“The Bet” (or how your money finds its way to Wall Street)
In this section, you will encounter, early on, the story of an investment bet I made nine years ago and, next, some strong opinions I have about investing. As a starter, though, I want to briefly describe Long Bets, a unique establishment that played a role in the bet.
Long Bets was seeded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and operates as a non-profit organization that administers just what you’d guess: long-term bets. To participate, “proposers” post a proposition at Longbets.org that will be proved right or wrong at a distant date. They then wait for a contrary-minded party to take the other side of the bet. When a “doubter” steps forward, each side names a charity that will be the beneficiary if its side wins; parks its wager with Long Bets; and posts a short essay defending its position on the Long Bets website. When the bet is concluded, Long Bets pays off the winning charity.
Here are examples of what you will find on Long Bets’ very interesting site:
In 2002, entrepreneur Mitch Kapor asserted that “By 2029 no computer – or ‘machine intelligence’ – will have passed the Turing Test,” which deals with whether a computer can successfully impersonate a human being. Inventor Ray Kurzweil took the opposing view. Each backed up his opinion with $10,000. I don’t know who will win this bet, but I will confidently wager that no computer will ever replicate Charlie.
That same year, Craig Mundie of Microsoft asserted that pilotless planes would routinely fly passengers by 2030, while Eric Schmidt of Google argued otherwise. The stakes were $1,000 each. To ease any heartburn Eric might be experiencing from his outsized exposure, I recently offered to take a piece of his action. He promptly laid off $500 with me. (I like his assumption that I’ll be around in 2030 to contribute my payment, should we lose.)
Now, to my bet and its history. In Berkshire’s 2005 annual report, I argued that active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years under perform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still. I explained that the massive fees levied by a variety of “helpers” would leave their clients – again in aggregate – worse off than if the amateurs simply invested in an unmanaged low-cost index fund.
Subsequently, I publicly offered to wager $500,000 that no investment pro could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees. I suggested a ten-year bet and named a low-cost Vanguard S&P fund as my contender. I then sat back and waited expectantly for a parade of fund managers – who could include their own fund as one of the five – to come forth and defend their occupation. After all, these managers urged others to bet billions on their abilities. Why should they fear putting a little of their own money on the line?
What followed was the sound of silence. Though there are thousands of professional investment managers who have amassed staggering fortunes by touting their stock-selecting prowess, only one man – Ted Seides – stepped up to my challenge. Ted was a co-manager of Protégé Partners, an asset manager that had raised money from limited partners to form a fund-of-funds – in other words, a fund that invests in multiple hedge funds.
I hadn’t known Ted before our wager, but I like him and admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth was. He has been both straight-forward with me and meticulous in supplying all the data that both he and I have needed to monitor the bet.
For Protégé Partners’ side of our ten-year bet, Ted picked five funds-of-funds whose results were to be averaged and compared against my Vanguard S&P index fund. The five he selected had invested their money in more than 100 hedge funds, which meant that the overall performance of the funds-of-funds would not be distorted by the good or poor results of a single manager.
Each fund-of-funds, of course, operated with a layer of fees that sat above the fees charged by the hedge funds in which it had invested. In this doubling-up arrangement, the larger fees were levied by the underlying hedge funds; each of the fund-of-funds imposed an additional fee for its presumed skills in selecting hedge-fund managers.
Here are the results for the first nine years of the bet – figures leaving no doubt that Girls Inc. of Omaha, the charitable beneficiary I designated to get any bet winnings I earned, will be the organization eagerly opening the mail next January.
The compounded annual increase to date for the index fund is 7.1%, which is a return that could easily prove typical for the stock market over time. That’s an important fact: A particularly weak nine years for the market over the lifetime of this bet would have probably helped the relative performance of the hedge funds, because many hold large “short” positions. Conversely, nine years of exceptionally high returns from stocks would have provided a tailwind for index funds.
