Greenblatt vs. Burry: Even Value Investors Disagree

May 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

I didn’t intend this to be a series, but it has quickly turned into one. The original idea, from this post, is that holding up company managers as “shareholder friendly” (in that they do a fine job representing shareholder interests) can be like a backhanded compliment. Which shareholders, exactly, are they representing? Because it’s a certainty that few of the company owners share the exact same interests or desires for the business.

The most stark contrast might be between investors with an interest in the business showing short-term gains to impress the market, increase the stock price, and provide an opportunity to exit with a profit. They will want managers to work over their accruals as best as possible to show higher earnings. Or to just stop making investments in the business and let the lowered expenses generate a bigger bottom line.

Their objectives are not going to mesh with the investors hoping to stick around for the long haul. This group will not be excited by elaborate accounting to increase GAAP earnings. Nor will they want executives to neglect important expenses (like marketing, talent acquisition, research and development, etc.) in order to show a fatter profit next quarter. These expenses are investments in spurring growth and/or maintaining strong barriers to entry, both important in maintaining long-term profitability.

And even reasonable, level-headed investors can disagree with each other and therefore have diverging interests.

 

Case in point: Joel Greenblatt versus Michael Burry, a disagreement Michael Lewis brought to light in his book, The Big Short.

Joel Greenblatt, of value investing fame for his various books and tremendous track record with Gotham Capital, seeded Michael Burry’s hedge fund and benefited from multi-year period of impressive returns. Then Burry made his big bet against sub-prime lending, a complex and hard to understand investment, but one with a high likelihood of success (in Burry’s estimation at least).

Burry’s fund was down 18 percent in 2006. It was making his investors very edgy, and most of them – while being perfectly happy with his extraordinary returns in the years leading up to this – pushed him hard to ditch the strategy. As they threatened to pull their capital from him, he locked it up.

From the book:

In January 2006 Gotham’s creator, Joel Greenblatt, had gone on television to promote a book and, when asked to name is favorite “value investors,” had extolled the virtues of a rare talent named Mike Burry. Ten months later he traveled three thousand miles with his partner, John Petry, to tell Mike Burry he was a liar and to pressure him into abandoning the bet Burry viewed as the single shrewdest of his career.

Listen…there is a certain fog of war to these things. This stuff is not black and white. What seemed such a low-risk, high-return investment to Burry appeared quite different to Greenblatt. Perhaps Burry did a poor job communicating his ideas to the Gotham Partners. Perhaps the partners did a poor job listening. Regardless of the reasons, here we have two very intelligent investors and reasonable people disagreeing over how the money should be invested.

What is the shareholder friendly move in this dilemma? Should Burry try to liquidate his bets to give Greenblatt his money back? Not only would that go against a thesis Burry held with deep conviction, but it would ensure a loss as the strategy had not yet matured.

Or was the the shareholder friendly move the very action that Burry took? In other words, protecting Greenblatt against himself by locking up the money (no redemptions) and handcuffing him to the trade.

History tells us Burry was right. Greenblatt made off like a bandit by getting stuck with his former mentee. But this is just one example. I have no doubt there is no shortage of counterpoint examples in which hedge fund money is locked up, promptly lost (Philip Falcone anyone?), and investors are left holding the pittance that remains.

If reasonable, intelligent people (even value investors) can have diverging opinions and interests in a hedge fund example like this, surely the conflict only broadens when you have a wide base of investors in a public company.

So, what exactly does it mean to be shareholder friendly? Does it mean paying out a fat dividend to keep pension funds happy even when you have an expansion opportunity to plow that cash into growth? Does it mean cutting your marketing staff during a down turn because you know your margins will be pressured and you don’t want to disappoint Wall Street with a down earnings period? Does it mean cutting off a research initiative after two years of losses when you have high conviction that it will pay off in a big way if you just suffer another two years of losses to get it going?

*****

I’m a big fan of Joel Greenblatt. His books have helped my thinking tremendously, and he is serving an important role as he spends time educating people about his investing methods. And while I use the story of Michael Burry to illustrate my point, I want to make sure Greenblatt has the chance to make his case.

He did so in an October 2011 presentation to the Value Investing Congress (courtesy of Market Folly here).

In a Q&A Greenblatt was asked about Lewis’ account of events. His response was witty (and I suspect true), but more importantly he provided some balance to the whole affair…

Michael Lewis has never let the facts get in a way of a good story. What they got wrong in the book is Burry wanted to side pocket both mortgage and corporate CDS… we did not want him to side pocket the liquid corporate CDSs … only reason we took money from him was we were getting redemptions.

Greenblatt was not the unreasonable ogre Lewis made him out to be. He had his own pressures. This doesn’t contradict my point. In fact, I think it strengthens it. Sometimes a manager must be able to ignore the panic of his investors. He just might be protecting them in the long-run by sticking to his strategy despite their immediate needs. We know this happens in publicly traded companies, too. Large investors (hedge funds, pension funds, mutual funds) get calls for redemptions that force them to sell their holdings to generate cash to pay out departing investors. They must sell irrespective of the investment prospects.

The CEO of a publicly traded company can’t, of course, stop investors from selling. But in understanding that investors will often have interests that diverge from those of the business itself, one can see that it does make sense – sometimes – to vest enough authority in managers to let them ignore their shareholders and keep plugging away for the long-term benefit of the franchise.

Paul Dryden

Posts

No Comments

Be the first to start the conversation.

Leave a Reply