In Nashville, we have a weekly paper called “The Contributor” that is sold exclusively by badged homeless individuals on various street corners around town. The paper costs $2, and I make it a point to stop and buy one once a week or so. Now before the bleeding heart liberal accusations start flying, let me explain. “The Contributor” contains some of the world’s best advice couched in its “Hoboscope,” written by one Mr. Mysterio. It’s worth the price of admission every time.
In a recent Hoboscope, Mr. Mysterio provided the following nugget: “Assuming the worst will happen might make you cautious, but it never really makes you safe.” In investing, at least, truer words may never have been spoken.
We all know investors are motivated by fear and greed. I would postulate that our fear wins every time. Maybe it’s the fear of losing money. Perhaps it’s the fear of not keeping up with investing peers. It could be the fear of headline risk, or of paying “too much” for an investment. But our fears feed our investment decision-making, creating cautious investors who somehow remain far from safe.
Take me, for example. For the last several months I have been sniffing disaster on the markets like a dog with his nose out the car window. Having lived through LTCM, the tech wreck and 2008 as a professional investor, my thoughts often fly to all the bad things that can happen to my little nest egg. At the moment, and for much of recent history, I’m primarily in cash. In the meantime, however, I’ve missed significant market gains, which compromises both my current and future earnings. I’m certainly cautious, and I’ve avoided my worst-case scenario, but I haven’t made my financial situation significantly safer due to that particular trade.
Look at the institutional investor community. One of their greatest fears is that of headline risk a la the Art Institute of Chicago and Integral Investments. As a result, many choose to pile their assets into a very small number of large and established managers (the 500 or so that contain 90% plus of the hedge fund AUM). Studies, including my own from 2006-2011, Preqin and eVestment, have shown that smaller funds tend to outperform their largest counterparts cumulatively and across more time periods, and that new funds have outperformed cumulatively and across all time periods. However, just like no one ever got fired for buying IBM, it’s unlikely you’ll be fired for investing in Bridgewater or Paulson. But does sub-optimizing returns in a world of growing liabilities truly protect us, or does it just spare us the humiliation and/or hard work of investing in or potentially being wrong about a smaller or newer fund?
And finally, think about the investors that remain all too focused on fees. Overpaying for an investment is a capital crime for a host of investors. They hope to simultaneously optimize returns by saving a few basis points and avoid the headline describing how much they paid their portfolio managers last year. Unfortunately, their fear can result in negative selection bias (only investing with lower cost funds or funds who will cut fees), going direct in an investment arena where they may not have sufficient expertise, or eschewing certain investments altogether. The illusion of safety is created, where their caution may in fact be creating its own set of risks.
Regrettably, I can’t tell you how to solve this conundrum. Let’s face it: I’m no Mr. Mysterio. I can only advise that when we think through our worst case investment scenario, we focus on all of the factors that need to be in place to make us truly “safe.” Not just on the one or two problems that keep us up at night.