JOE FACER; Not Just Another Rennaissance Man... A RETIRED ONE


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Latest Post    8/5/07




      I want to talk about Bill Sams and the FPA Paramount Fund (FPRAX). My buddy Jack Kenny at Investment Investigators turned me on to Bill Sams and FPRAX back in '82. A mutual fund's charter is its foundation. Bill's charter at FPA Paramount was pretty cool and relatively unusual; he was allowed to hold up to 50% cash and typically held 10% to 30% in cash. He was a deep value investor, eclectic and conservative. He had some ideas he believed in and he wasn't interested in having more money than ideas; his fund was closed to new investors for a good proportion of the 80's and 90's. Owning FPRAX made investing a no brainer. Look what Bill did for me.
It was big time fun from '82 until '98. When the market was hot, I was pretty much fully invested. When things went bad, I was sizeable in cash. All this happened without any action on my part. My money septupled between '84 and '98 while I watched.

For the early 90's, the challenge to anybody who thought he had it together was "Oh Yeah? Well, how'dja do in '87, Smart Guy??"  Here's how the S&P500 did;

Bill was heavy in cash in October of '87, I believe he was carrying the full 50%. He got hit like everyone else, but only half as hard. Then he turned the cash into stocks and rode the rebound. He and I finished the year up 23%. I got a very good return with a lot of safety and absolutely no work. I'd had a 15 year run riding with a hot hand and the future looked so bright, I hadda wear shades. FPA Paramount had turned a few thousand dollars in a 1984 investment into a very nice down payment for a really nice house in SF while I just watched the money grow. There was no rush to buy a house; I was making money with Bill.  Then came 1998. All of a sudden, every week I had significantly less money. I'd had draw downs before, but not like this. This was unrelenting, continuous, and painful with no relief in sight. Between mid '98 to mid '99, I lost enough money in FPA to put me back where I was back in '94. I'd thought my rate of return had been pretty good, but if I stopped losing money and went back to my previous rate of return, it'd be 2005 before I'd get back to where I was in 1999 and then I'd still be 6 years behind where I wanted to be. About then real estate prices started rising as fast as my money was going away. Then our landlord started getting wonky about selling the house we were renting. The future didn't look nearly as bright. Whereas hanging on and waiting out the bad stretches had always been the best answer before, it was killing me now. How could I sell what had made me so much money in the past? How could I sell something that was so far down and admit/accept/lock in the loss? What if it came back after I sold it? What if it came back but it put me 6 years in the hole? WHAT IF IT KEPT GOING DOWN? Then I noticed something very interesting. Maybe the answer to all these questions had been right under my nose all the time.

Idex JCC Growth

     Every so often, I'd asked Jack if he had any other names like Bill Sams and Paramount. He'd give me the name of a different fund in a different sector, a quality fund from a well known investment house, and I'd put some money in. They'd do OK, Bill'd do as well, they'd have a so-so stretch and I'd put the money back in Paramount. The latest fund was IDEX JCC Growth (IDETX). Suddenly, the money there had doubled. Click on the picture below. 

     Between '96 and '98, IDETX had doubled the small amount I'd placed with them. I took everything out of Paramount and put it in IDEX JCC Growth. Between 1998 and the first quarter of 2000, IDEX made back the money lost in FPRAX and then some; it doubled again. In the meantime I'd read an article called "New Paradigm or Mean Reversion?" by Jeremy Grantham & Jack Gray. Sep/Oct 1999; Investment Policy Magazine. Go ahead and Google it. It's archived and still available and free besides. The article predicted the mechanism of the downfall and end of the dot com era. I'd been around long enough to have witnessed the 1980's end of the energy and real estate/savings and loan eras and I knew that it was only a matter of time until the same thing happened again to the dot coms. Obviously the JCC advisors of the IDEX Fund were smart guys and they would ride the bubble to the top and step off the elevator when it started to go down. (I love to sprinkle mixed metaphors willy skelter here and yon...) Here's what happened to my investment in the IDEX JCC Growth Fund,
My wife and I took some of the FPRAX/IDETX money and bought our house in mid 2000 on the first leg down of the collapse of the Dot Com bubble. We got a really lucky break on a house and we had the money thanks to IDETX and we moved on it. We weren't about to let that opportunity go away. I rode the rest of the IDETX money part way down and AGAIN I bailed out of a one time winning mutual fund that was now in the process of destroying my savings. Again, I got outa there alive, but AGAIN, I left too much money on the table. Now I was REALLY pissed. There was something going on that was giving me excellent gains and then taking them away and I didn't understand why. So I got busy and figured it out. 


