Hedging Is Simple, But Market Timing Is Not
While Miller Missteps (Again) . . .
Recall that around this time in 2005, Bill Miller was being hailed as the most successful fund manager of all time, with his Legg Mason Value Trust Fund outperforming the S&P 500 for a record-breaking 15th straight year. Then, in 2006, Value Trust underperformed for the first time since 1990, returning just 6% versus the S&P 500's double-digit 16%. Last year, in 2007, Miller again underperformed, this time -7% (i.e., a loss) for Value Trust versus a 5% gain for the S&P 500. In 2008, as of last Friday, Nov. 14, Value Trust is down a whopping 50%, versus a 40% decline for the S&P 500, making it quite likely that Miller will underperform once again--for the third straight year.
In his third-quarter commentary published last week (Nov. 12), Miller discusses flaws in the government's delayed ("too late") response to the financial crisis, while also admitting,
"I have made enough mistakes in this market of my own, chief among them was recognizing how disastrous [government] policies being followed were, yet not taking maximum defensive measures [italics mine], believing that the policies would be reversed or at least followed by sensible ones before things got completely out of control."Miller is alluding here to his failure to implement an appropriate hedging strategy to protect his fund against the precipitous collapse of the market during the past couple of months. With 20/20 hindsight, of course, it is easy to say that he (or anyone long the market) should have either sold their equity holdings, shorted S&P 500 futures, or bought puts to protect the downside.
. . . Hussman Hedges
While most equity fund managers, like Miller, are suffering complete and unforgiving drubbings this year, one fund manager is making news due to his notable outperformance in this year's most disastrous market in decades. John Hussman's Strategic Growth Fund (HSGFX) is running only slightly negative year-to-date through Oct. 31, which sure beats the 40% or larger decline most fund managers are experiencing. Of course, Hussman's stand-alone performance begs the question, what's his secret formula?
Though academic credentials do not necessarily or even typically help one become a better investor, perhaps at least it is no detriment to his performance that Hussman holds a Stanford economics Ph.D. and is a former finance professor at the University of Michigan. His investment strategy, as described on his website and in his fund's prospectus, seems to be a rational approach firmly grounded in interpreting historical data, utilizing "observable evidence" (sounds scientific . . .) in an attempt to distinguish between favorable and unfavorable "market climates" (weather forecasting analogy?), taking into account both "market action" (an allusion to physics or sports?) and valuation (yeah, he has a value-investing approach, similar in some respects to Buffett and Grantham).
To date, Hussman's differentiator has been his hedging. What really distinguishes his investment style from that other fund managers is his ongoing implementation of partial or full hedging of his underlying long-equity portfolio, even though he could potentially become fully invested or even leverage up beyond full exposure if market conditions ever call for it:
"In conditions which the investment manager identifies as involving high risk and low expected return, the Fund's portfolio will be hedged by using stock index futures, options on stock indices or options on individual securities. . . . The Fund will typically be fully invested or leveraged when the investment manager identifies conditions in which stocks have historically been rewarding investments."In Hussman's framework, although market action remains unfavorable, the market's recent decline has shifted valuation from unfavorable to more favorable, leading him to begin transitioning his portfolio from being fully hedged (underlying stock positions essentially 100% protected by put-call combinations as of a few months ago) to taking on moderate market exposure (now 70% to 80% protected). Currently, Hussman views any near-term market declines as opportunities to strip away a few more layers of protection and increase market exposure, since stocks have become "both undervalued and oversold."
Because Hussman varies the amount of his protection (or exposure) to market moves in accordance with market conditions, he is, in my opinion, attempting at least partially to "time" the market, even though he insists that he is not pursuing "market timing" in the usual sense of the term. In his own words from a recent weekly commentary:
"The Strategic Growth Fund is not a 'market timing' fund. Nor is it a 'bear' fund or a 'market neutral' fund. Strategic Growth is a risk-managed growth fund that is intended to accept exposure to U.S. stocks over the full market cycle, but with smaller periodic losses than a passive buy-and-hold approach. We gradually scale our investment exposure in proportion to the average return/risk profile that stocks have provided under similar conditions (primarily defined by valuation and market action). We make no attempt to track short-term market fluctuations. We leave 'buy signals' and attempts to forecast short-term market direction to other investors, preferring to align our investment positions with the prevailing evidence about the Market Climate."Hedging Versus Market Timing
To understand the impact of hedging on Hussman's longer-term performance, we can look at his fund's returns, which he conveniently discloses both before and after hedging.
