Over the last two of three months, I have toyed with the idea of doing something like Value Investor Insight for emerging hedge fund managers. Over the years I have met some truly incredible investors running smaller funds that most have never heard of. These investors are not trying to build an empire but are instead content to manage smaller pools of capital without the head ache or managing a $1b fund. Some of these investors have absolutely incredible track records and are full of investing wisdom. Because of a number of major projects I have going on across the sites (one will be announced Monday), I thought it better to start the series right here on the blog for all to see. I will be working with Shaun Noll, founder and managing partner of Stirling Capital Management -who did today's interview- to bring you a series of interviews over the next few months.
With that said, if you are a hedge fund manager with less than $100M of assets and would like exposure, please reach out to me (hunter [at] distressed-debt-investing.com). Or if you have a recommendation for a manager you would like to see interviewed, I can do the hard work and try to convince them to come on the site. Value, event driven, distressed - we welcome all!
I have been following Harris Kupperman for a while now and I am always impressed with his ability to foresee long term macro shifts and put those themes to work with deep fundamental company research. In addition to this, Harris is 100% self taught and built an incredible track record with a fund he started straight out of college. He is one of the best investors I have met when it comes to finding “small companies that will become big companies” and so it gives me great pleasure to introduce Harris Kupperman of Praetorian Capital. This is part 1 of the interview. Part 2 will go up tomorrow.
Please tell us how you got started investing Harris:
I had always been interested in economics and the markets but I first began investing in college. I started managing some family money and by the end of college was up more than tenfold on my money when the world was in free fall. After that, family and friends asked me to run their own money and the easiest way to do that was to start a hedge fund. So senior year of college I started my hedge fund.
So you started your fund very young. That is impressive and unusual.
The hedge fund kind of started itself in some ways. People would come to me and ask me to run $25k or $50k for them and so that is how I started the fund. We’ve done very well since the fund began and so here I am today.
So did you have any investment experience prior?
No previous investment experience, I just read a lot of books. I still read constantly, I typically read at least 10 books a month. In college, I was going to school but wasn’t putting much effort into my classes because I was so focused on investing.
I am completely self-taught though. When I was learning, one thing I would do is look at big investments made by great investors in the past that were successful. Then I would see how that idea performed over time and I learned what worked and why. I learned a tremendous amount by reverse engineering their trades and I think that helped me a lot.
How much money did you start the fund with If you don’t mind disclosing?
I started the fund with $90k but at the end of the first 6 months we were at $1m and then by the end of the first year we were at a few million. The fund’s size just ramped from there. I really never went out and tried to raise capital until 2008. I wanted to put together a 5 year track record first since I thought that would speak for itself. After a few years we had a very good track record though, in the top 1% of all funds out there. So we were making money for people and then people would come to me and say, “My friends want to invest in the fund also, what can you do?” and that is how the fund grew. I didn’t go to New York and do a lot of interviews and actively try to raise money, I probably should have in retrospect but I didn’t. I wasn’t trying to start a business for the sake of starting a business, I was doing it for the intellectual pursuit of what makes money in the market.
Of course spending time on investing money is better than spending time on marketing.
Yeah, I always thought that if the track record was good the money would come to you. And that is not quite the case. If you’re a contrarian it means you’re buying when other people hate it. So then when you go pitch the fund to potential investors they ask what you are buying and you tell them “X is what I’m buying and I know you don’t like it but here is why it makes sense”. It’s tough to raise money that way because you know they are going to think you are crazy.
I guess that is one of the natural side effects of being contrarian.
Of course and I’m also not investing in big companies people have heard of. I am investing in tiny esoteric situations nobody knows about that have a lot of upside potential. While there is great potential in these areas it just makes for a difficult sales pitch to your average New York investor or institution.
What kind of investing were you focused on when you started? Sounds like long/short equity?
