Two separate friends sent me links to an investor profile in SmartMoney magazine entitled “The 400% Man“, about a college dropout in Salt Lake City who appears to have made a killing over the last ten years following the principles of value investing.
Allan Mecham, had been posting mind-bogglingly high returns for a decade at a tiny private-investment fund called Arlington Value Management, and the Wall Streeters were considering jumping on board. For nearly two hours, they peppered him with questions. Where did he get his business background? I read a lot, he replied. Did he have an MBA? No. I dropped out of college. Did he have a clever computer model or algorithm? No, he replied. I don’t use spreadsheets much. Could the group look at some of his investment analyses? I don’t have any of those either, he said. It’s all in my head. The investors were baffled. Well, could he at least tell them where he thought the stock market was headed? “I don’t know,” Mecham replied.
When the meeting broke up, “most people left the room mystified,” says Brendan O’Brien, a New York City money manager who was there. “They were expecting to see this very sharp-dressed, fast-talking guy. They were saying, I don’t get it, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t have a view on the market, because money managers get paid to have a view on the market.” Mecham has faced this kind of befuddlement before — which is one reason he meets only rarely with potential investors. It’s tough to sell his product to an industry that’s used to something very different. After all, according to their rules, he shouldn’t even be in the business to begin with.
The fact that people were mystified by this young man’s performance should be embarrassing to Wall Street. And, not to rain on Mecham’s parade, but it really doesn’t speak to the greatness of Mecham so much as it speaks to the “mysticism” of Wall Street.
Benjamin Graham’s lessons on value investing have been available to the general public for over 70 years. Graham’s greatest disciple, Warren Buffett, is also the greatest investor of all time and one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. The story of his success has been told in countless biographies (of which little old me has managed to read two), all of which make it abundantly clear that Buffett’s time at an Ivy League graduate program likely had little to do with his destiny in the financial world. In fact, the man has railed against the Wall Street paradigm for decades himself and has explained to anyone who will listen — and they are legion! — why you can’t make money playing Wall Street’s game.
So, why is this all such a big surprise to these people?
It’s a big surprise because Wall Street isn’t broken. Wall Street is a mystical financial priesthood, just as the Federal Reserve and other central banks infesting the globe are mystical monetary priesthoods.
Wall Street doesn’t “get” value investing and is “surprised” to learn of its existence, and successful practitioners, because if Wall Street ever acknowledged that such a school of thinking existed, they’d be admitting their own inefficacy and the whole jig would be up. This is just the same as how the members of the Fed remain ignorant of the teachings of Austrian economics– to acknowledge and seek to understand them would be the beginning of the end of their nefarious charade.
The Wall Street business model is a volume-based, sales operation. It isn’t any different from television sales, automobile sales, pharmaceutical sales or insurance sales in terms of mechanics and objectives. All that’s different is the sales people are better “educated”, wear fancier clothes and work out of taller, shinier buildings. It’s a fee-based business, and the fees are generated by controlling assets and repeatedly churning them– the more you manage and the more often you turn it over, the more fees you generate and the richer you get.
Because Wall Street lives off of hyperactivity, the philosophy of patient inactivity (Buffet’s “waiting for a fat pitch”) and concentrated portfolios is, literally, blasphemous. Under such a model, your only chance at earning a return for your services is… to generate real returns for your clients! With the Wall Street model, you can get rich even as you lose your clients money. In fact, if you’re a brokerage or investment bank, you might even be able to accelerate the pace at which you enrich yourself as your client loses simply by trading more losing positions more often!
This is not an indictment of capitalism, free markets or financial exchanges, all of which are socio-economic goods with real value. This is an indictment of the Wall Street money management paradigm in relation to the tenets of value investing, a paradigm which doesn’t “work” at generating real returns for investors because it can’t– it wasn’t designed to do that!
Again, to draw comparisons to the Federal Reserve and the nature of central banking, the Fed can’t “fight inflation” and “lower unemployment” because that is not what the Fed was designed to do. The Federal Reserve CREATES inflation by issuing new fiduciary media into the economy and, with the assistance of the fractional reserve banking system, expanding the monetary base. It does this because the purpose of the Federal Reserve is to provide an alternative, “silent” tax system for the political class while easing the built-in, we-all-fall-down tensions within the fractional reserve banking system, which is the whole reason such a system requires a “lender of last resort.”
Wall Street, as a moniker for the fee-based, AUM-central “financial services” industry, delivers precisely what it was designed to deliver– lucrative pay plans and an unearned sense of superiority compared to everyone else in the economy for the specially-entitled club members and graduates of the connected institutions who populate it. It, like the banking industry and the global central bank system, operates via the herd mentality simply because those who thieve together, hang together. If you want to avoid hanging together, you must be committed to thieving together.
Defining risk as volatility, as Wall Street does, practically ensures that you’ll repeatedly expose your clients to real risk (that is, the risk of permanent capital loss) while naively trying to juggle the impossible task of managing ex post facto-determined volatility risk. Operating off of an asset accumulation/inventory churn model guarantees that your incentive structure will never be aligned with your clients, no matter how well-intentioned you might be. Government coercion in the form of mutual fund industry regulation and others provides the necessary legal muscle to prevent anyone who can think for themselves from attempting to do so.
Mecham’s closing comment is prescient:
Where does Arlington head next? Mecham says he won’t compromise his strategy to play the Wall Street game. That leaves Ben Raybould battling to market a fund, and a manager, that many other money managers can’t even understand. Mecham is bemused that so many people expect him to hold a broad basket of stocks and follow a benchmark, such as the S&P 500. “It’s laughable to think that in this competitive world, you’re going to find brilliant ideas every day,” he says. “The world’s just not set up that way.”
Exactly. And Wall Street will never manage to successfully manage risk and generate real returns for its clients– it’s just not set up that way.