"Buy and hold", "Be patient, it'll always come back, it always does", "These are world class quality American companies, stay with them, you can't go wrong in the long run," is horse exhaust. 

Check this out. Above are the Dow Industrials; 30 of the Great American Companies. Over the long run the trend is up. Check the chart. Forty six years of "in the long run" progress is shown. Of course, in the long run we're all dead. What matters to us is the portion of the long run during which we are earning and investing and the portion of the long run during which we are retired and drawing on the returns of our saving and investing. 


Now check this out. Above is the Dow between '62 and '88. Check out '66 to '83. In 1983 you had held for the long run and were breaking even for the fifth time in 17 years. Not much to show for buy and hold and having patience for almost two decades. You'd shouldered a lot more risk than a passbook account during that time and didn't have the performance to justify it. Of course if you sold a little on the highs and bought a little on the lows, I.E. traded the account,  you did better. Still...

Now we're currently in another period where we have had flat performance;six years and counting... We'll undoubtedly get back to even in the long run. It helps to be 22 years old and have 40 years to go if buying and holding until you get back to even is what floats your boat. But it sucks to be 55 and already thinking about taking the first step out the door to retirement. Six to seventeen years of flat performance after the dot com crash?  That is way too much of a long run...especially given where I'm coming from and going to. If not buy and hold, then what?  Bonds?  Think the safety of bonds is the answer to preparing for and living off of, once you get close to retirement? Check the charts on our bond funds against what fuel/housing/food and medical care inflation have been. So....if not buy and hold or all bonds all the time, What?

What worked so well for me when Bill Sams was running my money in FPRAX was that he was trading stocks. He ran a small fund, some where about $50-$150 Mil when I started with him in '82 and around $700 Mil in '98, IIRC. In '82 interest rates were sky high. He kept a lot of funds in cash and made a good return on it in the 80's. He had maximum flexibility to roll the money between stocks and cash. He bought when stocks were down and he saw an opportunity and he sold when they went up to where the upside was limited. Then he did it again. You always had to take into account that he was doing very well considering his performance was accomplished with a significant cash cushion. It was especially good performance once interest rates came down. If stocks went to zero, he'd still have had cash to return to investors. Most other mutual funds are 100% invested and theoretically could lose it all. Bill Sams also had the ability to bail out of either a winning or a losing position quickly because he carried relatively small positions; no bleeding a huge position into the market for many long months along with all the other giant mutual funds, trying to get out as fast as possible without destroying the stock price. He was playing a value game, looking for diamonds in the dirt. He bought stocks that were going down or already down and were going to go up. He was right for years. Then he was not.

Due to the Thailand baht crisis, the Asian Contagion, the Long Term Capital crisis, the Russian bond crisis and other financial crises of the 90's, the Fed flooded the market with dollars and lowered rates. Bill saw inflation on the way and set up for it in gold, commodity stocks, and other defensive positions and stayed the course, regardless. Instead of driving gold and oil up, the money went into the "new economy", dot coms, telecoms, etc and it was FPRAX that blew up. There came a time for me to trade the trader. Whether or not Bill Sams was right in the long run was meaningless. He was costing me big time right then and there. Nobody calls it right to the day for a whole career. But being years early is being wrong and being wrong can put you in a hole you will not climb out of in your lifetime.    

"It is not how right or how wrong you are that matters, but how much money you make when right and how much you do not lose when wrong."
George Soros

So I stopped the losses. I moved on. I had bought and so I sold. I got impatient. I got short runnish. Bill stayed the course, sure he was right. He was. Ultimately, gold, oil and metals soared, starting in 2003  and really taking off more recently. Bill Sams was "retired" shortly after I was out of FPRAX, in 2000, but long before he was proven right and long after FPRAX had lost a ton of money and most of its investors.  Management of FPRAX was given to the managers of FPA Perennial Fund FPPFX, a fund that was/is run similarly to FPRAX. Hell, Bill may have trained his replacements. Regardless, the market stayed irrational longer than Bill Sams could stay employed and far longer than I was willing to lose money.

