Fund Manager Selection Part 2; The Institutional Investor

By Erik L. van Dijk

During the last few days we discussed topics related to the behavior of Private Investors. We analyzed how they choose their fund managers, individual stocks, how their decision processes work and even addressed differences in style between the genders. Now, for analyzing the behavior of Institutional Investors we first had to study the Private Investor. In the end, decision processes of investing institutions are always processes in which individuals act together. In other words:

Whatever we derive for private investors, will – one way or another – have an impact on decision taking in institutions, because in the end every professional working in an institution is a private person as well.

We can add a bit more detail. Professional investors are often mainly involved with fulfilling their tasks on portfolios of third-party money. This implies two things:

  1. The existence of agency-related problems. Unlike the situation that we discussed a few days earlier when analyzing the investment behavior within investment clubs, we are dealing here with group processes similar to the ones studied by Jensen and Meckling. The bottomline was and is that agents – when not controlled in a sufficient manner – can and will incorporate their own goal variables in the decsision process. This could lead to ‘style differences’ (see also below) with respect to the investments done, or even to outright acting against the interests of the principal. See our entry on the behavior of investment clubs for more details.
  2. Group psychology plays an important role on the decisions taken. Group size and composition are therefore  important variables.

From these 2 points we can therefore derive 4 important elements to study:

  • Investment style differences (Agency element nr 1)
  • Agent-related goals (Agency element nr 2)
  • Group size
  • Group composition

But we have to add two others:

A) Management and control structure within the institution

B) Type of institution.

With respect to A) and B), investment decisions are just one part of the overall activity set of institutional investors and its relative role is not the same in banks, insurance firms, investment banks or pension funds. Management boards in banks and insurance firms are often filled with non-investment-specialists who – as a controlling body – work together with ”respected colleagues” from other firms filling the ranks of the board of directors. The higher ranks in investment banks are often filled with the most successful and toughest guys with investment knowledge. They used to do what the specialists are doing now, but moved to management plus the bigger deals. In a pension plan the governance structure often implies a controlling body with a lot of non-specialists, be they representatives of the sponsor, employees or government. A very complex control structure that is far more sensitive to public opinion and daily news gathering and information dissemination than the others. And to make things even more complicated, there is also the difference between so-called ‘Defined Benefit’ (DB) schemes and ”Defined Contribution” (DC) plans.

Defined Benefit (DB) versus Defined Contribution (DC); a sub-categorization within the institutional investor category Pension Plans

In a Defined Benefit structure pools are created in which one investment style / portfolio applies to the whole group of members, be they young or old, men or women, high-income or low-income. Obviously, this middle-of-the-road investment style might be sub-optimal for many, but the social aspect of it (”we all stick together”) has certain benefits as well. As we saw in our earlier contributions, investment success is not something easy and since in the end a pension plan is about making sure that you have enough money when reaching old age, this kind of pooled structure ensures that no one can be the victim of his/her individual mistakes caused by non-professional bad investment decisions.

For more information about Defined Benefit (DB) plans CLICK HERE.

It is probably no surprise that the ideas behind DB were quite popular in nations with a culture of social cohesion. European nations like the UK, the Netherlands and Scandinavia are good examples of markets with large DB plans. Actually, a relatively small country like the Netherlands with just 16 million inhabitants is the fourth largest pension market in the world. And this is directly related to the creation of big DB plans that has been started in the 1950-60s.

The social aspect of DB plans is strong and attractive, and it is therefore not surprising that Emerging Markets that have achieved a certain wealth status are contemplating the introduction of similar structures. E.g. the IR Iran is working on a pension structure similar to what has been created by the Dutch in the 1950s or the Norwegians during the last 10-20 years. The existence of gas and/or oil reserves in both these countries and in Iran is not coincidental of course.

Now, the big problem with DB is exactly that: DB. Defined benefit….you know upfront what the end-result is supposed to be. However, there are uncertainties in the world. The end result is a function of: a) investment results; b) demographic factors and c) economic factors, with the premium inflow being covered in the economic category. With demographic factors working against pension plans by definition in the West (people get older and a smaller relative number of people is working), obviously pressure on the structure will be huge whenever economic and or investment factors work against it. And that is what is going on at the moment. Social cohesion is under huge pressure in DB countries simply because of that. In all these nations, younger generations are pressing for either full-scale DC alternatives or DC components as an add-on next to a minimum-level DB structure.

In a pure Defined Contribution (DC) plan, the pension fund is nothing more but a provider of various investment opportunities, be they funds or pools, in which members can invest according to their own belief (what mix to choose?) with or without guidance by the pension plan. The minimum achieved is cost advantages, since the DC plan uses its scale to get the funds chosen against some kind of fee rate not available to members individually. But hopefully, the DC plan did also use its knowledge about fund manager selection when pre-selecting the funds in its choice portfolio for the members.

