An episode of fate and the fat man
I FOLLOWED the fat man. I swore I never would, but I did. The fat man is a pompous acquaintance in the fund management business, who lives what some people call the good life. That means he dines and drinks excessively, and actually likes cocktail parties. The only exercise he gets is trembling every morning.
The fat man drives a Rolls. He is arrogant and shallow. Worse, he is British. Worse than that, I followed him.
I thought if he could become rich and slothful managing other people's money then he must be doing something right for his clients. This despite his having an English boarding school background and a laugh that goes haw, haw, haw through a mouthful of smoked salmon.
It was not him in particular I followed. I went with the idea of sticking some cash into a managed fund because I reckoned that if he could make money then everyone else in the business must be brilliant.
I chose two companies, a reputable Canadian bank and a leading local hong. I spread one million dollars over six funds comprising hundreds of companies in dozens of countries, and numerous currencies and bonds. Two years later no fund has made a single cent. All headed south the week after I went in. Every bond, every equity, every currency transaction.
Failure with a spread like that must be a billion-to-one-shot.
Meanwhile, the fat man was doing fine, busy skimming five per cent off each of his clients' investments from day one. Then another one or two per cent annually. Then, when his clients got busy complaining his advertised ''better than 62 per cent last year'' did not exactly reflect the present state of their portfolios, he became even busier writing them illuminating letters; entertaining and revelatory reminders that funds could go down as well as up.
Confronted by angry punters at a cocktail he would raise a glass of Dom Perignon, reach for a fistful of the most exotic canapes, and silence the mob with some ageless financial wisdom, bringing stunning clarity to where there had been only confusion. ''Remember, you only lose money if you sell.'' Suicidal investors who thought they were losing millions were suddenly calmed. They had not really lost at all. They have not made a lot either, but when you've been imagining for weeks that you've blown your life's savings and some confident authorityin a pin-striped suit says you have not, the anxiety fades. A warm glow of relief fills your desperate being, lasting just long enough for the fat man to make his exit.
Every quarter I receive from my fund managers a beautifully designed newsletter, and once a year a lavish report. These missives are devoted mainly to involved explanations of why my million bucks is now $810,000. No mention has been made of how much of the missing $190,000 goes towards designing and printing the reports.
It is the sole job of fund managers to make money for their investors. We pay them well to analyse and anticipate market movements. And they do. Mostly after the event.
In most other businesses it is not usual to pay someone to explain in great depth why he is not doing his job. I have so far been unable to get away with accepting a retainer fee from a client for taking care of his corporate public relations, then phonehim every week to tell him why I am not doing it.
Last week I received an annual report from the hong I mentioned. The Chairman's Statement and Investment Report cover two pages. They are a litany of elaborate excuses; examples of how world economies and markets have conspired to move differently to theway they are supposed to.
Some quotes: ''1992 has been a period of uncertainty throughout the world. . .'' (This begs the question: when was there ever a period of certainty ?).
''. . . markets throughout the world have generally experienced a great deal of volatility and uncertainty.'' (Gee, you just can't rely on the world these days).
''The world economy continued to display a marked lack of synchronisation during 1992. . .'' (See, how can you expect anyone to make a dollar when the entire world is out of synch?) ''Weak political leadership, endangered by scandals and factional in-fighting, has led to policy stagnation.'' (This is a true revelation. It applies only to every country on planet Earth).
''Europe also suffered a slowing economic growth and widely divergent economic and political requirements resulting from the break-up of the ERM and the failure to ratify the Maastricht Treaty.'' (I have no idea what that means and neither do they, whichis why they have been caught with their pin-stripes around their pale and chubby ankles).
If anyone out there has a fund which does not employ the fat man, is confident enough of their ability to take no rake-off up-front, charge no annual fee but demand 50 per cent of whatever profits they make, please give me a call.
No, I won't hold my breath.
Peter Sherwood is managing director of Edelman Public Relations Hongkong.