ENCORE: The Danger of Groupthink with Endowment Fund Portfolio Managers

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A Historical Look-Back to the Future?

wayne-firebaugh

By Wayne Firebaugh CPA CFP® CMP™

www.CertifiedMedicalPlanner.org

It is not unusual for endowment fund managers to compare their endowment allocations to those of peer institutions and that as a result, endowment allocations are often similar to the “average” as reported by one or more survey/consulting firms.

One endowment fund manager expanded this thought by presciently noting that expecting materially different performance with substantially the same allocation is unreasonable [personal communication]. It is anecdotally interesting to wonder whether the seminal study “proving” the importance of asset allocation could have even had a substantially different conclusion. It seems likely that the pensions surveyed in the study had very similar allocations given the human tendency to measure one’s self against peers and to use peers for guidance.

Peer Comparison

Although peer comparisons can be useful in evaluating your institution’s own processes, groupthink can be highly contagious and dangerous.

For example, in the first quarter of 2000, net flows into equity mutual funds were $140.4 billion as compared to net inflows of $187.7 billion for all of 1999. February’s equity fund inflows were a staggering $55.6 billion, the record for single month investments. For all of 1999, total net mutual fund investments were $169.8 billion[1] meaning that investors “rebalanced” out of asset classes such as bonds just in time for the market’s March 24, 2000 peak (as measured by the S&P 500).

Of course, investors are not immune to poor decision making in upward trending markets. In 2001, investors withdrew a then-record amount of $30 billion[2] in September, presumably in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. These investors managed to skillfully “rebalance” their ways out of markets that declined approximately 11.5% during the first several trading sessions after the market reopened, only to reach September 10th levels again after only 19 trading days. In 2002, investors revealed their relentless pursuit of self-destruction when they withdrew a net $27.7 billion from equity funds[3] just before the S&P 500’s 29.9% 2003 growth.

The Travails

Although it is easy to dismiss the travails of mutual fund investors as representing only the performance of amateurs, it is important to remember that institutions are not automatically immune by virtue of being managed by investment professionals.

For example, in the 1960s and early 1970s, common wisdom stipulated that portfolios include the Nifty Fifty stocks that were viewed to be complete companies.  These stocks were considered “one-decision” stocks for which the only decision was how much to buy. Even institutions got caught up in purchasing such current corporate stalwarts as Joe Schlitz Brewing, Simplicity Patterns, and Louisiana Home & Exploration.

Collective market groupthink pushed these stocks to such prices that Price Earnings ratios routinely exceeded 50. Subsequent disappointing performance of this strategy only revealed that common wisdom is often neither common nor wisdom.

Senate house conference committee meets wall street reform

[Wall Street Reform?]

More Current Examples

More recently, the New York Times reported on June 21, 2007, that Bear Stearns had managed to forestall the demise of the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies and the related Enhanced Leveraged Fund.

The two funds held mortgage-backed debt securities of almost $2 billion many of which were in the sub-prime market.  To compound the problem, the funds borrowed much of the money used to purchase these securities.

The firms who had provided the loans to make these purchases represent some of the smartest names on Wall Street, including  JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Deutsche Bank.[4]

Assessment

Despite its efforts Bear Stearns had to inform investors less than a week later on June 27th that these two funds had collapsed.

Conclusion

Is this same Groupthink mentality happening on Wall Street, today? Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

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[1]   2001 Fact Book, Investment Company Institute.

[2]   Id.

[3]   2003 Fact Book, Investment Company Institute.

[4]    Bajaj, Vikas and Creswell, Julie. “Bear Stearns Staves off Collapse of 2 Hedge Funds.”
New York Times, June 21, 2007.

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4 Responses

  1. Group-Think

    Group-Think demonstrates the irrationality of the crowds at the extremes.

    At oversold and overbought markets the crowd mentality is almost always doing the wrong thing. Which is why the Contrarian Indicator is one of the better signals to pay attention to.