Instead we operated in what I would call a “neutral” environment. In it, the five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually. That means $1 million invested in those funds would have gained $220,000. The index fund would meanwhile have gained $854,000.
Bear in mind that every one of the 100-plus managers of the underlying hedge funds had a huge financial incentive to do his or her best. Moreover, the five funds-of-funds managers that Ted selected were similarly incentivized to select the best hedge-fund managers possible because the five were entitled to performance fees based on the results of the underlying funds.
I’m certain that in almost all cases the managers at both levels were honest and intelligent people. But the results for their investors were dismal – really dismal. And, alas, the huge fixed fees charged by all of the funds and funds-of-funds involved – fees that were totally unwarranted by performance – were such that their managers were showered with compensation over the nine years that have passed. As Gordon Gekko might have put it: “Fees never sleep.”
The underlying hedge-fund managers in our bet received payments from their limited partners that likely averaged a bit under the prevailing hedge-fund standard of “2 and 20,” meaning a 2% annual fixed fee, payable even when losses are huge, and 20% of profits with no clawback (if good years were followed by bad ones). Under this lopsided arrangement, a hedge fund operator’s ability to simply pile up assets under management has made many of these managers extraordinarily rich, even as their investments have performed poorly.
Still, we’re not through with fees. Remember, there were the fund-of-funds managers to be fed as well. These managers received an additional fixed amount that was usually set at 1% of assets. Then, despite the terrible overall record of the five funds-of-funds, some experienced a few good years and collected “performance” fees. Consequently, I estimate that over the nine-year period roughly 60% – gulp! – of all gains achieved by the five funds-of-funds were diverted to the two levels of managers. That was their misbegotten reward for accomplishing something far short of what their many hundreds of limited partners could have effortlessly – and with virtually no cost – achieved on their own.
In my opinion, the disappointing results for hedge-fund investors that this bet exposed are almost certain to recur in the future. I laid out my reasons for that belief in a statement that was posted on the Long Bets website when the bet commenced (and that is still posted there). Here is what I asserted:
Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.
A lot of very smart people set out to do better than average in securities markets. Call them active investors.
Their opposites, passive investors, will by definition do about average. In aggregate their positions will more or less approximate those of an index fund. Therefore, the balance of the universe—the active investors—must do about average as well. However, these investors will incur far greater costs. So, on balance, their aggregate results after these costs will be worse than those of the passive investors.
Costs skyrocket when large annual fees, large performance fees, and active trading costs are all added to the active investor’s equation. Funds of hedge funds accentuate this cost problem because their fees are superimposed on the large fees charged by the hedge funds in which the funds of funds are invested.
A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.
So that was my argument – and now let me put it into a simple equation. If Group A (active investors) and Group B (do-nothing investors) comprise the total investing universe, and B is destined to achieve average results before costs, so, too, must A. Whichever group has the lower costs will win. (The academic in me requires me to mention that there is a very minor point – not worth detailing – that slightly modifies this formulation.) And if Group A has exorbitant costs, its shortfall will be substantial.
There are, of course, some skilled individuals who are highly likely to out-perform the S&P over long stretches. In my lifetime, though, I’ve identified – early on – only ten or so professionals that I expected would accomplish this feat.
There are no doubt many hundreds of people – perhaps thousands – whom I have never met and whose abilities would equal those of the people I’ve identified. The job, after all, is not impossible. The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well. Bill Ruane – a truly wonderful human being and a man whom I identified 60 years ago as almost certain to deliver superior investment returns over the long haul – said it well: “In investment management, the progression is from the innovators to the imitators to the swarming incompetents.”
Further complicating the search for the rare high-fee manager who is worth his or her pay is the fact that some investment professionals, just as some amateurs, will be lucky over short periods. If 1,000 managers make a market prediction at the beginning of a year, it’s very likely that the calls of at least one will be correct for nine consecutive years. Of course, 1,000 monkeys would be just as likely to produce a seemingly all-wise prophet. But there would remain a difference: The lucky monkey would not find people standing in line to invest with him.
