Bob Rodriguez – We are Witnessing the Development of a “Perfect Storm”

Bob Rodriguez

Robert L. Rodriguez was the former portfolio manager of the small/mid-cap absolute-value strategy (including FPA Capital Fund, Inc.) and the absolute-fixed-income strategy (including FPA New Income, Inc.) and a former managing partner at FPA, a Los Angeles-based asset manager. He retired at the end of 2016, following more than 33 years of service.

He won many awards during his tenure. He was the only fund manager in the United States to win the Morningstar Manager of the Year award for both an equity and a fixed income fund and is tied with one other portfolio manager as having won the most awards. In 1994 Bob won for both FPA Capital and FPA New Income, and in 2001 and 2008 for FPA New Income.

The opinions expressed reflect Mr. Rodriguez’ personal views only and not those of FPA.

I spoke with Bob on June 22.

In a recent quarterly market commentary Jeremy Grantham posited that reversion to the mean may not be working as it has in the past. What are your thoughts on mean reversion?

There will be a reversion to the mean. We are in a very difficult and challenging time for active managers, and in particular, value style managers. Many of these managers are fighting for their economic lives.

Given that I am no longer involved professionally in managing money, I believe the standards in the industry are being compromised; monetary policy has so totally distorted the capital markets. You are now into the eighth year of a period that is unprecedented in the likes of human history.

The closest policy period to what we have now would have been between 1942 and 1951, when the Fed and Treasury had an accord to keep interest rates low. Interest rates were artificially held lower to help finance the World War II effort. With the renewal of inflation after the war, a policy war developed between the Treasury and the Fed on the continuation of a low interest rate policy. The Treasury-Fed of 1951 brought this period to a close. But that is the only time we’ve had a period of nine years of manipulated, price-controlled interest rates.

This was a historical policy I discussed with my colleagues upon my return from sabbatical in 2011: what could unfold were controlled, manipulated and distorted pricing that could disrupt the normal functioning of the capital markets. The historical cycles that Jeremy would be referring to that entailed a reversion to the mean could be distorted, for a period of time, by this type of monetary policy action.

But I do not believe the economic laws of gravity have been permanently changed.

At a Grant’s Conference last year Steven Bregman asserted that indexation in general and ETFs in particular were factors in the under-performance of active managers and are potentially a bubble. Are you familiar with his work and what are your thoughts on ETFs? What is driving the flow of mutual fund assets to passive strategies and what can or should fund companies do in the face of this trend?

I go back to a speech I gave in 2009, Reflections and Outrage, and buried within that speech is a section that said that if active managers did not get their act together then the likelihood would be that passive strategies would continue to take market share. When you have a market that is distorted by zero interest rate policy, David Tepper said it very well many years ago, “Well, you’ve got to ride it.”

It’s a rocket ship that’s going up. If you are fully invested in the right areas, you have a shot at out-performing. However, if you are an active manager who has a valuation discipline, given the valuation excesses in the capital markets now and that have been developing for the past several years, then an elevated level of liquidity would be held, if you were allowed to do so. As such, you will likely underperform the market.

Active managers have not demonstrated a value-add to an appreciable extent over the last 20 years. When I look back at what happened prior to 2000, if an active growth stock manager could not see the most extraordinary distortion and elevated, speculative market in history, when will they? In the lead up to the 2007-2009 financial crisis, many value-style managers did not cover themselves in glory either. If you looked at what their major stock ownership concentrations were, they were very much in large banks and various types of financial institutions that were going to get crushed in the credit downturn. If they couldn’t acknowledge or identify the greatest credit excess in history, when will they?

I’m picking on both growth- and value-style managers for missing two of the great bubbles in history. This miss led to capital destruction. Now we have a clueless Fed, in my opinion, that has never known what a bubble is beforehand. It is accentuating one that has been developing as a result of its policy insanity of QE. Markets are going straight up predicated on it.

The public looks at these outcomes and says, “Why should I pay higher fees to managers who can’t outperform or can’t even identify a major speculative blow off. I might as well be fully invested. I might as well be in an ETF or index fund.”

Thus, since 2007, indexing or passive activities have risen from approximately 7% to 9% of total managed assets to almost 40%. As you shift assets from active managers to passive managers, they buy an index. The index is capital weighed, which means more and more money is going into fewer and fewer stocks.

We’ve seen this act before. If you didn’t own the nifty 50 stocks in the early 1970s, you underperformed and, thus, money continued to go into them. If you were a growth stock manager in 1998-1999 and you were not buying “net” stocks, you underperformed and were fired. More and more money went into fewer and fewer stocks. Today you have a similar case with the FANG stocks. More and more money is being deployed into a narrower and narrower area. In each case, this trend did not ended well.

When the markets finally do break, as they always have historically, ETFs and index funds will be destabilizing influences, because fear will enter the marketplace. A higher percentage of assets will be in indexed funds and ETFs. Investors will hit the “sell” button. All you have to ask is two words, “To whom?” To whom do I sell? Index funds and ETFs don’t carry any cash reserves. The active managers have been diminished in size, and most of them aren’t carrying high levels of liquidity for fear of business risk.

We are witnessing the development of a “perfect storm.”