Wednesday, June 11th, 2008
wanted: mad genius

Whose eyes are staring at you from the cover of the June 9 edition of Fortune? Why, that’s none other than Ken Heebner of Capital Growth Management, according to the magazine’s cover, “arguably the best fund manager of our time.”Fortune | Longer profiles of firms and individuals have always been Fortune’s strength; this is a fine example of the type of in-depth work that the blogosphere has difficulty producing on its own, but (like me) loves referencing.

Special investors like Heebner often don’t fit easily into the traditional frameworks used to evaluate money managers. Perhaps the simple notes of someone judging CGM (read “Heebner”) would look like this:

It’s quite a challenge to judge such an idiosyncratic approach using tools that are comparative in nature and have the unwanted effect of generating a clustering of managers eager to win business by being a bit better without being too different. Unfortunately, the most money generally pours in to such a “mad genius” (as the cover calls him) after sustained periods of strong performance, especially when such is trumpeted in a leading magazine. After all, it’s easier to buy into an unusual style when you have the “proof” of past performance and the imprimatur of major publications.

Yet, that’s often the worst time to do so, although I have no idea whether that will be the case here. It seems to me that the best time to give money to outstanding long-term investors might be when they have suffered through their toughest period, as the article itself acknowledges when it recalls that Fortune deemed Heeber the “poster child for fallen fund stars” in 1999, shortly before he began the incredible run that the magazine now celebrates.

Without regard to the likely behavioral responses to the performance record (and the article) by investors, there is much to ponder in the piece. Most investment organizations would do well to copy Heebner’s practices of stressing information over opinion; asking his analyst to ferret out missing facts (operating “like a sleuth”) rather than having her rehash and regurgitate the work of others, which is too often what portfolio managers have in-house analysts do; eschewing closet index strategies; casting a broad and unconventional net when looking for investable themes; using the Street not for its conclusions, but for its wealth of information; and being willing to admit he was wrong and to sell large positions quickly and completely. All of those things are worth doing, although it must be said that they all are harder to do in large shops where control is not vested in one person.

For those doing due diligence, it is not easy to understand that a mix of such practices exists, or that it is coupled with the kind of insight needed to stand apart from the crowd at the times when it really pays. It is unfortunate but true that a mad genius without a long track record of success comes off as wacky when viewed through the lens of conformity. It is our challenge to see the makings today of the magazine covers of tomorrow.