Don’t look now, but those masters of the universe who arrogantly whistled past the greatest credit bubble and bust in history are again gracing the covers of popular business magazines. For example, the October 12 issue of Barron’s featured none other than Bill Miller “riding high again as one of America’s top fund managers.” Yes this is the same Miller who beat the S&P 500 15 years running, was named “Fund Manager of the Decade” by Morningstar.com in 1999, and anointed “greatest money manager of our time” by Fortune in November, 2006.
To say Bill Miller didn’t see the financial train wreck of 2007-2008 coming is an epic understatement. For the 18-month period ended this March, his Legg Mason Value Trust lost 72%, wiping out a decade of gains. When the first subprime cracks appeared in March, 2007 he thought Countrywide Financial would be a long-term beneficiary. When the Fed began easing August 17, 2007 he chose not to fight the Fed:
“We bought financials after the Fed [first] injected liquidity. That’s what you do in a liquidity crisis… This turned out to be a collateral-driven crisis caused by underperforming debt… We’ve analyzed that mistake and tried to make adjustments to risk management and the portfolio-construction process.”
Besides Countrywide, his fund’s investors were buried in Bear Stearns, Lehman Holdings, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. He even had the audacity to blame the government for his mistakes:
“Lehman was investment-grade Friday and worthless short-term paper on Monday,” Sept. 15, 2008, Miller notes. Miller blames the feds for the Lehman debacle, saying their “pre-emptive seizure” of Fannie Mae, another ill-fated Value Trust position, and Freddie Mac caused the other financial dominoes to fall. “It was a gratuitous wiping out of equity capital,” says Miller, referring to the preferred shares issued by the mortgage giants as their troubles grew. The government, he adds, “told them to sell capital.” He bought the stock because they both met capital requirements and Fannie had been bailed out once before. “I expected forbearance like in the early 1980s, but they didn’t do it this time.”
Like at least 90% of those in the investment industry, Bill Miller expects – no, demands – that government to step in and backstop his risk taking. When the feds are powerless to do so and overwhelmed by market forces, he whines like a baby. When he rides a wave of artificial stimulus (Value Trust is +37% year-to-date) he attributes his oversized gains solely to his guts and acumen.
What does Miller like now? More than 25% of his portfolio was in financials as of June 30, 2009 and positions included State Street, NYSE Euronext, and Goldman Sachs.
Bear markets do not end until behavior changes and the necessary lessons are taught. By all appearances, this process has been subverted by trillions of dollars in bailouts, stimulus, credit backstops, and injections of liquidity. Old habits die hard…, i.e., the secular bear is still a cub.