Basically our specialty, and I say “our” since I have a couple people working for me, but our specialty is finding little companies that will become big companies. We look for a secular or macro trend where we have the wind at our back, then we try to find the best couple companies in that industry. We get to know management well and then we get to REALLY know the industry, and when we feel comfortable we take a big position. We are not a highly diversified fund, at any given point we hold somewhere between 10 and 20 stocks and the top 5 positions are more than half our capital. There just aren’t that many good situations out there. When you get to know a company and really like it, you want to have a big position. It takes a tremendous amount of work for each idea and so you want to be there in size when we find something we like.
We have always focused on small companies though. I simply feel that is the best way to compound returns over the long term. If you look at the 500 largest publicly traded companies in the US, over the last 100 years you would have compounded at roughly 7%. If you look at the next 1500 companies you would have seen compounded returns of nearly 12% and if you look at even smaller companies it gets better. The compounded average returns of the next 1000 companies are nearly 20%. The crazy thing is that everybody knows this as it has been demonstrated in academic studies over and over and over again. The problem is that in small caps you are going to have a year every 3 to 5 years where the entire sector gets wiped out and is down 20% or more. If you are trying to run a money management business you may not survive that year as investors redeem from your fund and you have to sell into declining and less liquid stocks. What if your fund’s first year is that year where small caps decline dramatically? Your fund will likely never get a second chance and that will be the end right there. So everyone knows that small companies generate higher returns over time but it is a difficult strategy to implement for these reasons and so we choose to focus in this area. There just isn’t as much competition.
Do you use leverage?
We have but it is not really what we like to do. A small amount of leverage won’t kill you but if you take on too much it gets very dangerous and makes the fund more difficult to manage.
So you are long only? You don’t talk very much about shorting stock.
No, in the past we have been very short. A few years ago, we saw a lot of the problems coming that hit in 2008, so from early 2006 we were actually net short. This was quite frustrating though as our long book would be up over 100% a year and then we’d give back a good chunk of that on the short side. This was a very frustrating experience because you see crazy frauds keep going up when it is so clear they are a disaster. We ended up being broadly right but after that experience I decided I never really want to be on the short side again. It is very easy to look at a cheap stock and say this thing is going to go higher because the company is growing earnings very fast. It is much more difficult however to time when an over leveraged or fraudulent business is going to finally fall apart. There are so many great little businesses out there also that we have decided to primarily focus on buying these companies as opposed to shorting.
I think that is understandable and we have heard similar thinking from other very successful investors. Not to mention that psychologically it is much harder to manage that side of the book.
Exactly, and if you are good you don’t necessarily need to look for bad companies. Since we are in small caps which are relatively binary, when you get one of these right you’re going to make 5-10x your money. This is not the way shorting works though as you’re not going to make 5x returns on the short side. Maybe you’ll make 50% instead. As a result of this and everything else we don’t focus on the short side anymore. Of course we always have some stuff we are looking at on the short side and if we came across something amazingly bad we might put on a smaller position but we are pretty much long only at this point.
Do you ever put on any macro hedges? There have been a lot of the more famous investors talking about this lately. This would be the Seth Klarman or David Einhorn approach with a generally long only strategy but with a few cheap insurance policies for protection.
The thing about insurance is that you have to pay a premium for it. If you think about it you are going to compound better if you don’t go out there and pay up for protection because protection is generally priced for the guy who is selling it. The fund is friend and family money and my own money is a big piece of the fund so we can take a lot of volatility and don’t have to focus on smoothing out our returns. I just don’t see a reason to be hedging and over paying for insurance since we are looking out and trying to figure out what is going to happen over the next 5-10 years and not trying to generate low vol returns so I can market to someone else. I’ve seen way too many funds try to do that try and squeeze out 200bps a month, every single month, just so they can go try and raise $2b. That may be a great business strategy but it is not very intellectually satisfying so we don’t focus on that.
Sounds like you’re style has changed quite a bit over last 10 years then?
