In Search of Simplicity: Part 2

man think how to solve the problem

Topic: Investments

John C.A. Stevenson CFA

February 28, 2018

Image used with permission: iStock/francescoch


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In Search of Simplicity: Part 2

In August 2016, my colleague Alex Jemetz wrote a great blog, and published a related white paper, titled, “In Search of Simplicity.” In it Alex highlighted a fairly remarkable fact.

She reveals that, over the period December 31, 1999 to July 31, 2016, the Nexus Balanced Fund outperformed a Global Hedge Fund Index as well as several institutional benchmarks, including one containing lots of exposure to sexy alternative asset classes like private equity and infrastructure. Moreover, the Balanced Fund achieved higher returns at the same time it had less volatility. The point of the comparison was not so much to highlight Nexus’s success as it was to champion our disciplined and straight-forward investment approach. Complexity does not often add value.

This past weekend marked one of the key annual events in the investment calendar – the release of Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders. There are few who would dispute the assertion that Buffett is the greatest investor living today, and his annual letters are filled with both profound insights and amusing witticisms.

A significant portion of his letter this year was devoted to a discussion of the famous wager Buffett made with Protégé Partners 10 years ago. Buffett bet that a very low cost investment in an S&P 500 Index fund would outperform an elite group of hedge funds over a ten year period ending in 2017. Protégé selected five funds-of-funds, which, in turn, had access to the very best hedge fund managers in America. In fact, behind the five funds-of-funds were more than 200 hedge funds. The result was not going to be the case of good luck or bad, but a real measure of whether these high octane investors could do better over a long period of time than the simplest of investment approaches. Moreover, the hedge funds had all sorts of advantages. The funds-of-funds could add or subtract managers from the group to jettison any underperforming manager or to hitch its wagon to someone new doing well. And the incentives ought to have been powerful. On average, the hedge funds received a fee of 2.5% of the assets PLUS a varying share of the profits.

The result… not even close. The returns generated by the hedge funds ranged from an aggregate gain of 2.8% over the 10-year period to a high of 87.7%. The S&P 500 investment generated a gain of 125.8%. The simple approach crushed the sexy, high octane approach. The hedge fund managers undoubtedly did well over the period collecting substantial fees from their investors. The investors likely earned significantly less.

These two victories of the simple over the complex lead us to wonder why complexity in the investment world is so pervasive? A year ago we read a great essay by Jason Hsu and John West called, “The Confounding Bias for Investment Complexity.”The authors argue that a preference for complexity is almost hardwired into investors. Investors seem to believe that only a complex solution can be successful in an investment landscape that is dynamic and mysterious. Of course, from an investment manager’s point of view, a complex strategy supports a higher fee. The investor wants to consume what agents and managers want to sell.2

Hsu and West then went on to their own analysis of the question of whether the simple or the complex is better. They conclude that on a before-fee and before-tax basis the two approaches will offer similar rewards on average. Of course, the complex strategy is likely to lag at least a little on an after-fee, after-tax basis. But this is not what causes Hsu and West to favour simplicity. The real argument for it in their minds (and in ours) is routed in psychology and behaviour.

The primary cause of investor underperformance, according to Hsu’s and West’s work, is the frequent hiring and firing of managers based on short-term performance. It is one way investors fall into the trap of buying high and selling low. Quite simply, an investor is overwhelmingly more likely to do this with a complex strategy than with a simple one. Intuitively, one is more likely to stick with a simple and straightforward approach when times get tough. Conversely, one is more likely to panic and jump ship when a complex strategy the investor doesn’t understand encounters tough times. Hsu and West go on to explain the behaviour using Daniel Kahnenman’s construct of System 1 and System 2 thinking that he outlined in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, in 2011. And there is much work in neuroscience that explains how the brain reacts to both pleasure and pain that also supports the basic explanation.

In short, it is no surprise that Warren Buffett, the greatest investor of our generation, exhorts people to use a simple and straightforward approach. It raises the odds that the vast majority of people will achieve investment success. For as Buffett famously said many years ago, “investing is simple, but not easy.” JCAS

1 Jason Hsu and John West, “The Confounding Bias for Investment Complexity”, Research Affiliates, January 2016.
2 Buffett sarcastically calls the agents and managers the “helpers”.

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