In 2009 I was working for a large mutual fund company in Western Canada. It was the peak of the financial crisis and I was given the opportunity to take a promotion but had to move to Alberta. I was eager to move up (I was only 28) and jumped at the chance though I had no great desire to live in Edmonton. It was a difficult time. It was lonely in Alberta, and people weren’t eager to speak to a wet behind the ear’s wholesaler right after the biggest rout in modern financial history.
One particularly vivid memory for me was back in 2009, walking into an office at the tail end of conference call being given by Christine Hughes, a portfolio manager of some note during the crisis. Hughes was at the top of her game. She had outperformed much of the market by holding 50% cash weighting and had correctly predicted the financial crash. In later appearances she would complain that the company she worked for had prevented her from holding more and would have had been allowed to. But at this moment, in 2009, it was late summer, and markets had been rebounding for several months, having hit bottom in early March. Hughes was adamant that “the other shoe was going to drop” and that’s when things would really go wrong.
For much of my time in 2009 Hughes, and her fund, was the story that challenged me. Having made the correct call in 2008, advisors were eager to listen to what she had to say and believed that her correct prediction in 2008 meant she knew what was coming next. Many people followed Hughes and her advice, which led primarily nowhere.
Hughes’ time subsequent to 2008 was not nearly as exciting or as successful as you might have guessed. She left AGF, where she had made it big, and went on to another firm before finally starting her own company, Otterwood Capital. The last time I saw Hughes it was in 2013 and she was giving a presentation about how close we were to a near and total collapse of the global financial system. Her message hadn’t changed in the preceding four years, and to my knowledge never did.
Hughes may not have prospered as much as she hoped following her winning year, but others who made similar predictions did. One such person is Ray Dalio, the founder and manager of Bridgewater Associates. Dalio is a different creature, one with a long history on Wall Street who had built a successful business long before 2008. But 2008 was a moment that launched Dalio into the stratosphere with his “Alpha Fund” largely sidestepping the worst of that market and by 2009 his hedge fund was named the largest in the US. Since then Dalio has grown a dedicated following beyond his institutional investors, with a well watched YouTube video (How the Economic Machine Works – 13 million views) and a series of books including one on his leadership principles and a study on navigating debt crises (I, of course, own a copy!). Yet when the corona virus rolled through Dalio’s funds faired no better than many other products (I’m sorry, this is behind a paywall, but I recommend everyone have a subscription to the Financial Times). Once again past success was no indication of future returns.
I’m not trying to compare myself to a hedge fund manager like Dalio, a person undoubtably smarter than myself. However its important to remember that being right in one instance, even extreme and unpredictable events, seems to offer little insight into when they will be right again.
If you’ve read many of these posts you may know that I am a fan of Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile. Early in the book Black Swan, Taleb makes the case that “Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.” This is an important idea that I think can be extended to our portfolio mangers that gained notoriety for getting something right and then getting much else wrong.
A complaint I have long held about experts within the financial industry is both their desire to position themselves as outsiders while being likely to share many of the same views. Having a real contrarian opinion is more dangerous than being part of the herd, after all if things go wrong for you as a contrarian, they are likely to be going right for the herd. On the other hand, if things go wrong for the herd, the herd can use its size as a defense: “We were all wrong together.”
Some of this group think can be applied to the failure of governments to get a jump on the coronavirus situation. Far from not listening to experts, governments took the safest bet which was also the most conservative view, that the virus posed a low risk to the population of countries outside China. People who thought the virus was a large risk were taking a more extreme view; that the virus posed a serious risk and required extreme measures such as travel restrictions, aggressive testing, encouraging people to wear face masks and socially distance. As a politician which choice would you make?
The point for investors should be to treat the advice of financial experts who rise to prominence during outlier events as no more special than those that got big financial events wrong. This is not because their advice isn’t good, just that the thing they got right may not indicate wide ranging knowledge, but a moment when they understood something very well that other people did not. Investors should avoid personality cults and maintain a principle of uncertainty and scepticism to prophets of profit. The rise of COVID-19 and the global pandemic response, including the rapid change in the market, will produce a number of books and talking heads who will parlay their status as hedgehogs into that of a foxes! (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, please read this from 2016).
Dalio remains a very successful manager, but his correct reading of 2008 did not prepare him for 2020. In his own words: “We did not know how to navigate the virus and chose not to because we didn’t think we had an edge in trading it. So, we stayed in our positions and in retrospect we should have cut all risk.” Christine Hughes on the other hand seems to have disappeared, her fund gone and she in an early retirement. I know of no financial advisers eager to hear her views.
Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.