In 1972, George Carlin first performed his now infamous Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television. In case you’ve never watched it, this hilariously foul yet informative bit of comic genius provided clarity around the words that could be used on TV and in polite society, as well as some noteworthy use cases. It was both provocative and spot on, so much so it was later used as the basis of a 1978 Supreme Court case (Federal Communications Commission V. Pacifica Foundation) that still governs the use of “obscene” language on television.
In the skit, Carlin famously laments that no one tells you what the 7 deadly words are, and that as a kid, you simply use them and get slapped, providing your clues as to what constitutes acceptable public language.
Unfortunately, the same is true for money managers. It seems no one has officially shared with them the language that is and isn’t acceptable for use with potential investors. So, rather than letting them get slapped around (or waiting for a Supreme Court ruling), I thought it might be helpful to review the Seven Phrases You Can Never Say In Pitch Books.
1) “Our goal is to generate excess returns over a three to five year period with less volatility than the index.” C’mon people. Surely you can do better than this lawyerly non-speak? What on earth does an investor learn about your fund from this phrase? And frankly, how on earth is it different than any other fund on the face of the planet? Do you think that there are funds that write “our goal is to underperform the index over the long haul?” Obviously promising specifics, particularly pie-in-the-sky performance targets, can get you in a heap of trouble with both investors and regulatory bodies, but if you can’t be more specific than this, just do without.
2) “A significant portion of the manager’s assets are investing in the Fund.” This is a tricky one. Frankly, no investor is going to invest with a manager who isn’t eating their own cooking, so it’s worth saying. But because managers’ are savvy to this, almost none of them would be silly enough to NOT invest in their own fund, rendering the phrase fairly ubiquitous. In addition, if the fund is super small (<$5 million), investors are going to wonder if there’s any outside capital in the fund. And finally, why aren’t all of the manager’s liquid assets in the fund? What is the definition of “significant?” Do other fund personnel have skin the game? This generic statement frankly raises more questions than it answers.
3) “Our team has 150 thousand years of combined investing experience.” Yeah…about that. What really matters when it comes to experience is that this isn’t your first rodeo and that you’ve in fact been to more than one over the years. If you’ve only seen one market cycle, bulking up experience levels by compounding it with your CFO, COO, IR and other senior staff is pretty hollow. If you’ve been around the block a time or two, maybe you should highlight the trigger-puller's specific experience, not that of the entire team?
4) “Our competitive advantage is our bottoms-up research.” Two things here. One – bottoms up is a toast, not a research methodology. Two – don’t you think every manager can say the same thing in a way? Do you think there are managers who write: “we just make freaking guesses or pick companies based on whether we like their advertisements?” If you can’t point to something that makes your process truly unique, you may be in trouble.
5) “We use quantitative and qualitative screening as part of our investment selection process.” Again, you and almost everyone else, buddy. Can you be a bit more specific here? How does the quantitative screen work? What factors does it consider? Is it proprietary? How long has it been in use? Has it seen more than one market cycle? Who maintains it?
6) “We run a high-conviction portfolio.” This is actually a fine statement, if you are actually running a concentrated, high-conviction portfolio. For the record, if you have 30-40 investments or more, you ain’t.
7) Quotes by anyone. Including you. Your pitch book isn’t the place to be quoting other investors, economic theory or (true story) the Bible. It’s the place where you describe, in as precise yet glowing terms as possible, who you are, what you do, why you’re good at it and what your results have been. Period. Anything else is a distraction. If an investor wants to read some pithy quotes, that’s what the Internet is for. Oh, and quoting yourself…seriously?
So there you have it folks, the Seven Phrases You Can Never Use In Pitchbooks. Heed them, or risk getting slapped around by potential investors.
And for those that would like a trip down dirty word memory lane, here's a link to the infamous Carlin skit. NSFW. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyBH5oNQOS0