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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Every Kind of Greed is Just Human Greed

I highly recommend subscribing to Matt Levine’s sardonic finance newsletter, Money Stuff. It’s kind of like Today in Tabs for investors instead of media people. And I love this passage from today’s edition, even though it’s not a joke:

“‘Wall Street greed’ has no explanatory power. Everyone — well, everyone charged with financial crimes, anyway — wants more money. Some people want more money to feed their families, some want more money to buy a yacht, some want more money to feed a gambling addiction. There is no clean dividing line, no way to separate ‘Wall Street greed’ from the usual complex of human motivations and worries and failings. If you are looking to punish ‘Wall Street greed,’ while leaving normal self-interest and ‘addiction and mental illness’ alone, you will always be disappointed.”

Of course, “wants more money” is a just a proxy for “wants more freedom and power” — besides, aren’t freedom and power two sides of the same coin? Pun very intended.

Anyway, if you want the amusing bits, I’ve tweeted some of those.

Okay, Hedge Funds Do Various Different Things

This is a follow-up to “Hedge Funds Aren’t Supposed To Beat The Market”, because I got a lot of smart feedback. I don’t think I was entirely wrong, but I was less right than I guessed I was.

Dorky illustration cribbed from Investopedia.
Cribbed from Investopedia.

Reddit user sailfx had this to say:

“There are thousands of hedge funds with all types of capital requirements, strategies, and performance metrics. It is a largely unregulated industry and lumping the most popular multi-billion dollar funds together and then making blanket claims about ‘hedge funds’ in general is entirely unfactual. […] To be fair, it is popular opinion and you aren’t doing anything that many other people already do. Even Buffet and Seides are doing it. But that is a common problem with long-term investors and wealth managers, they tend to ignore all other forms of investing/trading and market participation until it fits their narrative. Always keep in mind, these people are in the business of selling themselves.”

Reddit user verik pointed out:

“Investing in a [hedge] fund is just an allocation of wealth that you did not want to be correlated with the rest of your broad market exposure. […] This obviously developed through the years as strategies became more complex however the name remained the same. Someone might invest in a global macro hedge fund to hedge their exposure to large cap domestics, etc. […] The word hedge in the name has nothing to do with the specific strategy of the funds assets and everything to do with the fact that the reason you allocate to one is to hedge your other asset allocation.”

Reddit user dogwelder chimed in:

“This makes no sense. Hedge funds don’t necessarily hedge at all; they might take any kind of strategy or risk. Seides does in fact argue hedge funds will beat the market, if his ten-year bet is any indication. And the conclusion claims the real benefit of investing in a hedge fund is you can pull your money out whenever you want… what? Most investors are bound by one or two-year lockup periods, plus redemption notice periods lasting weeks or months. How does that hedge liquidity risk better than an index fund?”

I want to push back on part of that — Seides doesn’t argue that all hedge funds will beat the market; he argues that the best hedge funds will beat the market. While that’s probably true, he apparently can’t pick ’em.

My savvy friend Gerald Leung also commented at length on Facebook. Here’s an excerpt:

“The purpose of hedge funds is to manage risk in investment. But that in itself is just a technique, one that could be used for the purpose of ‘beat the market’ (in regards to index funds, a growth purpose) or for the purpose of ‘make money consistently regardless of the market’ (a stable income purpose). And there’re hedge funds that do both of these as well as many other purposes. […] Likewise, funds, any kind of funds be they index funds, mutual funds, investment trusts, hedge funds, are intended to just make money. And that’s a very broad range of possibilities […] The main thing is that hedge funds have fewer restrictions and thus a wider range in whatever they decide their investment purpose to be, be it growth or income or any degree in between.”

Fair enough. Thanks @ everyone for weighing in!

Hedge Funds Aren’t Supposed To Beat The Market

Edit: I posted a follow-up with comments from people who disagreed with me. If you’re just curious about hedge funds, read that first.

