1Q17 | Bill Nygren Market Commentary
March 31, 2017
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” - It's Hard To Be Humble by Mac Davis, 1974
What Makes a Good Oakmark Analyst?
March is one of my favorite months. The darkness of Chicago’s winter slowly lifts as each day gets a little bit warmer and longer. Baseball spring training gets into full speed, and fans from every team can believe that this is their year. College basketball’s tournament, March Madness, is perhaps the most exciting tournament in sports. The games are always full of irony as invariably the slowest paced teams frustrate the run-and-gun teams. Or, as happened this year, the worst free-throw shooting team in the tournament, my Wisconsin Badgers, couldn’t intentionally miss a free throw with four seconds left, instead allowing Florida to set up a game winning three-pointer. In so many games we see teams’ greatest strengths become weaknesses, and weaknesses become strengths.
I also like March because it is the month I get to speak to investment students at my alma mater’s Applied Securities Analysis Program and Bruce Greenwald’s value investing program at Columbia. Typical topics include how I got interested in investing, my education and career path, and what makes Oakmark unique. Without fail, the aspiring investment professionals will eventually ask about the characteristics we look for when we hire analysts at Oakmark or, more generally, “What do you think makes a good investment analyst?” Perhaps the answer might give some insight into how we think at Oakmark.
When I served as director of research, I used to joke that every analyst search we conducted started with the same list of requirements: “High GPA from a good university, a major in finance or accounting, intuitive math skills, strong oral and written communication ability, three to five years’ related work experience, intense competitive drive, and activities demonstrating leadership. MBA or CFA required.” Yet almost every hire was somewhat outside that box. We hired some analysts with low GPAs, some with different degrees and some from second-tier colleges. We hired some with over 10 years’ experience, and others with no experience at all. Some had neither an MBA nor a CFA. What we realized was that our search criteria, though representative of our typical hires, was not really defining the candidates we were looking for. Those criteria defined the candidates most investment firms are looking for, but didn’t at all get to what makes Oakmark unique.
There are three additional characteristics that we believe are necessary to succeed at Oakmark that we either don’t think we can teach or don’t want to teach, so we require them to be present before we hire an analyst. First is being a team player. At many investment firms, analysts have a one-on-one relationship with portfolio managers. They develop their stock recommendations and present them to a portfolio manager who decides whether or not the stocks will be purchased. If analysts pick good stocks, they will be paid well and their careers will progress. In that setup, it doesn’t really matter whether the analyst is a team player or not. Oakmark is different.
Oakmark analysts succeed by helping the team succeed. Yes, we expect them to find good stocks to purchase, but that effort is collaborative. An analyst who begins working on a new buy idea seeks input from the rest of the investment team before the idea is finalized. When the work is presented, it is the job of every investment professional at our company to attempt to find flaws that would prevent us from investing. Throughout the time we hold a stock, the analysts will challenge each other as to whether or not our sell target correctly incorporates all the new information we’ve seen subsequent to our purchase. When the stock is sold, it is treated as a victory for the team if it went up, and a team defeat if it did not. We all understand that we do well financially when our shareholders do well financially. That’s in part because a major factor in our compensation review is how well an analyst helps improve the team’s stock selection.
We know that anyone who puts their personal success over Oakmark’s success will not last long at our company. So, we look for clues in resumes such as a history of playing team sports or other activities where accomplishments by a group are more important than by an individual. We know that we can’t teach someone how to be a team player.
More than 30 years ago, Warren Buffett wrote an article that has become a value investing classic: The Superinvestors of Graham and Doddsville (Fall 1984, Hermes – the Columbia Business School Magazine). If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it recently, it is well worth the time. In that article, Buffett explained the futility of trying to convert investors to a value investing philosophy:
“It is extraordinary to me that the idea of buying dollar bills for 40c takes immediately with people or it doesn’t take at all. It’s like an inoculation. If it doesn’t grab a person right away, I find you can talk to him for years, and show him records, and it just doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is…I’ve never seen anyone who became a gradual convert over a ten-year period to this approach. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of I.Q. or academic training. It is instant recognition or it is nothing.”
We 100% agree with Buffett. Everything we do at Oakmark is based on value investing. We don’t know how to teach someone how to think like a value investor. You can’t succeed at Oakmark without practicing value investing. Therefore, we will only hire analysts who have developed a value philosophy prior to joining our team.
There are some characteristics for successful analysts that are simple “more is better” traits. Intelligence, curiosity, communication skills—all are “more is better.” Then you have the continuums where, like NCAA basketball teams, a strength carried to the extreme becomes a weakness. We want discipline, but we also want creativity. We demand patience, but don’t want stubbornness. We want thoroughness, but require decisions based on incomplete information. Success requires striking an appropriate balance between these traits that sound like opposites. Being at one extreme or the other is a recipe for failure.
One of the most important continuums for us is confidence versus humility. It is especially important for a value investor to have the confidence to take a position when the vast majority of investors are on the opposing side. But without humility, one loses the ability to admit a mistake. I’m reminded of the early 1980’s TV show Happy Days with the super-cool Fonzie who could never say the words “I was wrong.” Fonzie would have been an awful investor.
In a book many in our research department have enjoyed, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner state:
“The humility required for good judgment is not self-doubt—the sense that you are untalented, unintelligent, or unworthy. It is intellectual humility. It is a recognition that reality is profoundly complex, that seeing things clearly is a constant struggle, when it can be done at all, and that human judgment must therefore be riddled with mistakes.”
What we are looking for in Oakmark analysts is confidence paired with the humility to remain open to evidence that shows they are wrong.
One of my investing heroes, former hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt, said, "The balance between confidence and humility is best learned through extensive experience and mistakes." Unlike being a team player or a value investor, with time, almost every investor develops humility. But it is an expensive lesson to learn. We want analysts who developed their humility by losing money somewhere else.
I can’t count the number of resumes I’ve seen or conversations I’ve had with students where they excitedly state that their personal portfolio returned “X” percent last year. And of course, “X” is always some number that is astoundingly high relative to the market or to Oakmark returns. That record is almost always accompanied by scorn for “incompetent” professional investors and the offer to teach us the secrets of their success. I smile as I mentally mark off the box “needs to be humbled by losing money.” Then I wish them great success in their job search and suggest they check back with us in a few years.
William C. Nygren, CFA
View other commentary and letters from Bill here.