I wouldn’t say it’s changed a whole lot. We don’t short much anymore because we just decided we didn’t want to be on the short side anymore. Honestly, I don’t think there is much money to be made on the short side anyway these days. If I felt like there was a very pregnant opportunity I’d probably put more energy into it but I just don’t feel like there is much downside from here generally.
Why do you say that? I would say that is pretty contrarian in itself. Do you think the global situation is pretty stable?
I don’t know. It was so obvious before, just so blatantly obvious. You had to be a fool not to see it. I just don’t feel like the problems are as obvious anymore. Companies have decent balance sheets more or less. There are lots of problems lurking out there but there is not the systemic risk in the same way.
I think the primary risks now are government issues and governments misbehaving. They are over leveraged, over regulating and just acting idiotic. I think the real risks for the next decade are governmental and macro and not really companies that are frauds. Basically any company that was over leveraged or a fraud got taken out in 2008 and 2009 and so we haven’t had a chance for new over-leveraged industries to be built. So I just don’t think there is that much downside. Maybe the market could drop a third from here, and it wouldn’t really be shocking. Overall though, I just don’t feel like there is a chance for a whole-sale slaughter as there was before. Especially with governments printing so much money and holding up asset prices forever.
So then naturally you must be bullish on precious metals?
I find macro or secular themes with a strong tailwind to them and go find the best companies in the industry and so I think precious metals are an interesting place to be right now. I got involved originally in precious metals back when gold was at $330 back in 2003, we got really active in 2004 and you know we are still involved. It changes from time to time but it is a macro theme that will go on for a long time. The problem is you won’t find the bargains in this space you found 5 years ago.
That makes sense though with so many people digging in that space now.
Right. The thing about these trends is that you need to discover them early when nobody cares about them and then take your position early and we’ve done that really well in precious metals and in the whole commodity sector really. I think the better trend now is not necessarily buying gold. It could go higher, I don’t know much. It could double or triple from here but it won’t go up 10 fold like it could when you’re buying it at $330. I think the more interesting trend to get into is buying into the mining services sector. This is our biggest sector bet right now. It’s a bet that companies have used up their resources at a much higher rate than they have discovered new deposits industry wide across the globe. You have seen a lot of industries where they are depleting their resources faster than they are being replaced, whether it is nickel or oil or any of these things. The numbers aren’t always the same but in some industries like copper you have just seen that nobody is putting money back into it. You drill holes and it costs money and you have to put that against your income statement and executives don’t want to do that. So instead companies have been spending a lot more on making acquisitions to replace reserves. The problem is that there just aren’t that many valuable little resource companies any more since nobody has really found anything big. If you look at global expenditures on the hard rock exploration spending it probably needs to run at $15b to replace what has been mined. This year should come in at $8-9b and last year was half of that and the peak in 2008 was at $12 or 13b. So the industry as a whole is clearly not replacing what is mined. Then taking into account that global GDP is growing a few percent a year and global population is growing at a few percent a year, it is clear that you need to do more than replace reserves you actually have to grow worldwide reserves. Before the play was to buy the commodities and commodities companies themselves but I think it now is more exciting to invest in the arms merchants, the guys selling the picks and shovels.
For the first time in a long time the mining companies are making good money, they’ve paid down a lot of the debt they acquired in the last decade in their acquisition binges. I think now that they have cash flow they are going to start spending on exploration, partially just because there is nothing truly valuable left to acquire. You look at some of the prices paid by some of these guys in the last few months on acquisitions and it is amazing. Kinross over paid on Rubicon, Goldcorp overpaid last week on Andean. You look at some of these and you realize that they either have to vastly overpay or they take their chances drilling holes and at some point drilling some holes just looks more attractive. I think that is the trend I’d rather bet on than betting on the price of gold going much higher, although I think it will.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of our Hedge Fund Manager Interview Series with Harris Kupperman of Praetorian Capital.