The DC structure is most popular in countries in which some kind of individualism was and is strongly developed. The US market is of course the most important one. The main certainty is that you save for your own old age. But, with the contribution being sure, the uncertainties now are the economic and investment ones. Whenever you invested the wrong way, your end result will be disappointing. Maybe even insufficient to avoid poverty!

For more information on DC plans CLICK HERE.

Investment and selection style by Type of Institutional Investor

In the remainder of this blog entry we will now analyze the various components mentioned above for the three different groups of institutional investors that we can distinguish.

I) The aggressive guys; Investment Banks and Hedge Funds

Investment bankers and hedge funds that also use substantial parts of their own money are the real risk takers. You can classify their styles based on what we told you in our blog entry on differences between men and women (see here) as typical ”macho”. They are in there for the quick buck, fast deal, and aren’t afraid to take big risks. High, often excessively so, leverage is a typical characteristic of the style of these guys. When successful they think that they are the best and can get away with everything. Yes, to a certain extent you could say that they are the guys that caused maybe not the whole credit crisis, but definitely the momentum and exuberrance that in the end made the system explode. As long as they do it with their own money, or with that of investors that do understand some investment basics, that is all fine. However, when they label themselves ‘investment magicians” and attract money by others while at the same time not being controlled carefully enough, because the regulatory authorities do not understand the difference between a ”miracle investor” or ”magician” or ”someone just having plain luck” this can be very harmful. And that is what happened. Even smart people seemed to have forgotten how long it takes before guys with casino strategies are not part of the alleged magician group anymore.

Example: Assume that there are 100 investment bankers/hedge funds out there that do only one stupid thing. They flip a coin and when it says heads they go long with all their money in dangerous stock investments. When it is tails they go long with all their money in some kind of fixed income, gold or other defensive investment. After one year there are still 50 coin flippers labeled good investors. After 2 years 25, After 3 years 12, after 4 years 6, after 5 years 3, after 6 years 1.5 /2 and after 7 years there is one of our 100 guys who can say that he outperformed the whole 7-year business cycle. And believe me, he will attract a lot of money when capable of doing business with people that don’t ask him too many nasty questions about his investment ”strategy”. And yep….you do immediately see now why Madoff could happen!! Admiration without checking results.

With respect to investment style and manager selection, these guys are not afraid of anything. They will actually love the most risky deals. They like frontier markets more than defensive solid investments in fixed income in established nations. They prefer distressed firms over mature solid ones. Et cetera. It is good to go with them up to a certain extent, because they often use their own money. But, to the extent that they might be sensitive to overconfidence (the macho thing), always make sure that they hold the best-possible, diversified portfolios. In our case, we would require them to be Markowitz-van Dijk compliant, i.e. true champions in diversification. To the extent that they have invested in talented small managers, they are good for the system in that they are not afraid to give money to these talents. But only to the extent that the talents are really talents of course, and – as shown by the previous example – that is difficult enough when you don’t know how to ask the right questions and perform the right performance analyses.

II) Banks and Insurance Firms; Non-specialists with Investments not being the main activity

They earn their main money with other products, be they banking/savings related or insurance products. But because of developments in the financial industry, all of these products got a larger linkage with the investment world. In the end you will have to invest money – be it your own, or that of your clients – somewhere. After the collapse of the pure savings banks back in the 1980s and the transition from pure insurers into bankassurance in the 1990s we did indeed see some indications of diversification understanding. So, being non-specialist, the decision takers here – who have probably the relatively largest amounts to invest due to their scalable product offering to the economy at large – do diversify. But it is definitely not the top-level, diversification and risk management activity that can be labeled Markowitz-van Dijk compliant. It is amateur diversification and risk management as a result of which disasters like the investment in securitized mortgage portfolios in the US could happen. They really believed that having a portfolio of large amounts of mortgages from all over the US would be diversification. That there are more dimensions to this thing than just plain geography and that correaltions between Seattle and Florida are pretty high in a time of crisis and economic malfunctioning was totally forgotten. They have never seen the work of French top professor and diversification specialist Bruno Solnik on the relationship between crises and correlations. Or they saw it and didn’t believe it was important, because they sticked with the big names. Non-specialsts always overesimate themselves not to the extend of taking too much risk knowingly, but to the extend of thinking they know what to do and how to do it. Result: huge investments in investment vehicles and structred products created by well-known, allegedly successful institutions. Be they large asset managers, investment banks or hedge funds.

Or: they translate their alleged knowledge into the belief that they should have their own asset management branches to develop these products internally! And to some extent you could say that this ”strategy” might also partly explain why – on average – good boutiques outperform large houses. Too often do large houses start things when not being a specialist. The ”macho” overconfidence of a bad boutique is replaced by ”breadth” overconfidence!

