Stockpicking is Hard

It’s a turn-around jump shot
It’s everybody jump start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts

– Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble

Apologies for the I Am Sam-esque headline but really, is there any need to complicate something this elementary?

Every market cycle creates a new crop of stockpicking heroes.  And often as not, the next cycle puts those heroes to the test.  And just as often, that test finds our pop-star stockpickers wanting.

The tragedy in all this is that humans get emotional about aligning themselves with winners, with managers who appear to know what they’re doing or have some kind of sixth sense about stocks.  As a result, the assets under management flow in just as the stockpicker is coming off a peak run.  But intuition and catching on to a good story is not a repeatable process and every generation ends up finding this out the hard way.

Bloomberg reminds us of this lesson in a story about three of our generation’s most lauded stockpickers and their performance of late:

Funds run by Berkowitz of Fairholme Capital Management LLC, Heebner of Capital Growth Management LP and Miller of Legg Mason Inc. (LM) are the three worst performers among large diversified U.S. mutual funds in 2011, according to data from Chicago-based Morningstar Inc. The funds lost 11 percent to 12 percent through June 9, compared with a gain of 3.4 percent for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

“People assume because certain managers have had good streaks that they are always going to be a step ahead of the market,” Russel Kinnel, director of mutual fund research at Morningstar, said in a telephone interview. “It never works out that way.”

A few things to keep in mind…

1.  The three managers mentioned here are brilliant and will go into the stockpicking hall of fame regardless of a tough start to 2011.

2.  Brilliance, unfortunately, does not equal success.  If only it were so simple to just turn your affairs over to the smartest guys you could find…

3.  Not every manager’s skills translate into performance in every market atmosphere.  The holy grail is to try to figure out which manager or strategy makes the most sense given the mood and action in the tape or the economy.  Easier said than done.

4.  Famous fund managers are not brands of cereal or classic rock bands.  They do not always taste the same or put on consistent live shows.  Stockpickers, even legendary ones, are working under conditions that they themselves cannot dictate.  They are not doing their thing in a vacuum.  There are too many variables outside of their control for us to regard them as being automatic like a Swiss watch.

Stockpicking is hard.  Even for the best stockpickers who’ve ever played the game.


Berkowitz Leads Stock Pickers Hitting Bottom (Bloomberg)

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