the unbridled growth of speculative borrowing/lending. This is the type of activity where the borrower expects to roll over the debt and not generate the capital to pay it back. Some are focusing on China’s industrial and real estate debt. I am concerned of the attitude of various governments and non-profit institutions here in the US who intend to cover their fund raising needs through new debt that they expect to be rolled over.
The second element is an examination of the daily price chart of the NASDAQ Index in the Wall Street Journal. (This is a technology-driven index. Technology prices have now risen to the peak level seen in March of 2000.) If the prices do not fall appreciatively, it could lead to what the technical analysts at Merrill Lynch describe as a failed pattern. These two elements may be “straws in the wind” and blow away, but watching people’s changing moods will have some impact on near-term prices.
Financial Intermediaries’ Personality
We used to live in a world of single-purpose intermediaries. They were either transaction-oriented, making their money largely through the bid and asked spreads and/or commissions or advisors which earned largely through percent of asset fees. These are now being effectively combined into multi-purpose entities. Within the financial community many former service providers are now competitors. Through this homogenization process the prices for services has come down but it is not clear that the quality and integrity of service has improved. Banks have morphed from being financial services department stores to perhaps the full financial services mall. If money is involved, so will be the banks. On a real estate basis we are seeing many of the old temple-like head offices becoming restaurants or event spaces which has happened in New York and Philadelphia. (We had a graduation lunch for a magna cum laude grandson in a space that used to be the main banking hall for the First Pennsylvania Bank, the first bank in the US until it merged.
While some of the intermediaries have large amounts of capital, it will be used primarily for them to make money for themselves rather than for their clients. They are hiring PhDs from Caltech and other leading research schools to convert their processes from seasoned employee functions to automation. There is not the same service attitude from machines and call centers that were previously bestowed on us by the familiar faces of yore.
The great damage sustained in major declines was suffered by investors who feel abandoned and dumped their good investments. With fewer people who have the investors' best interest in mind to consult, there is a probability that a number of investors will believe that they are condemned to live through their own Minsky moment.
Question of the week: How well do you think your financial service providers really understand your needs and will they be there when you need them in a general market meltdown?