The lesson of Long Term Capital Management

Over the years I have marveled at the fact that some of the most intelligent people in the financial markets repeatedly get blindsided by market action. Frequently it is because in the real world the markets do not act in accordance with their view of how the markets should act.

A great many intelligent people lost money when the markets crashed in 2000 and 2008 because in each instance they did not see the crash coming. Many fall back on “nobody” can predict the market when what they mean is that “they” failed to predict the market.

A great deal of the advice given by the Wall Street firms is conflicted. Even simple tools like asset allocation are grossly misapplied. Finding a better than average financial adviser can be hit or miss.

Many people agree that investing requires time, information, analysis and discipline. There is logic that suggests using computers and mathematics to make investment decisions has merit. Computers will certainly analyze more information in less time and can trade any account subject to a rigid discipline.

Success should be dependent upon analyzing the right information in the right way. Hiring really smart and accomplished people to decide which information to collect and how to analyze it would seem to enhance the chance of success. Except that it does not always work.

The most outrageous example may be the case of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a Connecticut based hedge fund that lost about $4.5 billion of investors’ money in 1998 and almost brought the markets down with it. The investors were some of Wall Street’s biggest banks and many of the individual executives who managed them.

LTCM was started in 1993 by Lee Meriwether, a very accomplished trader who had made substantial profits for Salomon Brothers. Showcased members of the team were Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, two economists who had devised a mathematical model for pricing options. Merton and Scholes won the Nobel Prize in Economics for that model in 1997 just before the downturn that wiped out LTCM.

LTCM performed arbitrage with its investors’ money. They looked for small discrepancies in the price of the same or similar instruments in different markets. They assumed that the markets would always efficiently close those gaps.

LTCM created sophisticated mathematical tools to identify those discrepancies and to evaluate the greater markets so they could estimate how those gaps would close. No one has suggested that LTCM’s math was wrong; it is just that the events that occurred were not in the database that they were analyzing.

In 1997 the government in Thailand devalued its currency. The ensuing defaults roiled the markets in Asia and caused a serious decline in the equity markets. Credit markets in Japan, a major US trading partner and the most important capital markets in Asia tightened significantly. It did not help that Russia defaulted on its own sovereign debt shortly thereafter.

Importantly, LTCM did not lose money when the devaluation occurred in 1997 but a year later. The LTCM fund was very profitable into 1998. Losses started to mount up when its mathematical models could not account for the shifting market conditions caused by the devaluation. They were useless to predict the effects of the often conflicting ways in which other Asian governments and central banks would deal with it.

The lesson to learn from LTCM is quite simple. Even the best mathematical models created by the smartest people should not be relied upon to tell us what the markets may do. No computer program can accurately predict the price of securities one month or one year from today.

Despite this fact, there are currently a multitude of “quant” firms that are developing and using ever more sophisticated mathematics to do just that. Most are focused upon making predictions of what will happen in the markets today not next month. I wish them luck but I would not give them any of my money to invest.

The markets will continue to evolve, globalize and expand. Developing mathematical models based upon how the markets have acted up until today will be less and less accurate and have less and less utility going forward.

Millennials think otherwise and are expected to invest trillions of dollars with robo-advisers who use mathematics in the same way. A substantial percentage of those funds will be lost the next time the market turns down.

Then the market”professionals” and pundits who currently sell and endorse robo-adviser programs will remind the millennials that “nobody can predict the market” because some things about the markets never change.

What The Crowdfunders Forgot ….The Crowd

My own interest in Crowdfunding goes back only about one year but there are few old timers like me in this now exploding corner of the capital markets. By now I have now read hundreds of articles and studies, spoken and corresponded with people who were instrumental in getting the JOBS Act passed and people who work in the Crowdfunding market every day.

I admit that I am fascinated by Crowdfunding. I see it as especially beneficial to smaller companies who can now raise capital in a regulated environment. Much of the literature focuses on the benefits of that capital to those companies and the benefits of those small companies to the general economy.

Very little seems to have been written on how this market will attract investors. If anything, there seems to be an attitude that suggests that ”if we build it, investors will come”.

Up until now, Crowdfunded offerings could only be purchased by “accredited investors”, wealthier people who are supposedly sophisticated enough to evaluate a private offering themselves and who are presumed to be wealthy enough to accept a loss if the investment tanked.

Before Crowdfunding accredited investors were sought out for private placements offered under Regulation D. Reg. D offerings are generally made through regulated brokerage firms where professional salespeople sell them to investors and are sometimes motivated by high commissions.

Crowdfunding is attempting to compete with these live salespeople using mostly passive portals and social media. It is not the same. Social media is just a tool. What Crowdfunding needs to embrace is a message that these investors want to hear.

A significant number of Reg. D offerings are real estate or oil and gas production syndications. In a great many of these offerings investors are promised a share of the rents or royalties or some other monthly or quarterly income stream. Some of these offerings offer tax benefits that are attractive to wealthy investors.

There are many established sponsors in the Reg. D market. These companies fund project after project through private placements. The larger sponsors can often point to a track record of success. By success I mean that prior investors were able to cash out for more than they invested.

Crowdfunding is too young for any company to post a similar track record. Crowdfunding counts its successes by how many companies get funded. As Crowdfunding matures it needs to judge its success by how many investors make money.

Only a small portion of the people who qualify as accredited investors actually invest in private placements. What exactly is the Crowdfunding industry doing to lure these private placement investors to Crowdfunding websites? The short answer is: not nearly enough.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has recently opened Crowdfunding to all investors. Many smaller investors will be restricted to investing no more than $2000 on Crowdfunding portals each year. The SEC understands that with any Crowdfunded offering there is a high risk that the investors will could lose their entire investment.

Since we are speaking of only $2000 of non-essential income, it would seem more logical that people might opt to take that amount money to Las Vegas and put one dollar at a time into a slot machine. Statistically, slot machines pay out about 97% of the money that people put into them. Whether you ultimately win or lose has a lot do with when you stop. If you play a slot machine for long enough the casino is likely to buy you a beverage.

Investing that same $2000 in a small business through a Crowdfunding portal would have a significantly higher risk of loss and demonstrably less entertainment value. I see a lot of ads for Crowdfunded offerings and to date none has included a drink coupon.

The allure of Crowdfunding to any investor is the chance to cash out big. For the vast majority of Crowdfunded businesses that is very unlikely to happen even if the funded company is successful.

To date, there is no meaningful secondary market for Crowdfunded offerings. An investor who invests in a company that does well may still not get their money back to spend or invest in other offerings.

What will the Crowdfunding portals offer to entice any investor to bring money?

There is a lot in the Crowdfunding literature regarding the use of social media campaigns to sell offerings. This reliance upon social media actually highlights a weakness in the Crowdfunding system.

Investors who are solicited by a single company because they are suppliers or customers of that company or friends of the management have no reason to evaluate any other offering on the same portal or other portals. The portals should not expect these investors to become repeat customers.

If an investor does not get interest or a regular share of the profits, cannot cash out and has worse odds of success than at a slot machine, it is easy to see that the Crowdfunding industry still has will have some work to do. Once the “newness” of Crowdfunding wears off investors will need better deals and better incentives for investors.