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.

7 Reasons Why Robo-Investing Will Not Work. Millennials – Wake Up

Robo-investing is the next really big, really dumb thing. Millennials are expected to pour enormous amounts of money into these programs in the next few years. That would be an enormous mistake.

Robo-investment programs promise to help users to set up investment portfolios now and then to help manage those portfolios for the next 25 or 30 years. The portfolio with which you will end up, all those years down the road, is likely to be a disappointment.

I looked at a number of the websites and advertisements for these programs as I was writing this article. One proposes that a”moderate risk” portfolio would have 90% held in stocks. Another has a member of their investment team who takes a “holistic” approach to financial planning. That may be fine for some people but is not a serious approach to managing your money as far as I am concerned.

These computer programs do not have what it takes to intelligently construct a portfolio for you now or to manage it over a period of many years. Years from now, you will wish that you had a portfolio put together and monitored by a well trained and intelligent flesh and blood investment adviser. By then it will be too late.

Robo-investment advisers tout the fact that they cost less than a human investment adviser would cost. It does not really matter. Robo-investment advisers are inexpensive because they provide investors with little or no value.

If you have any doubt that these robo-investment adviser programs are less than worthless, here are seven obvious reasons why the actual portfolio that you will get from a robo-investment adviser program is likely to perform poorly.

Number One: It is not about your age.
One of the few personal questions that a robo-investment adviser program will ask is your age. If you are thirty the program will assume that you can afford to take on more risk than a person who is sixty. If it is suitable for you to take on more risk then your recommended portfolio will get more stock funds or ETFs and fewer bond funds and bond ETFs.

Investing based upon your age assumes that your age and the markets are somehow related. What you should or should not buy today is dependent upon the market, not upon your age. If you start down this path, what you will have bought or sold over the years that you stay with the program will have had nothing to do with what might have been a good investment at any time.

Number Two: Today might not be a good day to invest in either stocks or bonds.
Let us say that the program suggests that you create a portfolio that is 35% bond funds or bond ETFs and 60% stock funds or stock ETFs with 5% held in cash. In truth, it does not seem that most of these programs ever hold a lot of your funds in cash which always increases the portfolio risk.

If you begin investing this year when the stock market averages are making new highs it is reasonable to expect that next year or the year after the market might correct. It is very possible that five years down the road 60% of your portfolio will be worth less than it is today.

After seven years of forced low interest rates is this a good time to put 35% of your money into bond funds or ETFs? Savvy investors know that bond funds do not do well when interest rates rise. The computer will not adjust for the hike in interest rates that everyone knows is coming until after it happens and the portfolio has taken the loss.

Number Three: It is about the right math, the right data and more.
Robo-investment advisers claim to have sophisticated algorithms that will crunch the numbers and produce good results. The algorithms may be good but these programs look at the wrong numbers. A robo-investment adviser never gets past a limited set of gross market data. A robo-investment adviser never actually looks at any company’s balance sheet. They are an example of the GIGO principle of statistical analysis; garbage in, garbage out.

It is not only about the numbers. Before I would invest in any company I would want to know about products that the company might have in the pipeline, what its competitors were up to and what the CEO is thinking about. I am not alone. A robo-investment adviser is never interested in these things that most other investors would want to know.

Number Four: Investing cannot be done in a vacuum.
The computer program does not get a live news feed and would not know if Germany had invaded Poland so events leading up to any crisis that might affect the markets and the portfolio would necessarily be ignored. The program does not concern itself with current commodity prices, currency rates or international politics. Intelligent investors do.

To my mind, using a robo-investment adviser to construct and manage your long-term portfolio is the same as making all of your investment decisions from inside a small closet with the lights off and the door closed.

Number Five: The markets will not be static for the next 25 years.
The noted theorists upon whose works Modern Portfolio Theory and asset allocation are based were examining data from the markets prior to 1990. The financial markets have evolved significantly in the last 25 years. It is not just the speed or the technology. The markets are now global, there are a lot more participants and there is a lot more money in play. How the markets will continue to evolve and operate in the next 25 years is anyone’s guess and is certainly not built into any robo-investment program.

Number Six: The data that the program uses to select portfolios is based upon the past performance of the markets and past performance only. I should not have to tell you that past performance is an unreliable indicator of future results. If you invest with any one of these programs future results are exactly what you are trying to achieve. Why use data that is unlikely to get you there?

Number Seven: Human beings are actually necessary.
The sales pitch for these robo-investment advisers suggests that can do better than any human financial adviser. One company even touts that its program alleviates the risk of human error.

Using a robo-investment adviser will inevitably lead to portfolio losses every time the stock market goes down or interest rates go up. It will never tell you to avoid downturns or to get out of the markets all together before a crash. Likewise, the program never looks for new companies that might do very well or for any other investment opportunities that might make you money.

Severe market downturns can be scary. Investors are prone to panic. When your account value is dropping you are going to want someone to call. The robo-investment adviser will offer neither solace nor advice. That will only come from a knowledgeable human being. For that you have to pay a little more.