So in a way, using money from external clients and with a mind set that focuses first and foremost on risk reduction, these institutions should have invested like women do. Study information thoroughly, dig into the details, take not too much risk, diversify and avoid overconfidence. Unfortuately, women decision takers are a very small percentage of the boards of these instituions. Therefore, we cannot be too surprised that the big failures happened in this group of institutional investors during the 2007-now credit crisis. Out of synch with their own style and goals, and not capable of distinguishing between sharks and frauds on the one hand and true specialists on the other. It is not a surprise that it is especially true that investment affiliates of these entities invested a lot in Madoff!

III) Pension plans

As a group, the true specialist pension plans that basically act as a kind of end investor (definitely so in the DB case, and to some extent in the DC case) or his direct advisor through pre-screening (DC plans) are normally when looking at the return-risk profile the best institutional investors. Logically so, because they do have all the information available, they do have armies of specialists working for them and they do work structurally with consultants.

So when we concluded that on average institutional investors have better returns than private investors, see our earlier entries, we should at the same time add that the difference is shockingly small. When investments are at the same time art and science, the specialists should outperform the non-specialists by a wider margin. That this is not the case, is the result of overconfidence on the one hand, and lack of honest, sincere performance measurement and analysis on the other. The difference between true investment professionals and their performance on the one hand, and the amateurs on the other, should not be as small as to make funny stories about King Kong throwing darts and beating the specialst possible. Definitely not when analyzing diversified portfolios created by true specialists.

Now, how come things can go so terribly wrong, also when we look at the pension plan investors? To one extent this is directly related to the agency argument. Pension plan investors are not using their own funds (like the co-investing investment bankers and hedge fund managers) and that could probably lead to some agency aspects playing a bigger role than they should. It is good that new governance structures and control- and regulatory mechanisms are being created that will further mitigate this problem. But it is still there.

On the one hand this leads a lot of pension plans to investment styles similar to that of banks: overweighting of established ”big names” with middle-of-the-road products (the ”you never get fired for hiring IBM” argument), whereas actually they do know enough about investing to go for a best-of-breed approach with more bold products on an individual basis linked together into a well-diversified overall portfolio.

And also: although they are the true specialists, their boards do also contain large components of non-specialists with quite an impact. Be they government-related or labor-union related. Amidst fear and panic, the relative importance of these groups within the decision structure grows bigger. As a result of this, there might be a tendency to sell the most risky investments at exactly the wrong moment. And that was happening in 2008! Instead of buying low and using the crisis as a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, these investors were actually in Q3 and Q4 of 2008 selling in many nations where we have good information about the buying and selling of DB investors. And obviously, the same pattern was even more prominent in DC plans, because there the end investors (individual members) were panicking themselves.

The whole system of calculation of how DB pension plans in this structure are doing, through the use of so-called coverage ratios makes things even more compicated. The average time to maturity of liabilities of pension plans (measured by the duration) is higher than that of its assets. That leads to the weird paradox that – when interest rates decline to bottom levels, like right now – the net present value of the liabilities goes up to such an extent that the coverage ratio will probably decline to levels not acceptable for regulators or boards.

That leads to tension and increased relative importance of the non-specialists within the board exactly at the time when the true specialists should take the lead. Result: what is sold is NOT the parts of the fixed income portfolio that made above-average returns during the period just finished (e.g. investment grade bonds that went up in value due to interest rates moving to zero), but actually stock components of the portfolio are being sold in a period of total sell-off of stocks in the first place. And even worse: within the stock component of the portfolio stocks from markets that are fundamentally strong in the long run (emerging markets) are sold first and foremost before selling-off the stocks of firms in your own country. Reason: ”we cannot – often for political reasons – start with a sell-off of our own stocks, because this might hurt local firms and therefore also employement and the economy.

Conclusion

Institutional investors, and that holds especially for those that are willing to co-invest with their own money or the ones that are true professionals, should generate above-average returns at a far better scale than they actually do. King Kong and individual investors / investment clubs shouldn’t be competition when looking at their results. It is a disgrace that they often seem almost as good. Amateur base ball clubs from let’s say a high school in Anchorage, Alaska are just a ridicule when trying to compete with the Florida Marlins and that is how it should be in investments as well.

Credit Crisis: Post-scriptum

What does this mean for the credit crisis? It means that it is not so clear that institutional investors as a group will get us out of this mess soon. True, some of the bold investment bankers that survive the current liquidity squeeze and de-leveraging will be among the first to try to use the (almost)zero interest rate situation to buy into deal portfolios with above average prospects. But are they big enough to move the market? We at Lodewijk Meijer believe they are not. Only when the so-called Sovereign Wealth Funds will join them, will the system switch back into optimistic gear. In a next entry we will therefore have to pay separate attention to this new phenomenon that became important during the last 10 years.

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One Response to “Fund Manager Selection Part 2; The Institutional Investor”

  1. Hi thanks for your nice words. Will try to post other stuff that might interest you soon!

    Regards, Erik

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