Check this out. Pretty good performance since 2000, right? And, last I looked, both FPPFX and FPRAX were carrying about 30% cash. So...FPRAX was right, then it was wrong, and now it's right. What does it mean?



     No money manager is always right. No system works all the time under all circumstances. No money manager is above regular review and everyone is subject to replacement if the performance isn't there. It all falls back onto the individual who invested the money. You can't expect a money manager to fire himself because he's been losing you a lot of money and doesn't intend to change what he's doing because he thinks he is right. That's your job. There are times when they don't even admit that they've been wrong. Been there. Listened to that on the phone. It's about understanding that it is NEVER a no brainer to give your money to someone else to manage. You have to understand what he is doing, and whether or not it is working. If you get lazy about it, you can end up being the no brainer if/when your money goes away.
     Can this even be done? Isn't this a huge amount of work? Don't you have to know what your money managers are holding every single day? Don't you have to trade every day?  Isn't it a huge risk? I think so. No. No. No. I don't think so. In that order

     I think that I can successfully manage my 401a right here with the tools I've got on this site and a little reading up on the market and economy. Bill Sams was responsible for making me a dollar. That was very good. Teaching me that it is my responsibility to see that I kept the dollar, with enough of a cushion to stay in the game while I learned the lessons, that was great.


     Monetary policy had been loose in the late 90's; cash was there to be had, but the rates were going higher. The market as a whole was not doing well at the end of the nineties. Much of the economy was suffering under the high rates, but most of the loose cash had run downhill and was piling up in the corner that held telecom, tech, and the internet where a good old fashioned stock bubble was underway. So there was this money management company called Janus and one of their funds was called Janus Twenty Fund. It was/is a hard charging, concentrated, high risk fund. It held twenty or thirty of the hottest stocks. No safety in diversification, but a lot of horsepower if they got it right. When the market narrowed radically in the late 90's and fewer and fewer stock went higher and higher, they were right there in those stocks and only in those stocks and WOW, they were RIGHT.

Other funds in the Janus family saw what was going on and bought into the same scenario and the same stocks. Other funds in other fund families did likewise. During the last stages of the bubble, it was amazing where you could find those same hot stocks. Sector funds totally away from tech etc held these stocks (very quietly) because it was the only way to show any performance and without performance, the client's money went away. These stocks were bought and bought and bought. Many funds acquired outsized positions because these stocks worked, money came in, and it was a no brainer move to buy more of what got ya there. Enter my position in IDETX. The Idex Fund family runs a lot of funds and contracts with outside advisors. My alternate fund to FPRAX was IDEX JCC Growth (IDETX). The "J" stood for Janus. I had traded in my value fund for a ride with the Hired Hand Janus Hot Money Boyz in a momentum fund, without a clue as to what was going on.
I rode Idex and their Janus hot money clone fund up to the top along with everyone else who held the same hot money stocks. When we all hit the top as per "New Paradigm or Mean Reversion?" by Jeremy Grantham & Jack Gray, I figured that the Idex managers would step off at the top just as the elevator started to go down. Sell the top, book the profits, and I'd live happily ever after. It didn't happen. Instead, the managers at Idex actually were only hired hands who owned the same stocks big time back at the ranch. Actually almost everybody on the Street owned the same stocks and the doorway out was not wide enough to let everybody out all at once. I coulda sold my IDETX in the time it took to get a letter with a signature guaranty downtown. Instead I hung on for part of the ride down as everybody bled their positions into the market, driving the prices lower over more than a year.

