Meet your new robot asset manager


























Yesterday afternoon, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and other outlets reported that Black Rock, the world's largest investment fund management company with $5.1 trillion in assets under management, is radically revising its equity management offerings by announcing what the Times calls "an ambitious plan to consolidate a large number of actively managed mutual funds with peers that rely more on algorithms and models to pick stocks."

The move is being heralded as a sign of things to come in the world of asset management. Only a small percentage of assets managed at Black Rock were actively managed before the move -- about $201 billion at present, according to the Times story -- due to the firm's focus on so-called passive strategies, including ETFs (Black Rock owns iShares, acquired from Barclay's) and index funds. Now, the firm is reducing its emphasis on active management still further, firing several active portfolio managers and supporting staff, and instead emphasizing a lineup of "quant" funds, which rely more on computer models and algorithms. The news headlines are calling this move "Machines Rising over Managers to Pick Stocks" and "Relying more on robots rather than humans."

Reading further into the company's reasoning reveals that the firm's equity asset managers had underperformed index funds in recent years, that the shift to algorithms rather than managers allows lower management fees, and that leadership believes new technologies such as "big data or even artificial intelligence" are making human-based investing less relevant. The executive in charge of the change says, "The old way of people sitting in a room picking stocks, thinking they are smarter than the next guy -- that does not work anymore." 

The Journal article does note, however, that Black Rock will retain some actively managed offerings, including "country- and sector-focused stock products in which executives believe they can outperform, funds that pursue specific outcomes such as social impacts, and riskier funds that make more concentrated bets" but that "The changes weed out actively managed stock funds that closely follow indexes."

As active managers ourselves, we approve of these changes at Black Rock, and do not see them as the "end of active management" due to the "superiority of the robots" (or the quants) at all. In fact, we believe that the largest mutual fund company in the world has just publicly acknowledged the drawbacks of huge funds that are forced by their size to "closely follow indexes" and has made a rational decision to focus on other strategies -- including those that make "more concentrated" investments (which is a strategy that we ourselves favor, and one we have used to outperform indexes over long periods of time). 

In fact, we noted almost two years ago that the Black Rock CEO had inadvertently admitted what we believe to be one of the central problems of index and ETF investing -- the fact that they are forced to own everything, good and bad -- during an interview alongside Carl Icahn that turned into a fairly exciting debate. The same criticism can be applied to "actively managed stock funds that closely follow indexes." 

That said, we personally do not favor quant strategies, for reasons we have detailed in previous posts (including one from 2010 discussing a story touting "AI that picks stocks better than the pros"). We believe that the single most important factor of successful investing involves having a consistent investment philosophy which informs your selection of companies whose stock you will own. This is the opposite of what algorithm-based strategies usually do -- because those algorithms are frequently changed to try to capture "what's working now." And, on a larger scale, Black Rock's shift towards more emphasis on quant strategies (in addition to their existing emphasis on ETFs and indexes) can also be seen as a shift towards "what's working now." 

Of course, if their strategy is flawed, then they should change their strategy. However, we advise investors to be very careful when selecting these new strategies, if those strategies themselves are not grounded in a consistent investment discipline. Otherwise, in a few years, they might find themselves being told that now it's time to shift into the new "next best thing."


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Investment Climate Jan 2017 - Favorable Winds of Change



The markets reacted to the surprising results of the U.S. Presidential election with a resounding vote of confidence and have raced on to new highs recently.  Once again, conventional wisdom was turned on its head as virtually nobody saw this coming.  What was equally remarkable was that those market pundits who chimed in with a prediction on what would happen in the event of a win by Donald J. Trump virtually were unanimous in their view that the market would surely collapse if Trump were to win.  Oops!

We had no idea who would win the election, or what the market would do in the aftermath regardless of the results. Yet, it really does not surprise us that the market has reacted well, especially in light of the policy issues that Trump has espoused, most notable of which is a reduction in tax rates and simplification of the tax code, as well as a reduction in the level of regulation that has held back businesses for so long.

It was just in our last Investment Climate where we pointed out, yet again, how big government has held back business.  If the new Trump administration can be successful in moving forward on those two major policies, then much of the “trade” issues that Mr. Trump has also railed about should take care of themselves because we should witness considerable increase in capital investment and general business activity.

If the investment climate should finally become more favorable, then that should only enhance the prospects for many of the investments themes on which we have focused  in our portfolios.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, such an environment would likely benefit small business the most. We have been quite concerned about the lack of new, innovative businesses coming about, and the resulting lack of initial public offerings in the stock market.  This desperately needs to change, and if it does, we could witness the type of market activity that was brought about by the sea change witnessed back in 1980, which led to the significant market moves of the 1980s and 1990s.

We are very encouraged and would argue that it’s been quite a long time since the wind has been at the back of businesses.  This isn’t altering our investment approach at all.  We just have even more confidence in its ultimate success!

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