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The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville Revisited: Value Trounces Growth in Mutual Funds

May 24, 2012 | About:
The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville is a well-known article (see the original Hermes article here.pdf) by Warren Buffett defending value investing against the efficient market hypothesis. The article is an edited transcript of a talk Buffett gave at Columbia University in 1984 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Security Analysis, written by Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd.

In a 2006 talk, “Journey Into the Whirlwind: Graham-and-Doddsville Revisited,” Louis Lowenstein*, then a professor at the Columbia Law School, compared the performance of a group of “true-blue, walk-the-walk value investors” (the “Goldfarb Ten”) and “a group of large cap growth funds” (the “Group of Fifteen”).

Here are Lowenstein’s findings:

For the five years ended this past August 31, the Group of Fifteen experienced on average negative returns of 8.89% per year, vs. a negative 2.71% for the S&P 500.4 The group of ten value funds I had studied in the “Searching for Rational Investors” article had been suggested by Bob Goldfarb of the Sequoia Fund.5 Over those same five years, the Goldfarb Ten enjoyed positive average annual returns of 9.83%. This audience is no doubt quick with numbers, but let me help. Those fifteen large growth funds underperformed the Goldfarb Ten during those five years by an average of over 18 percentage points per year. Hey, pretty soon you have real money. Only one of the fifteen had even modestly positive returns. Now if you go back ten years, a period that includes the bubble, the Group of Fifteen did better, averaging a positive 8.13% per year.Even for that ten year period, however, they underperformed the value group, on average, by more than 5% per year.6 With a good tailwind, those large cap funds were not great – underperforming the index by almost 2% per year – and in stormy weather their boats leaked badly.
Lowenstein takes a close look at one of the Group of Fifteen (a growth fund):

The first was the Massachusetts Investors Growth Stock Fund, chosen because of its long history. Founded in 1932, as the Massachusetts Investors Second Fund, it was, like its older sibling, Massachusetts Investors Trust, truly a mutual fund, in the sense that it was managed internally, supplemented by an advisory board of six prominent Boston businessmen.7 In 1969, when management was shifted to an external company, now known as MFS Investment Management, the total expense ratio was a modest 0.32%.

I am confident that the founders of the Massachusetts Investors Trust would no longer recognize their second fund, which has become a caricature of the “do something” culture. The expense ratio, though still below its peer group, has tripled. But it’s the turbulent pace of trading that would have puzzled and distressed them. At year-end 1999, having turned the portfolio over 174%, the manager said they had moved away from “stable growth companies” such as supermarket and financial companies, and into tech and leisure stocks, singling out in the year- end report Cisco and Sun Microsystems – each selling at the time at about 100 X earnings – for their “reasonable stock valuation.” The following year, while citing a bottom-up, “value sensitive approach,” the fund’s turnover soared to 261%. And in 2001, with the fund continuing to remark on its “fundamental . . .bottom-up investment process,” turnover reached the stratospheric level of 305%. It is difficult to conceive how, even in 2003, well after the market as a whole had stabilized, the managers of this $10 billion portfolio had sold $28 billion of stock and then reinvested that $28 billion in other stocks.

For the five years ended in 2003, turnover in the fund averaged 250%. All that senseless trading took a toll. For the five years ended this past August, average annual returns were a negative 9-1/2%. Over the past ten years, which included the glory days of the New Economy, the fund did better, almost matching the index, though still trailing our value funds by 4% a year. Net assets which had been a modest $1.9 billion at Don Phillips’ kickoff date in 1997, and had risen to $17 billion in 2000, are now about $8 billion.

If you’re feeling some sympathy for the passengers in this financial vehicle, hold on. Investors – and I’m using the term loosely – in the Mass. Inv. Growth Stock Fund were for several years running spinning their holdings in and out of the fund at rates approximating the total assets of the fund. In 2001, for example, investors cashed out of $17-1/2 billion in Class A shares, and bought $16 billion in new shares, leaving the fund at year end with net assets of about $14 billion. Having attracted, not investors, but speculators trying to catch the next new thing, management got the shareholders they deserved.
And the value investors?

Having updated my data through August of this year, I am happy to report that the Goldfarb Ten still look true blue – actually better than at year-end 2003. The portfolio turnover rates have dropped on average to 16% – translation, an average holding period of six years. Honey, what did you do today? Nothing, dear.The average cash holding is 14% of the portfolio, and five of the funds are closed to new investors.f Currently, however, two of the still open funds, Mutual Beacon and Clipper, are losing their managers. The company managing the Clipper Fund has been sold twice over and Jim Gipson and two colleagues recently announced they’re moving on. At Mutual Beacon, which is part of the Franklin Templeton family, David Winters has left to create a mutual fund, ah yes, the Wintergreen Fund. It will be interesting to see whether Mutual Beacon and Clipper will maintain their discipline.

Speaking of discipline, you may remember that after Buffett published “The Superinvestors,” someone calculated that while they were indeed superinvestors, on average they had trailed the market one year in three.20 Tom Russo, of the Semper Vic Partners fund, took a similar look at the Goldfarb Ten and found, for example, that four of them had each underperformed the S&P 500 for four consecutive years, 1996-1999, and in some cases by huge amounts. For the full ten years, of course, that underperformance was sharply reversed, and then some. Value investing thus requires not just patient managers but also patient investors, those with the temperament as well as intelligence to feel comfortable even when sorely out of step with the crowd. If you’re fretting that the CBOE Market Volatility Index may be signaling fear this week, value investing is not for you.
* Louis was father to Roger Lowenstein of Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist.

About the author:

Greenbackd
Ravi Nagarajan is a private investor and Editor of The Rational Walk website. Ravi focuses on applying value investing techniques to find securities trading well below intrinsic business value. Ravi has over 15 years of experience in the financial markets and started investing on a full time basis in 2009. From 1996 to 2009, Ravi held a number of technical and executive level positions in the commercial software industry. Ravi graduated Summa Cum Laude from Santa Clara University with a degree in finance. Visit his website The Rational Walk

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