The Conclusion of "My Most Gnarley Mutual Fund Adventure"

So, to sum up the FPRAX/IDETX affair:

1) No game goes on forever. If you buy, you are almost guaranteed to have to/want to sell at some time. It was 12 years for FPRAX and 12 months for IDETX for me. When the game is over, you need to leave the table and go somewhere else or lose what you've gained.
2) It's the manager, not the fund. Or it's the era, not the fund. Or the economy. Or the world economy. Or national politics. Or world politics. Or whatever. Good funds practicing a particular discipline can be totally wrong at any given time for a number of reasons. When things change, you change. Or you pay the price. Then you change back.  Or not. It depends on what is happening. You need to know. 
3) Price and trend are what's important to you. Every day something happens somewhere that can meaningfully affect your investment. Often it can, but it doesn't. Price and trend will always tell you what is really going on. It's the only unequivocal, direct, and elemental information that you can get. Unfortunately, it is about the past and not the future.
 No one said that this was easy. But if it is really a trend, it is something that can be used.  
4) You need to direct a self directed plan and you need information to do that. Given that there are pro's in place at the funds applying their knowlege, experience, and judgement on your behalf, you still are making a decision every day or every week or every month as to whether or not they will continue to do so.


There's always something you need to know. You need to learn how and where to get the information and apply it. Get used to it.
5) No one cares about your money the way you do. The investment industry cares that your money shows up and stays so that it generates the fees to pay their salary. The legal authorities care that laws about managing your money are not broken. Or not. HAS ANYBODY GONE TO JAIL OVER THE CRIMINAL ACTS OF THE MORTGAGE MELTDOWN?  There is no law that says it is illegal for you to lose your money in bad investments or for fees and piss poor management to fritter away your future. The financial markets don't care about your money, your hopes, or your dreams. It doesn't care about anything, whatsoever, period. You are the only one who REALLY cares about your hard earned money and the return it should earn you. And only you will make the hard choices that need to be made when the time comes. Do you really expect a money manager to fire himself because stopping you from losing money is more important than him keeping his job?
6) It's not a sin to be wrong. That's why there are erasers and whiteout openly for sale and not hidden behind the counter. I screw up, the President screws up, surgeons and street sweepers screw up, everybody screws up. But it IS a sin to STAY wrong. It cost Bill Sams his job and FPRAX and IDETX my money. That's why McMorgan no longer is our only pension fund advisor. Don't let the possibility of being wrong paralyze you. But the idea of being wrong and staying wrong should cause you to break out in a cold sweat. When I look back at the McMorgan era of 342's pension plans, the sweat pours down and I hate that it lasted as long as it did...
7) The investment industry will tell you to stay fully invested at all times; you might miss a money making opportunity and cost them some fees if you don't. Notice how nothing is ever said about missing out on falling into a hole and not losing most of your investment by not being fully invested when it all turns to shit? That would cost the money managers some fees. They get the fees win or lose. Besides, you probably may most likely do kinda OK if you stay long and are lucky and things work out and anyway, they get their fees that way. And besides, they can't charge you fees and take your money if you don't stay the course. Because it's all about the fees, see...the fees

8) What comes around, goes around.  Nothing stays right forever or wrong forever and you've got to be flexible. What was right and now is wrong can be right again and probably will be when you least expect it.  It is never as easy as making one decision and being set for life. It is about making more decisions right and fewer wrong in a constantly shifting environment.

For me, it's all about returns. I got no problem with it all being about fees for the investment industry. That's how their familys are fed.  Returns on my money are what is important to my family. That's what'll keep a roof over my head and food on the table when I retire. So it's the returns... That's what I'm talkin' about, it's the returns. Know what I mean, Vern?


FROM THE COFGBLOG; 11/26/06   REPOSTED 12/28/06

So....At the Special Called Meeting on 11/14/06, Mike Mammini, the head honcho at our 401a plan showed how it makes very good sense to commit a substantial portion of your earnings/savings to the 401a plan. For late starters like me, it makes sense to commit the max contribution possible. On a good year, that comes out somewhere between $15K and $25K placed in the 401a. He also says that you probably should look at it at least once a year, but probably not any more often. After 5 good years of contributions and gains, that's about $80K to $140K that you've invested in financial instruments that are not guaranteed and have a history over the last coupla centuries of going way up and way down real suddenly. During the last 200 years, investing in stocks and bonds has made some people fabulously wealthy and beggared others. What makes YOU more uncomfortable, the thought of having to do fifteen minutes of homework every so often to make sure that that nothing bad happens to $100K+ of your money? Or the thought that you might not catch a bad thing happening in time to save a substantial portion of your savings from going away forever? Is once a year often enough to look at something so important? If once a year probably isn't often enough to get your teeth checked and every six months is better, why is once a year often enough to look at your 401a and not once every week or three?