Finally, there are three connected realities that cause investing success to breed failure. First, a good record quickly attracts a torrent of money. Second, huge sums invariably act as an anchor on investment performance: What is easy with millions, struggles with billions (sob!). Third, most managers will nevertheless seek new money because of their personal equation – namely, the more funds they have under management, the more their fees.
These three points are hardly new ground for me: In January 1966, when I was managing $44 million, I wrote my limited partners: “I feel substantially greater size is more likely to harm future results than to help them. This might not be true for my own personal results, but it is likely to be true for your results. Therefore, . . . I intend to admit no additional partners to BPL. I have notified Susie that if we have any more children, it is up to her to find some other partnership for them.”
The bottom line: When trillions of dollars are managed by Wall Streeters charging high fees, it will usually be the managers who reap outsized profits, not the clients. Both large and small investors should stick with low-cost index funds.
If a statue is ever erected to honor the person who has done the most for American investors, the handsdown choice should be Jack Bogle. For decades, Jack has urged investors to invest in ultra-low-cost index funds. In his crusade, he amassed only a tiny percentage of the wealth that has typically flowed to managers who have promised their investors large rewards while delivering them nothing – or, as in our bet, less than nothing – of added value.
In his early years, Jack was frequently mocked by the investment-management industry. Today, however, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he helped millions of investors realize far better returns on their savings than they otherwise would have earned. He is a hero to them and to me.
Over the years, I’ve often been asked for investment advice, and in the process of answering I’ve learned a good deal about human behavior. My regular recommendation has been a low-cost S&P 500 index fund. To their credit, my friends who possess only modest means have usually followed my suggestion.
I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.
That professional, however, faces a problem. Can you imagine an investment consultant telling clients, year after year, to keep adding to an index fund replicating the S&P 500? That would be career suicide. Large fees flow to these hyper-helpers, however, if they recommend small managerial shifts every year or so. That advice is often delivered in esoteric gibberish that explains why fashionable investment “styles” or current economic trends make the shift appropriate.
The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.
In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade. Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.
Much of the financial damage befell pension funds for public employees. Many of these funds are woefully underfunded, in part because they have suffered a double whammy: poor investment performance accompanied by huge fees. The resulting shortfalls in their assets will for decades have to be made up by local taxpayers.
Human behavior won’t change. Wealthy individuals, pension funds, endowments and the like will continue to feel they deserve something “extra” in investment advice. Those advisors who cleverly play to this expectation will get very rich. This year the magic potion may be hedge funds, next year something else. The likely result from this parade of promises is predicted in an adage: “When a person with money meets a person with experience, the one with experience ends up with the money and the one with money leaves with experience.”
Long ago, a brother-in-law of mine, Homer Rogers, was a commission agent working in the Omaha stockyards. I asked him how he induced a farmer or rancher to hire him to handle the sale of their hogs or cattle to the buyers from the big four packers (Swift, Cudahy, Wilson and Armour). After all, hogs were hogs and the buyers were experts who knew to the penny how much any animal was worth. How then, I asked Homer, could any sales agent get a better result than any other?
Homer gave me a pitying look and said: “Warren, it’s not how you sell ‘em, it’s how you tell ‘em.” What worked in the stockyards continues to work in Wall Street.
And, finally, let me offer an olive branch to Wall Streeters, many of them good friends of mine. Berkshire loves to pay fees – even outrageous fees – to investment bankers who bring us acquisitions. Moreover, we have paid substantial sums for over-performance to our two in-house investment managers – and we hope to make even larger payments to them in the future.
To get biblical (Ephesians 3:18), I know the height and the depth and the length and the breadth of the energy flowing from that simple four-letter word – fees – when it is spoken to Wall Street. And when that energy delivers value to Berkshire, I will cheerfully write a big check.