NPR’s Planet Money podcast recently ran an episode about a bet between legendary investor Warren Buffett and Ted Seides of the hedge fund Protege Partners. In 2006, Buffett proposed a ten-year wager that an index fund would outperform any hedge fund. Seides took him up on this, and he’s lost pretty spectacularly. Currently, about two years before the deadline, the index fund is up ~65%, whereas the hedge fund is only up ~20%. In other words, the index fund has done three times as well as a bunch of smart people picking stocks. However, during the 2008 financial crisis, the index fund was down ~45% and the hedge fund was only down ~25%.

These two types of investments performed differently in different environments, demonstrating why both exist. An index fund indexes long-term economic growth. The point of a hedge fund is also right there in the name: it’s for hedging your bets. If you’re a person with a lot of money invested, it’s useful to have an account to pull from that’s rising (or at least less devastated) when the rest of the market is doing badly. That way you can access some of your funds without solidifying your losses — the rest of the money can be left to hang around and recover. If it turns out that you never need to access your invested money during a crash, having chosen a hedge fund will mean that your returns are lower than they conceivably could have been. That’s the tradeoff of mitigating liquidity risk.

Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, looking pleased. Photo via Getty Images.
Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, looking pleased. Photo via Getty Images.

The Economist explains regarding hedge funds:

“Initially, their aim was to produce a positive, or absolute, return in all markets by going short (betting on falling prices) as well as going long (relying on rising prices). For example, a hedge fund might bet on BP, an oil giant, by buying its shares, while shorting the market as a whole. The hedge provided by the short allows the firm to place a bet on a specific company while insulating the fund from the risk of taking a loss as a result of a broad decline in the market.”

The magazine goes on to point out that modern hedge funds do various other things too, but that’s the gist. Investopedia has a perfect one-liner: “Even though hedging strategies are employed to reduce risk, most consider the practices of hedge funds to carry increased risks.” Exactly. And hedge funds are too expensive to justify the opportunity cost — they don’t provide high enough returns relative to other options — unless you need to hedge liquidity risk. Warren Buffett wrote:

“A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs [read: fees] they impose on investors. Investors, on average and over time, will do better with a low-cost index fund than with a group of funds of funds.”

The key phrase there is “on average and over time”. If you need to extract money at a specific disadvantageous time, having invested in a hedge fund can be useful because of its ability to short the market.

Ted Seides seems to mostly understand this:

“Having the flexibility to invest both long and short, hedge funds do not set out to beat the market. Rather, they seek to generate positive returns over time regardless of the market environment. […] For hedge funds, success can mean outperforming the market in lean times, while underperforming in the best of times. Through a cycle, nevertheless, top hedge fund managers have surpassed market returns net of all fees, while assuming less risk as well. […] There is a wide gap between the returns of the best hedge funds and the average ones. […] Funds of funds with the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff will earn returns that amply compensate for the extra layer of fees their clients pay.”

To summarize: Hedge funds try to make money all the time, regardless of the market’s overall state, instead of riding out the downturns. Really good money managers can outperform index funds on behalf of their clients — even after you skim their fees off the top. (Ironically, that’s potentially true of Warren Buffett but demonstrably false of Ted Seides, at least over a ten-year span.) Basically, Seides is saying that the best investors can do better than average, which is sort of a tautology. The problem is that finding the best investors is very difficult, and “best” is an uncommon attribute. Most hedge funds are useful for, well, hedging, not for growing wealth.

Seides’ cogent explanation of how hedge funds work, despite eliding the obvious objection, makes it really weird that he took the bet, and even weirder that he told Planet Money that he’d take it again. On the show, Seides asserted that Buffett just got lucky, which is frankly insane. Maybe this was an oddly angled PR move for Protege Partners? Or perhaps Seides really does think that he and his ilk are exceptional money managers. The results say no, but people cling to high-prestige identities. It still seems strange to me that he believes in his ability to pick winners when the evidence shows that he can’t.