Then we heard from a representative from McMorgan Funds. At one time McMorgan ran 100% of our pension funds and currently handles only the bonds and the real estate. This gentleman tried to scare the members with "TALES FROM THE STOCK MARKET", stories of tech investments gone bad. His example was PALM, where an investor could have lost 99% of his investment. SCARY!!!!!

So, it's a good thing that McMorgan resisted requests to give us a tech fund to invest in back in the 90's and that we still don't have one as a choice today...or maybe not...

Check out the charts of Palm and Apple below...



Put all your money in PALM and lose 99% of your money.  Well, to actually do that, you'd have to go "deer in the headlights" (DITH) for the two years it takes PALM to go from $1000 to $3 and then once it leveled off, you'd have to decide to wait for it to get back to even before you'd sell it. It'd be hard to stay drunk that long, so it would help for you to be really really stupid.  I just can't see any fund manager worth employing doin' this.  It'd take a serious commitment,  say like commiting to look at the investment only once every year or so....

OR... You could put 5% of your money in PALM in 2000 and 5% of your money in AAPL in 2003 because they were speculative positions and too risky for any larger investment than that. You could lose some money in Palm because you were clueful enough to not go DITH. Figure that when you saw it roll off the edge and fallfallfallfallfall downdowndown for weeks and weeks, you bailed out at your predetermined stop at 20% down. You're now down about 20% of your 5% of your money, or about 1% in the hole. Sometimes it doesn't work out. Then make 1000%+ (ten times your original investment) in AAPL by buying it in 2003 when it is valued near its cash holdings and then holding on to it for the next four years when it's new products took over the world. Now you're up WAY more in AAPL than you've lost in PALM. Your 5% of your total fund investment is now worth 10 times what it was, so now you're up about 50 times in AAPL what you lost in PALM. Sometimes it DOES work out. I'll do that any day and everyday I can. It's called diversification, setting and adhering to stops, recognizing and taking advantage of the trend, and matching the position to the risk and to the reward. It's what a smart mutual fund manager will do for you. And what other kind of mutual fund manager would you want to invest with?  Certainly not a mutual fund manager who'd have ridden PALM all the way down from $1000 TO $3 and lost all the OPM (Other People's Money) along the way, charging them a yearly fee to do so?

 Notice that we get shown this type of crap whenever questions arise as to whether our money managers could be doing better? You don't suppose we are being underestimated and told boogy man stories to frighten the naive investor, do you?  It makes you say, "Hmmmm. I know we were in that situation once before a few years ago. Do you suppose we could ever be in that situation again? Or maybe never really changed it?"

Click on the link below.

Click on "Protect Your Assets" or "Protect Your Backside" under "The Apprenticed Investor" section on the right. Or, you may find it way at the bottom of the page. WAY, WAY at the bottom!! But still on the right. The site gets a little inconsistent in it's layout sometimes...Anyway, learn how it's done. In 50 years of reading a lot of disparate stuff, reading this article is one of the best spent chunks of time I can remember. CHECK IT OUT!

Check out the chart below.


Shown is a tech Exchange Traded Fund (streetTRACKS) and a tech mutual fund (Needham) vs our 401a growth fund and the S&P 500. I'm still not clear why we can't have a good tech fund available to invest in for our 401a accounts, rather than having tech funds being used as something to be taken out of the closet every so often to scare us with.

The special called meeting of 11/15/06 was an interesting and informative event. That night, within a coupla hour's time, we got told by our 401a plan manager that buying and holding good stock mutual funds was an effortless way to build retirement savings so safely that we could ignore tracking our 401a funds for a year or more at a time. We also got told by the McMorgan rep that tech stocks were way too risky for us to be investing in, shortly before he explained how we lost 45% of our equity investment over a three year period by investing in blue chip stocks through a good stock mutual fund. That's gotta be reconciled, the same way that we gotta reconcile Kim asking us to double check our hours monthly because it is the responsible thing to do, and Mike telling us to ignore our personal pension investments for a year at a time or longer because .... Well, I can't figure out why because.... so I'll just keep an eye on my 401a money and tell you about how I do it because I think it's the right thing to do. It'll all happen here.


Threat or Menace?

