Some of you may be aware of the bet that Warren Buffett took in December 2007 with Protégé Partners – he selected the S&P 500 and Protégé Partners picked five “fund-of-funds” that they expected to outperform the S&P 500. Protégé Partners is an advisory firm that knows its way around Wall Street and selected five investment experts who, in turn, employed several hundred other investment experts, each managing his or her own hedge fund. ‘This assemblage was an elite crew, loaded with brains, adrenaline and confidence…
Below is an extract from the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report in which Mr Buffett explains the detail of the bet and the outcome:
“The Bet” is Over and Has Delivered an Unforeseen Investment Lesson
Last year, at the 90% mark, I gave you a detailed report on a ten-year bet I had made on December 19, 2007.
(The full discussion from last year’s annual report is reprinted on pages 24 – 26.) Now I have the final tally – and, in several respects, it’s an eye-opener.
I made the bet for two reasons: (1) to leverage my outlay of $318,250 into a disproportionately larger sum that – if things turned out as I expected – would be distributed in early 2018 to Girls Inc. of Omaha; and (2) to publicize my conviction that my pick – a virtually cost-free investment in an unmanaged S&P 500 index fund – would, over time, deliver better results than those achieved by most investment professionals, however well-regarded and incentivized those “helpers” may be.
Addressing this question is of enormous importance. American investors pay staggering sums annually to advisors, often incurring several layers of consequential costs. In the aggregate, do these investors get their money’s worth? Indeed, again in the aggregate, do investors get anything for their outlays?
Protégé Partners, my counterparty to the bet, picked five “funds-of-funds” that it expected to overperform the S&P 500. That was not a small sample. Those five funds-of-funds in turn owned interests in more than 200 hedge funds.
Essentially, Protégé, an advisory firm that knew its way around Wall Street, selected five investment experts who, in turn, employed several hundred other investment experts, each managing his or her own hedge fund. This assemblage was an elite crew, loaded with brains, adrenaline and confidence.The managers of the five funds-of-funds possessed a further advantage: They could – and did – rearrange their portfolios of hedge funds during the ten years, investing with new “stars” while exiting their positions in hedge funds whose managers had lost their touch.
Every actor on Protégé’s side was highly incentivized: Both the fund-of-funds managers and the hedge-fund managers they selected significantly shared in gains, even those achieved simply because the market generally moves upwards. (In 100% of the 43 ten-year periods since we took control of Berkshire, years with gains by the S&P 500 exceeded loss years.)
Those performance incentives, it should be emphasized, were frosting on a huge and tasty cake: Even if the funds lost money for their investors during the decade, their managers could grow very rich. That would occur because fixed fees averaging a staggering 21⁄2% of assets or so were paid every year by the fund-of-funds’ investors, with part of these fees going to the managers at the five funds-of-funds and the balance going to the 200-plus managers of the underlying hedge funds.
Here’s the final scorecard for the bet:
Footnote: Under my agreement with Protégé Partners, the names of these funds-of-funds have never been publicly disclosed. I, however, have received their annual audits from Protégé. The 2016 figures for funds A, B and C were revised slightly from those originally reported last year. Fund D was liquidated in 2017; its average annual gain is calculated for the nine years of its operation. The five funds-of-funds got off to a fast start, each beating the index fund in 2008. Then the roof fell in. In every one of the nine years that followed, the funds-of-funds as a whole trailed the index fund. Let me emphasize that there was nothing aberrational about stock-market behaviour over the ten-year stretch. If a poll of investment “experts” had been asked late in 2007 for a forecast of long-term common-stock returns, their guesses would have likely averaged close to the 8.5% actually delivered by the S&P 500. Making money in that environment should have been easy. Indeed, Wall Street “helpers” earned staggering sums. While this group prospered, however, many of their investors experienced a lost decade. Performance comes, performance goes. Fees never falter.
The bet illuminated another important investment lesson: Though markets are generally rational, they occasionally do crazy things. Seizing the opportunities then offered does not require great intelligence, a degree in economics or a familiarity with Wall Street jargon such as alpha and beta. What investors then need instead is an ability to both disregard mob fears or enthusiasms and to focus on a few simple fundamentals. A willingness to look unimaginative for a sustained period – or even to look foolish – is also essential.
I have to confess that I particularly appreciate the final sentence – this is not a look that is comfortably supported in our industry.
The full report can be found here: www.berkshirehathaway.com/2017ar/2017ar.pdf
‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.’~Lao Tzu