Seth Klarman almost doubled his hedge fund’s assets to $22 billion in the past two years as the industry shrank by sticking with the off-the-beaten-path investments he’s pursued since starting out in 1983.
Unlike John Paulson, who made $15 billion by betting against home mortgages, Klarman didn’t see one big trade that would profit as markets began to collapse. The founder of Baupost Group LLC focused on corporate bonds he calculated would yield solid returns even if the economy got worse.
“We didn’t have the degree of conviction Paulson had,” said Klarman, whose views are so closely watched by investors that his out-of-print book, “The Margin of Safety,” is offered on Amazon.com for more than $1,700. “We don’t deal in absolutes. We deal in probabilities,” he said in an interview at his Boston office.
While Klarman didn’t post the gains that made Paulson famous, he was able to raise almost $4 billion in 2008 when firms including D.B. Zwirn & Co. and Peloton Partners LLP liquidated funds. Baupost was the ninth-largest hedge-fund firm as of Jan. 1, according to AR magazine, Pensions & Investments magazine and data compiled by Bloomberg. He oversees more money than better-known managers such as Ken Griffin and Steven Cohen.
A value investor who looks for securities he considers underpriced, Klarman, 53, said he’s best at “complicated” situations where fewer investors compete for assets. Over the years, Baupost has invested in Parisian office buildings, Russian oil companies and real estate that the U.S. government disposed of following the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s, said Thomas Russo, a partner in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based investment firm of Gardner Russo and Gardner.
“He specializes in illiquid, complex assets,” said Russo, who has known Klarman since 1984.
Baupost gained an average of 17 percent annually in the 10 years ended in December, a period in which the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 1 percent a year. The hedge fund has returned 19 percent a year since it was started, even as it held more than 40 percent of its assets in cash at times.
In February 2008, when Baupost accepted new investors after being closed for eight years, Klarman bought distressed corporate and mortgage debt. The fund lost 12 percent that year, its second annual decline since inception, because it bought some of the debt too early, Klarman said. It returned 23 percent in 2009 and was up 4.4 percent through April.
“It was a wonderful time to put money to work,” said Klarman.
Hedge funds on average lost 19 percent in 2008, gained 20 percent in 2009 and were up 3.6 percent through April, according to data from Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research Inc.
Among the money-making bonds Baupost purchased, according to an October 2008 shareholder letter, was debt issued by Washington Mutual Inc., whose bank unit failed in 2008 and was bought by New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. Baupost also acquired bonds of CIT Group Inc., a New York-based lender that emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. The fund was part of a group of creditors that made a $3 billion loan to CIT in July 2009.
Klarman, in a May 18 talk to financial advisers in Boston, cited another Baupost purchase during the crisis to illustrate the way he thinks about investing. In a series of “what if” exercises, the firm calculated how much bonds of Ford Motor Credit Co. would be worth under different scenarios, including an economic depression in which loan defaults rose eightfold. The conclusion: the bonds, then selling for about 40 cents on a dollar, would still be worth 60 cents.
Ford Credit had net income of $1.3 billion in 2009, compared with a $1.5 billion loss in 2008. Some of its bonds have more than doubled in price since reaching lows in March 2009, Bloomberg data show.
More recently, the fund has been looking to buy privately held commercial real estate. While the fundamentals for much of that property are “terrible,” Klarman said, such investments may pay off for those willing to wait long enough.
Prices of publicly traded real estate securities have run up too far, he said in the interview. If the firm can’t come up with enough opportunities, it may return cash to investors, Klarman said.
“At this point, the clients don’t seem to want their money back,” he added. Baupost, whose investors are wealthy individuals and institutions such as Harvard University’s endowment, currently has about 30 percent of its assets in cash.
Klarman is a disciple of Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, whose 1934 book, “Security Analysis,” is considered the bible for value investors. Graham taught finance at New York’s Columbia University where Berkshire Hathaway Inc.Chairman Warren Buffett was his student.
Klarman wrote the preface to the sixth edition of “Security Analysis,” which was published in 2008. His own book, subtitled ‘Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor,” has become a collector’s item.
Chris Ely, portfolio manager at Nichols Asset Management LLC in Boston, tried to get the book through his suburban library system. He was the 18th person on the waiting list and after six months still hadn’t gotten a copy, he said in a telephone interview.
“Seth writes about investing better than anyone ever has, bar none,” Michael Price, the longtime value investor, said in a telephone interview. Price, who sold his former firm, Heine Securities Corp., to Franklin Resources Inc. of San Mateo, California, in 1996 for more than $600 million, is now managing partner of New York-based MFP Investors LLC.
Klarman, who was born in New York and grew up in Baltimore, worked for Price before and after graduating in 1979 from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He later earned a master of business administration at Harvard Business School in Boston.
Klarman is a limited partner of Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox, whose principal owner is commodities fund trader John Henry. He is chairman of the board of Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit that encourages the study of racism and anti-Semitism in schools.
As early as January 2006, Klarman warned in a letter to shareholders about “tremendous leverage,” “untested” products such as credit derivatives, low interest rates and “a housing bubble that is starting to burst.”
Today, Klarman says he worries that the dollar could lose value and interest rates and inflation may rise. Stocks will probably provide poor returns for the next 10 years, he said.
“We are perennially on the bearish side of things,” he said in the interview.
Baupost held $1.7 billion of U.S. listed stocks at the end of March, according to its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“We are not against owning stocks,” Klarman said in the interview. The problem, he said, is that except for a brief time in March 2009, “stocks haven’t been at bargain prices for most of the last two decades.” U.S. stocks reached a 12-year low in March 2009.
Klarman’s views on the U.S. stock market echo those of Jeremy Grantham, chief investment strategist at Boston-based Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo & Co., who recommended investors buy stocks in March 2009 after more than a decade of saying they were overvalued. Grantham’s latest forecast, posted on the firm’s website, predicted U.S. large cap stocks would return 0.3 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, over the next seven years.
Klarman called Grantham “a very smart person” whose forecasts he watches carefully. In an e-mail, Grantham called Klarman “just about the smartest guy around.”
Klarman buys put options and credit-default swaps, which he calls “cheap insurance,” to protect Baupost against risks such as a steep fall in the stock market or a surge in inflation. He currently has a put, or an option to sell a set amount of a security by a specific date, that will pay off only if interest rates go dramatically higher, he said in his Boston speech. In an October 2008 letter to shareholders the firm said it benefited from credit-default swaps, without saying what the swaps were meant to protect against.
When Klarman can’t find investments he likes, he holds cash. “We prefer the risk of lost opportunity to that of lost capital,” he wrote in his 2004 yearend letter to shareholders. In 2007, Baupost gained more than 50 percent, even as it held more than 40 percent of its assets in cash.
Bruce Berkowitz, named Morningstar Inc.’s domestic stock manager of the decade and a contributor to the latest edition of the Graham and Dodd book, said Klarman stands out among fund managers because he’s able to make money while holding cash and avoiding leverage.
“If he isn’t Elvis, he’s pretty close,” Berkowitz said.