Here's how they came to be and came to be  part of our pension plans;

The late 90’s ended with something of a world wide downturn with the notable exception being the dotcom bubble centered on the Bay Area and Wall Street. Came the crash and a lot of recently created money evaporated back into the aether. But as stocks ground inexorably lower, taking the slow and reluctant to move along with them, money started to pile up elsewhere. The Fed drove overnight rates all the way down to 1% to prevent the bursting of the dotcom bubble from coordinating with the worldwide slowdown. This double whammy risked taking the whole world into a deeper than normal recession.

There was a ton of liquidity out there in the world due to the various late 90’s crashes and the Y2K conflagration that never happened. The rich were still rich and they had money to invest. There was too much capacity and no buyers for a lot of manufactured things so nobody wanted to build factories or businesses. Nobody wanted stocks, Been There, Done That Last Year… OUCH!!. Bonds yields went lower as plenty of money sought safe haven, so there was no point in driving yields even lower with more money. So the money went into other things. Big money went overseas and into commodities and into commercial real estate here. Small money went into residential real estate. Real estate started to go up as rates (mortgages) dropped, monthly payments dropped, and more money poured in.. Climbing real estate values bumped equity big time and home equity loans turned the equity into cash and bought cars and stuff for the house. The real estate bubble started to inflate.

Elsewhere, pensions were looking at baby boomers and looking for long term bonds with good yields. Bond buyers were still looking for bonds ‘cuz that’s who they were. There was a problem with buying bonds (see above). So here were the banks and mortgage lenders who had a problem of their own. The old way was to borrow money short and lend it long and hold the loans. So you took deposits or short term loans and made mortgage loans. Then you held them until they paid off or refinanced. You started with a bazillion dollars, loaned it all out, and then waited for more money to come in to loan out. You did a flurry of business, charged fees, made money and then got stopped short by the business model.

So the MBS market was created/inflated to answer these needs. A financial entity bundled mortgages together to create a security that threw off cash every month like a bond. It could be  all prime and government or government agency guaranteed and relatively low risk, or it could be salted with high interest loans to raise the rate without  greatly increasing the risk as long as the market stayed good. Or you could create high rate/high risk for the reckless. The bank or lender took it’s bazillion dollars of loans and sold them to investors and had money to loan out again. The velocity of money flow through the lenders was radically increased. The investors had their long term regular cash flow security with the appearance of the stability of a bond.

The problems were inevitable. The real estate market was good for over half a decade. The lender charged the borrower fees, made the loan, and then sold it with a warranty period (a year). If the borrower was good for a year, the lender was in the clear. There was little or no hazard to a bad loan if the problem was over a year out and the greater the fees and the faster the turnover, the more money you made.  A lot of people qualified for loans outright. A lot of buyers sent prices up. Adjustable mortgages @ fixed low rates for 2 to 5 years made buyers out of a lot of renters, driving prices higher. Dropping rates and rising prices created equity and allowed refi’ing at better rates taking pressure off of borrowers, (keeping the ball in play). As demand was met and more buyers were needed at higher prices, they were created with non doc (liar) loans for people who had good credit and a good story about the amount of income they had. More buyers were created as subprime (subslime) loans were given to renters who had little or no chance to pay off the loans but who might stay afloat through the warranty period for the loan. One month(one week) fixed/zero down loans were given in the hope that children/parents/friends/life savings would get the borrowers through the warranty period, and you could always bank the fees and deal with it later. When rising prices eliminated enough marginal buyers and overbuilding/crashed loans/failed speculators/rising rates created too much supply and too much fear, it was game over.

The same holds true for commercial mortgage backed securities (CMBS) except that the participants and scale was different. multimillion dollar developments cut out the "grab a renter off the street and make him a buyer" paradigm, but you only held the risk for a year, same as residential, so the quality of the lender/business plan was of less importance than if you held the mortgage yourself long term. The lurid stories of illegal immigrant repo's are not there, but the risk of default/repricing  as the economy slows is there , and it is happening right now.

A ton of MBS paper was created over the last five years and it had to be sold to some one. It had a good story and looked good on the surface. Some of it was sold to us. We now are not the holders of corporate or government bonds with principal and coupons that we thought we were. We are prospective landlords....

There is more to come... stay tuned.