In 2007, right before the housing crisis, Warren Buffett has made a bet with Wall St fund managers that S&P500 is going to yield better returns over a decade compared to actively managed hedge funds. The details of the bet can be found in his 2016 shareholder letter:
In Berkshire’s 2005 annual report, I argued that active investment management by professionals – in aggregate – would over a period of years underperform the returns achieved by rank amateurs who simply sat still. I explained that the massive fees levied by a variety of “helpers” would leave their clients – again in aggregate – worse off than if the amateurs simply invested in an unmanaged low-cost index fund.
Subsequently, I publicly offered to wager $500,000 that no investment pro could select a set of at least five hedge funds – wildly-popular and high-fee investing vehicles – that would over an extended period match the performance of an unmanaged S&P-500 index fund charging only token fees. I suggested a ten-year bet and named a low-cost Vanguard S&P fund as my contender. I then sat back and waited expectantly for a parade of fund managers – who could include their own fund as one of the five – to come forth and defend their occupation. After all, these managers urged others to bet billions on their abilities. Why should they fear putting a little of their own money on the line?
What followed was the sound of silence. Though there are thousands of professional investment managers who have amassed staggering fortunes by touting their stock-selecting prowess, only one man – Ted Seides – stepped up to my challenge. Ted was a co-manager of Protégé Partners, an asset manager that had raised money from limited partners to form a fund-of-funds – in other words, a fund that invests in multiple hedge funds.
I hadn’t known Ted before our wager, but I like him and admire his willingness to put his money where his mouth was. He has been both straight-forward with me and meticulous in supplying all the data that both he and I have needed to monitor the bet.
For Protégé Partners’ side of our ten-year bet, Ted picked five funds-of-funds whose results were to be averaged and compared against my Vanguard S&P index fund. The five he selected had invested their money in more than 100 hedge funds, which meant that the overall performance of the funds-of-funds would not be distorted by the good or poor results of a single manager.
Each fund-of-funds, of course, operated with a layer of fees that sat above the fees charged by the hedge funds in which it had invested. In this doubling-up arrangement, the larger fees were levied by the underlying hedge funds; each of the fund-of-funds imposed an additional fee for its presumed skills in selecting hedge-fund managers.
Here are the results for the first nine years of the bet – figures leaving no doubt that Girls Inc. of Omaha, the charitable beneficiary I designated to get any bet winnings I earned, will be the organization eagerly opening the mail next January.
Footnote: Under my agreement with Protégé Partners, the names of these funds-of-funds have never been publicly disclosed. I, however, see their annual audits.
The compounded annual increase to date for the index fund is 7.1%, which is a return that could easily prove typical for the stock market over time. That’s an important fact: A particularly weak nine years for the market over the lifetime of this bet would have probably helped the relative performance of the hedge funds, because many hold large “short” positions. Conversely, nine years of exceptionally high returns from stocks would have provided a tailwind for index funds.
Instead we operated in what I would call a “neutral” environment. In it, the five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually. That means $1 million invested in those funds would have gained $220,000. The index fund would meanwhile have gained $854,000.
And today, Warren and Ted have settled the bet ahead of schedule, because the outcome is just too one-sided. So why did the hedge funds show sub-par performance? Why did a simple index outperform all the smartest and brightest minds of Wall St, that charge exorbitant fees for their, presumably, lucrative services? The answer, as it frequently is, lies in the question itself.
In conceding defeat, Seides said the high investor fees charged by hedge funds was a critical factor. Hedge funds tend to be a good deal for the people who run the funds, who pass on big bills to the investors.
“Is running a hedge fund profitable? Yes. Hedge fund managers typically demand management fees of 2 percent of assets under management,” according to Capital Management Services Group (CMSG), which tracks the hedge fund industry. “Performance fees for managers can be 20 percent to 50 percent of trading profits,” CMSG adds.
By contrast, the costs of an average index fund are minimal. A fund that tracks the S&P 500 fund might have an expense ratio of as little as 0.02%.
And what's in this for cryptocurrencies? Too early to tell now, but my hypothesis is that because crypto removes the middlemen from the transactions, and because exchange fees are orders of magnitude lower, we'll witness hedge funds, maybe even fully automated, that consistently outperform CoinMarketCap100.
In the meantime, remember: when you are panic selling, there's always someone on the other side of the trade. And only one of you is going to make money.