Posts tagged ‘style drift’

Betting on Green: Not All Performance is Equal

Ball on Zero on Roulette Wheel

Not all performance is created equally. Now is the time of year where professional money managers jockey for position before year-end, either with the intent of locking in above-average performance or throwing up a Hail Mary pass in hopes of gaining lost performance ground. Typically, top performing managers are lauded for their eye-popping returns and shrewd investing acumen, when in fact, often these managers have been playing a game of roulette in which a risky, low probability strategy of betting on “green zero” has paid off (a winner about 2.6% of the time).

With tens of thousands hedge fund managers, mutual fund managers, and investment advisors self-reporting their results, even if the performance is accurate, the “Law of Large Numbers” dictates a small percentage will outperform. In other words, short-term luck can often trump long-term skill in the investment world, so investors really need to take a look under the covers to better understand the composition of the results.

Here are some factors contributing to performance distortions and misunderstandings:

Leverage: Adding leverage to your investment strategy is a lot like switching from a bicycle to a motorcycle. The new vehicle may get you to your destination faster, but the risks are lot higher than riding a bike, including death. The same principles apply to investing. A leveraged portfolio may be a fun ride when prices appreciate, but the agony on the downside can be equally painful in reverse.  Often, many managers obscure the amount of leverage, and point to absolute returns rather than risk-adjusted returns, which rightfully account for the underlying volatility of the security or investment. To better measure investment performance on an apples-to-apples basis, risk-adjusted ratios such as Sharpe ratios and Treynor ratios should be used.

Concentration/Style Drift: Similarly to playing a game of roulette, putting all your money on black can result in a very handsome payout, but the downside can be just as severe. In the late 1990s growth managers benefited tremendously by concentrating their portfolios into technology stocks because prices appreciated virtually unabated. Many value managers succumbed to style drift by abandoning their value investment mandates and chasing performance. Investors should scrutinize the composition of their portfolios to better comprehend the bets managers are making. Excessive concentration or style drift may lead to a rude awakening.

Benchmark Cherry Picking: Buried in the fine print of an investment prospectus or pitchbook, a performance benchmark, which acts like a measuring stick, can usually be found.  The non-standardized game of performance reporting is a lot like a beauty contest in which the investment manager can pick ugly competitors to make themselves look better. Typically a manager compares their performance against the worst performing benchmark or index, and if the benchmark performance improves, a manager can again substitute the old benchmark with a newer, uglier one.

Spaghetti Effect: Another misleading marketing strategy used by many investment firms is what I like to call the “Throwing-Spaghetti-Against-the-Wall” technique, which involves throwing as many strategies at investors as it takes and see what sticks. Famed hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made Herculean profits during the collapse of the subprime crisis, used this strategy in hopes of capitalizing on his sudden fame. The results haven’t been pretty over the last few years as his major funds have massively underperformed and assets have collapsed from about $38 billion at the peak to less than an estimated $20 billion now. Paulson has proved that parlaying one successful bet into many spaghetti throwing strategies (Advantage, Advantage Plus, Partners Fund, Enhanced Fund, Credit Opportunities, and Recovery) can lead to billions in gained assets, albeit shrinking.

Window-Dressing: Portfolio managers are notorious for selling their stinkers and buying the darlings at the end of a quarter, just so they can avoid uncomfortable questions from investors. By analyzing a manager’s portfolio turnover (i.e., the average holding period for a position), an investor can gauge how much shuffling is really going on. Generally speaking, managers performing this value-destroying, smoke and mirrors behavior are doing more harm than good due to all the trading costs and frictions.

While periodically reviewing absolute reported returns is important, more critical than that is analyzing the risk-adjusted returns of a portfolio, so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made. Any and all strategies are bound to underperform for periods of time, but in order to make rational investment decisions investors need to truly understand the underlying strategy and philosophy of the manager(s). Without following all these steps, investors will have better luck putting their money on green.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any Paulson funds or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

December 16, 2012 at 9:05 am 1 comment

Style Drift: Hail Mary Investing

Hail Mary

The mutual fund investing game is extraordinarily competitive. According to The Financial Times, there were 69,032 global mutual funds at the end of 2008. With the extreme competitiveness comes lucrative compensation structures if you can win (outperform) – I should know since I was a fund manager for many years. However, the compensation incentive structures can create style drift and conflicts of interest. You can think of style drift as the risky “Hail Mary” pass in football – you are a hero if the play (style drift) works, but a goat if it fails. When managers typically drift from the investment fund objective and investment strategy, typically they do not get fired if they outperform, but the manager is in hot water if drifting results in underperformance. Occasionally a fund can be a victim of its own success. A successful small-cap fund can have positions that appreciate so much the fund eventually becomes defined as a mid-cap fund – nice problem to have.

Drifting Issues

Why would a fund drift? Take for example the outperformance of the growth strategy in 2009 versus the value strategy. The Russell 1000 Growth index rose about +28% through October 23rd (excluding dividends) relative to the Russell 1000 Value index which increased +14%. The same goes with the emerging markets with some markets like Brazil and Russia having climbed over +100% this year. Because of the wide divergence in performance, value managers and domestic equity managers could be incented to drift into these outperforming areas. In some instances, managers can possibly earn multiples of their salary as bonuses, if they outperform their peers and benchmarks.

The non-compliance aspect to stated strategies is most damaging for institutional clients (you can think of pensions, endowments, 401ks, etc.). Investment industry consultants specifically hire fund managers to stay within the boundaries of a style box. This way, not only can consultants judge the performance of multitudes of managers on an apples-to-apples basis, but this structure also allows the client or plan participant to make confident asset allocation decisions without fears of combining overlapping strategies.

For most individual investors however, a properly diversified asset allocation across various styles, geographies, sizes, and asset classes is not a top priority (even though it should be). Rather, absolute performance is the number one focus and Morningstar ratings drive a lot of the decision making process.

What is Growth and Value?

Unfortunately the style drift game is very subjective. Growth and value can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, whereby value investing can simply be viewed as purchasing growth for a discount. Or as Warren Buffet says, “Growth and value investing are joined at the hip.” The distinction becomes even tougher because stocks will often cycle in and out of style labels (value and growth). During periods of outperformance a stock may get categorized as growth, whereas in periods of underperformance the stock may change its stripes to value. Unfortunately, there are multiple third party data source providers that define these factors differently. The subjective nature of these style categorizations also can provide cover to managers, depending on how specific the investment strategy is laid out in the prospectus.

What Investors Can Do?

1)      Read Prospectus: Read the fund objective and investment strategy in the prospectus obtained via mailed hardcopy or digital version on the website.

2)      Review Fund Holdings: Compare the objective and strategy with the fund holdings. Not only look at the style profile, but also evaluate size, geography, asset classes and industry concentrations. can be a great tool for you to conduct your fund research.

3)      Determine Benchmark: Find the appropriate benchmark for the fund and compare fund performance to the index. If the fund is consistently underperforming (outperforming) on days the benchmark is outperforming (underperforming), then this dynamic could be indicating a performance yellow flag.

4)      Rebalance: By periodically reviewing your fund exposures and potential style drift, rebalancing can bring your asset allocation back into equilibrium.

5)      Seek Advice: If you are still confused, call the fund company or contact a financial advisor to clarify whether style drift is occurring in your fund(s) (read article on finding advisor).

Style drift can potentially create big problems in your portfolio. Misaligned incentives and conflicts of interest may lead to unwanted and hidden risk factors in your portfolio. Do yourself a favor and make sure the quarterback of your funds is not throwing “Hail Mary” passes – you deserve a higher probability of success in your investments.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP is a contributing writer for Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

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