    David K. Luke MIM CMP™
    http://www.CertifiedMedicalPlanner.org

    Like

  2. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac Plunge After Court Ruling on Profit

    Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac plunged in New York trading after investors including Bruce Berkowitz’s Fairholme Capital Management LLC hedge fund lost a legal bid yesterday to force the bailed-out companies to share profits with private shareholders.

    http://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/fannie-mae-freddie-mac-plunge-after-court-ruling-on-profit/ar-BB6Ngen

    Bernie

    Like

  3. You’re fired

    It may be entertaining to watch Donald Trump point his finger and curtly say, “You’re fired!” When a client says the same thing to me, it isn’t so funny.

    I’m especially not amused if a client fires me because their diversified portfolio is underperforming the US stock market and they abandon the strategy. The result is often a financial travesty.

    The February issue of “Inside Information,” Bob Veres’ financial newsletter, puts a name to this phenomenon: “frame-of-reference risk.” The term is used by Roger Gibson, Chief Investment Officer, and Christopher Sidoni, Director of Investment Research, of Gibson Capital in Wexford, PA. Veres reported on a presentation they gave at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Personal Financial Planning conference in Las Vegas in January.

    Gibson describes “frame-of-reference risk” as clients’ tendency to compare the performance of their diversified portfolios with current returns in the US stock market. He points out, “If the discrepancy gets too painful, they will fire you and abandon a diversified approach at the wrong time.”

    Based on the emphasis the media gives the US stock market, one could easily conclude US stocks must be the largest, most important asset class in the world. Not at all. US stocks represent less than 10% of the world’s wealth and make up 10% to 20% of most diversified portfolios.

    Neither do US stocks consistently produce the best returns. In the 1970’s, commodities dwarfed US stock returns. In the 1980’s, international stocks led the way. In the 1990’s, US stocks were the stars. In the 2000’s, the leader was real estate.

    Yet most investors judge the performance of their portfolios by US stocks. They may compare the returns of a diversified portfolio with news reports about the S&P 500 and the Dow, which together include only 530 companies.

    Between 1994 and 1999, Gibson’s multi-asset class strategy delivered a 13.05% return, which paled in comparison to the US market’s 23.55% return. He lost one-third of the assets he managed in 1999, as clients fired him. They abandoned their diversified investment strategy at just the wrong time to save themselves from the 2000-2002 US stock market downturn, when real estate and commodities soared. Gibson’s multi-asset class portfolios did 9.96% from 2000 to 2005, when US stocks rang up losses.

    This pattern, familiar to many financial planners, is the sad consequence of frame-of-reference risk.

    Another aspect of that risk is our human tendency to stay in a comfort zone where most of our neighbors are doing pretty much what we’re doing. One client even told Gibson, “I would rather follow an inferior strategy that wins when my friends are winning and loses when my friends are losing, than follow a superior strategy that at times causes me to lose when they’re winning.”

    Unfortunately, this tendency can lead us into disasters. Diversified portfolios are once again underperforming the US stock market. Predictably, an increasing number of investors are abandoning diversification, right in time to get nailed.

    Gibson and Sidoni’s conclusion seems to be that educating clients to stay the course is a no-win game. In their view, advisors need to craft a less efficient, lower-return long-term strategy that clients will consistently follow rather than a more efficient strategy that clients may abandon in mid-stream.

    While that view seems pragmatic, it really misses the mark. Instead of dumbing down portfolios to match client’s dysfunctional money scripts, it would be a better outcome if advisors concentrated on helping their clients uncover and modify the money scripts that are driving their self-sabotaging behaviors. This approach can help keep clients from saying “You’re fired!” at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

    Rick Kahler MS CFP®
    http://www.KahlerFinancial.com
    http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Financial-Planning-Strategies-Advisors/dp/1482240289/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418580820&sr=8-1&keywords=david+marcinko

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