Since its inception in 2000, Hussman's Strategic Growth Fund has carved out a winning track record, as evidenced by the stellar performance chart displayed prominently on Hussman's website. For the eight-year period, while the S&P 500 has lost 1.04% annually, Hussman's unhedged portfolio has gained 6.37% annually, and his Strategic Growth Fund has returned 10.76% annually. These results indicate that Hussman's stock-picking ability (or is it luck?--more on this topic below) has boosted his annual return to some 741 b.p. above the S&P 500, while his hedging has apparently added another 439 b.p. to his annual performance. This is a very solid track record over the past eight years, particularly in light of the two bear markets fund managers have had to endure, both in 2000-2002 and beginning from the last quarter of 2007.
Before jumping to conclusions about Hussman's apparent analytical genius or market clairvoyance in largely avoiding both bear markets, let's take a closer look at the data--his data--posted here on his website for the casual (or better, not so casual) perusal by anyone interested. Taking the 33 quarters of data from the third quarter of 2000 through the third quarter of 2008, we can make a scatter plot of his unhedged and realized fund performance versus the S&P 500, as shown in the chart below.
If Hussman's realized fund performance points (in pink) on the chart seem to sketch out a typical, albeit somewhat noisy, hockey-stick-shaped option payoff diagram, this graphical result should come as no surprise, since, after all, the basic purpose of Hussman's hedging is to protect his portfolio against market declines, while allowing participation in market upside potential.
Let's take our analysis of Hussman's performance a step further. In the chart above, observe that the pink points sit above the blue points on the left half, while the reverse is true--pink below blue--on the right half. To understand this behavior, we need to distinguish between hedging and market timing:
- Hedging: The underlying unhedged position is Hussman's long-equity exposure to his chosen portfolio of stocks. If he were always (i.e., without attempting to time the market) simply to buy put options with at-the-money or slightly out-of-the-money strikes to protect his portfolio against market downside, the puts would show a profit when the market declines but would expire worthless when the market rises. The result would be an insurance-like payoff pattern from the hedge--protection against loss in a declining market, but with a cost relative to the unhedged position particularly evident when the market rises.
- Market Timing: On the other hand, if Hussman were attempting to time the market and successful in doing so, presumably by selectively hedging to protect against downside under risky market conditions but operating without a hedge when prevailing conditions are less risky, the data ought to show not only realized fund performance above the unhedged case (pink above blue in the chart) when the market declines, but also at least an occasional occurrence of this type of outperformance of his fund over the unhedged case when the market rises.
What this all indicates is that Hussman's performance is basically consistent with that of someone who makes a practice of always hedging with put options, regardless of market conditions. By and large, it is not what we should expect to see from a portfolio manager implementing a market timing strategy, even though Hussman does at least occasionally remove some portion of his hedge to reduce cost when he believes that risk is low and the chance of a market rise is high.
Skill Versus Luck
The above classification of Hussman as a hedger and not a market timer is in agreement with the often-stated warning to investors and traders that market timing is difficult, if not impossible, and should be attempted only with extreme caution by anyone with risk aversion. In a Tech Ticker interview last week on the topic of skill versus luck in stock-picking and market timing, Professor Kenneth French (whose name figures prominently alongside Fama's in finance theory) states:
"There this a whole academic literature trying to figure out who won because of luck and who won because they truly had skill. We don't know how to do it. I mean there's a little bit of evidence that we can distinguish luck from skill, but, in essence, it's absolutely futile.Surely, coming from an accomplished expert in finance, this type of statement is enough to throw into question anyone's claim of having ability to pick stocks and time the market to achieve excess returns in a consistent fashion.
"So, when I have a mediocre M.B.A. student who spent the weekend studying Morningstar and is convinced he knows how to pick the winning fund, what I challenge him with is sort of, 'Geez, you know, it's good that you didn't even need to bother to get a Ph.D. and spend the last 30 years of your life solving this problem. You know, those of us who did that, we don't know how to do it. But, congratulations. That was a really productive weekend!'
". . . To basically try to distinguish skill from luck . . . [is] almost impossible. . . . What I'm saying is, I can't tell . . . one from the other. . . . If I can't tell good from bad, why play the game?"
What this means is that we, the investing public, should not read too much into the performance of successful fund managers, however superb their performance may have been (in Miller's case) or appear to be (in Hussman's case). Both Hussman and Miller have certainly assembled relatively long track records as ostensibly excellent stock-pickers, but, as history has shown, anything is possible. If Miller's 15-year winning streak can suddenly undergo a complete metamorphosis into a 3-year (or longer?) losing streak, and if Hussman's track record is solid but exhibits inherent underperformance in rising markets as consistently as it displays outperformance in falling markets, we can only suspect that unquestionable evidence of skill, as opposed to luck, in investing has become that much harder to find.
Although anyone actively managing a stock portfolio may hate to admit it, Professor French is most likely right--unfortunately, in the world of investing, we will probably never really be able to tell if our own or anyone else's performance stems primarily from luck or, as many may want to believe, from having a discernible edge over other investors who are only almost-as-skilled as ourselves.