Epistemic status: I’m roughly 65% confident of my analysis. But it’s very possible that I don’t understand the vagaries of finance well enough to write any of this. Not that I would ever let that stop me! ;)

How Much Money I Actually Spend in a Month

Photo by Thomas Galvez.
Photo by Thomas Galvez.

I like sharing my budgets and expenses because people are very interested in what others do with money. Last October I wrote about my planned monthly spending, but I never got around to figuring out how well I stick to those numbers. (My work situation and income have also changed since then.) In November I listed which charities I donate to, and how much each of them gets. In some ways this follow-up post is an accountability exercise.

This is how much money I spent in January, and what I spent it on:

  • Rent + utilities: $700
  • Groceries: $322.77
  • Gas + transportation: $77.37
  • Cafe outings: $44.02 (spread over eight occasions)
  • Website expenses: $23.74 (probably tax-deductible)
  • Advertising: $51.78 (probably tax-deductible)
  • Media, books, and games: $164.19
  • Charity: $158 (definitely tax-deductible)

The total sum is $1,541.87. If you include the money I owe to my parents for health insurance, car insurance, cell phone service, internet, and Netflix, that adds another $463, bringing the total to $2,004.87. I typically reimburse my parents in periodic chunks rather than steadily each month — I should set up an automatic system. And I need to do something similar for savings. Right now I’m just letting extra money pile up in my checking account.

Caveats to keep in mind:

  • I live in a part of the Bay Area that’s less desirable than San Francisco or Oakland, but my rent is still slightly under-market.
  • One month is statistically insignificant and not wholly representative of all the other months.
  • My original post factored in expenses that I paid in lump sums (like my Gimlet Media membership); I simply divided the yearly outlay by twelve. In today’s accounting I only recorded money that was actually spent in January.
  • Let’s not even talk about taxes right now. Freelance taxes = ceaseless nightmare.

Planned Monthly Spending

A Mirror of Competing Beauties of the Green Houses by Katsukawa Shunshō (Japan, 1726-1792) and Kitao Shigemasa (Japan, 1739-1820) via Wikimedia.
Half of A Mirror of Competing Beauties of the Green Houses by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820) via Wikimedia.

I want to share my new personal budget. My salary recently jumped $25k — I graduated from $30k per year with no benefits to $55k per year with insurance and other benefits. This triggered the necessity of re-budgeting, in a wonderful way! Having more money is great.

You can check out the spreadsheet, but I’m probably going to adjust that over time, so here’s how I’m currently breaking things down in terms of approximate monthly costs:

  • Rent and utilities: $750 (I live in Richmond, CA; soon will be sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my boyfriend)
  • Car insurance: $84
  • Health and dental insurance: $300 (I elected to stay on my parents’ plan and receive a monthly credit from my employer)
  • Food: $200
  • Cell phone: $52
  • Netflix: $10
  • Internet: $17
  • Planned Parenthood donation: $10 (tax-deductible)
  • Saint James Infirmary donation: $10 (tax-deductible)
  • Stratechery membership: $10
  • Longreads: $5
  • The Marshall Project donation: $10 (tax-deductible)
  • Latterly: $2.67
  • Gimlet Media: $5
  • Instapaper: $2.50
  • BigCartel: $9.99
  • Vanguard Roth IRA: $460

Total cost: $1,938.16. Since I’m drawing $4,583 monthly (approximately $3,070 after taxes) there’s about ~$1,000 of room for me to give more to charity, spend more on media, and save more! Woohoo. I’ll have to figure that out. At the moment I particularly want to focus on charity — I’d like to increase my donations to Planned Parenthood and the Saint James Infirmary, but PayPal doesn’t offer any immediately obvious way to do this. I’m also considering Compass Family Services.

Frivolous possibilities: The Economist for $13.33/month and Stack Magazines for $8.30/month.

money to burn - illustration
Illustration by Michael Statham.

Edit: I posted an update, and then an article about why I choose to be financially transparent.

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