The dictionary defines hubris simply as “excessive pride or self-confidence.” Personally, I prefer to use the traditional Greek-tragedy definition, which is “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to a downfall caused by an inescapable agent.” It’s likely we’ve all experienced hubris in our own lives on at least a small scale. My own “inescapable agents” have at least once arrived in the form of roller skates and tequila. That was pre-Instagram, thankfully.
In the investment management industry, however, hubris is an entirely different animal. And whether the inescapable agent comes in the form of a regulator or the markets, I can tell you that in my 17 years of fund research, I have found few things that will blow up a fund manager faster than a heapin’ helpin’ of hubris. Long Term Capital Management. Beacon Hill. Galleon. Manhattan. Maricopa. Madoff. The list of investment professionals that have bitten the big one thanks to hubris is the stuff that splashy headlines are made of.
Of course, some degree of self-confidence is necessary to become and remain a successful investor. If a fund manager doesn’t have some strength of conviction in an investment, a strategy, a team or him- or herself, compelling, long-term outperformance will be nigh on impossible.
Like many things, however, confidence is a continuum, and when I look at fund managers, I like to see folks who are ideally in the middle of the spectrum. I’ll often take one degree on either side of balanced as well.
But the end of the spectrum? Well, let’s just say them dogs will bite you.
But how do you determine where a current or potential fund manager sits on the Hubrometer? Here are some key questions I’ve asked (and phrases I’ve heard) over the years that may be helpful cues.
- What are your worst investment nightmare scenarios? Yes, it seems like a somewhat simplistic question, but you would be shocked at the number of managers that either A) can’t come up with a response or B) say they think they have covered all of their bases and don’t have one. As much as I’d like to believe a manager who tells me they’ve hedged everything perfectly and constructed an indestructible portfolio, I’ve got to call horse hockey on that one, friends. Bad things happen to good fund managers. The best managers are always trying to figure out what those bad things may be and position accordingly. Superb managers aren’t afraid to share that information with you because they are confident enough to know that some degree of uncertainty isn’t a sin. And knowing what you'll do when the "fit hits the shan" can be the difference between a containable loss and a catastrophic one.
- “I think the market is wrong on that one.” - This phrase is usually uttered when someone has maintained a long-term losing position (or worse, someone who is being creative with their marks). In these scenarios, the market is always wrong - it is never the manager. But let’s remember, in investing, you have to be right and you have to be right at the right time. As Bull Durham said, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.” Into every portfolio some rain will fall, and knowing the difference between a spring shower, a drawn out monsoon, and a Noah-esque flood is critical.
- Any gilding of the lily is a bad, bad sign. This can take the form of inflating assets to appear more credible (you can check assets with a quick call to a custodian & believe it or not, I’ve caught more than one manager with this one) or even providing information on degrees that weren’t actually obtained (no, attending graduate school but not getting the MBA aren’t the same things). The key is to match words with reality here. If a manager says the fund has never been leveraged more than 2:1, look at the audit. If it shows 2.3:1, you need to talk. If a manager gives information about risk controls but then breaks them “just this once,” you’ve got an issue. Little things mean a lot. And someone who thinks they can get away with a little white lie that can be easily checked is often willing to fib about the bigger things, too.
- “I’m the only fund manager using this strategy.” While I suppose this could be true, Wall Street is full of pretty smart people. It’s rare that someone finds an edge that another person hasn’t already thought of, or didn’t think of soon after. If you find yourself alone in a strategy, I think a confident person should wonder if it’s possible they are early, illegal or wrong. When I hear this statement I like to ask which camp the manager believes the fund belongs in and why. Then I go see who else is using the strategy. Sometimes this is an honest mistake on the manager's part, and sometimes it's actually fear that if you find other funds that are using the strategy, you may want to invest with them instead (doubt disguised as hubris). Still, always worth checking.
- The redeemed investor reference. Redeemed investors are the honey badgers of the investing world. They generally don’t care what gets back to a fund manager and will be brutally honest about when K1s arrived, how easy it was to get in touch with the manager and staff with questions, and what kinds of returns they actually received. Always talk to redeemed investors. Ask them all of the above as well this: “What’s the worst thing you can say about Fund Manager?” Sometimes you get ridiculous answers (I once had a guy describe the insanely fat fingers of a fund manager, concluding the call with “his hands don’t even look human.” Other times I’ve gotten tidbits that were a bit more useful). Look for inconsistencies here, too.
Of course, these are just a few suggestions to help separate the confident wheat from the hubris chaff. Have other suggestions you’d like to share with your fellow investors? Put them in the comments below.