It seems like it was just yesterday that John Paulson was the darling of the investment community, earning billions of dollars in personal profit and causing fellow institutional investors to hang on his every word and action. How times have changed! A headline on WSJ.com today states, "Rivals Scout Paulson Assets" - if that doesn't sound dire, I don't know what does! I've brought this subject up before but it bears repeating because it shows how fickle investors are - you can be the "can't miss" investment manager one day and a goat the next.
On Wall Street, you're only as good as your last trade. This goes for all types of investors and helps make the case for passive management much easier. After all, a handful of institutional investors - from hedge fund managers to mutual fund managers - are wildly outperforming their benchmarks at any given moment. The question then becomes how much staying power do those managers have; in Paulson's case, it appears, only a couple of years worth. In the case of the actively managed mutual fund manager, the same is true. It was only a few years ago that Bill Miller, the manager of Legg Mason's Value Trust had his 15-year streak broken of beating the returns of the S&P 500. From 1991-2005, Miller's fund posted returns that were greater than those of the index and was lauded in the press as an investment titan. There is no doubt that Miller is a great finance mind but even he admits that much of his streak was due to luck: "As for the so-called streak, that's an accident of the calendar. If the year ended on different months it wouldn't be there and at some point the mathematics will hit us. We've been lucky. Well, maybe it's not 100% luck—maybe 95% luck."
The problem for investors like you and I comes when we're tasked with picking the managers who can consistently outperform year in and year out. Here's some food for thought: What's amazing about Miller's success is that consistent outperformance is so rare (1 in 2.3 million, according to Michael Mauboussin), yet the ultimate goal of most individual investors is to invest in mutual funds that can post that type of outperformance...which never comes. If that's the case, why are we throwing good money after bad?