Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Meeting with FusionAnalytics

Fans of Barry Ritholtz might enjoy this post. As most of you know, Mr. Ritholtz is the CEO and Director for Equity Research for FusionIQ, an independent quant research firm. He works with Kevin Lane and Michael Conte of FusionAnalytics Investment Partners, LLC. I happened to meet Mr. Lane and Mr. Conte yesterday morning.

Mr. Lane provided some details about his background. He started with MFS and then became Redwood's Chief Market Strategist. When margins on the trade execution side of the business diminished, Mr. Lane shifted gears into market research. Mr. Lane appears to focus part of his research on answering the following three questions:

1. What are the underlying fundamentals?
2. Are we in the right sector?
3. What is the overall market environment?

Mr. Lane is a quant--someone who relies on numerical ("quantative") techniques to time the market and to determine market risk. I asked his thoughts on LTCM, the most famous quant-based blow-up in Wall Street history (read the book, When Genius Failed, for more on this topic). This is where Mr. Lane differentiated his product from other quant-based tools. Many quants believe so religiously in their system, even when the data in front of them tells them a trade isn't working out, they ignore it. In contrast, Mr. Lane mentioned human error and being able to recognize when you've made a mistake. Though he didn't come out and say it, he implied that LTCM fell prey to hubris. Mr. Lane also said that when his own bets on Tempur Pedic International Inc. (TPX) and La-Z-Boy Inc. (LZB) went awry, he exited those positions. His decision to take the loss sooner rather than later saved his investors from more downside movement. Overall, I found Mr. Lane to be upfront and professional. He clearly had passion for his work, and his eyes lit up when he began talking about his investment strategies.

I then spoke with Mr. Conte. If Mr. Lane is the gravitas of the operation, then Mr. Conte is the suave go-getter, the East Coast stud who brings energy and drive to every meeting. Mr. Conte talked about the FusionAnalytics program and how it sought to minimize investment risk. He used the term, "tilt," instead of portfolio "re-balancing," saying it was important to allocate assets in the right direction rather than just haphazardly. Actually, he said it more colorfully--he said that rebalancing doesn't make sense, because you could be rebalancing into toxic assets, except he used a scatalogical term for "toxic assets," which made me laugh.

Mr. Conte also talked about conflicts of interest and how many brokers and advisors had no incentive to protect their clients' money. For example, let's say you recommend a stock to your clients. A few months later, the technical indicators show that the stock is poised for a dive. In most firms, there's no incentive to go back to your clients and tell them you were wrong a few months ago and they should sell. That's because many Wall Street firms don't prioritize protecting their clients' money--their models are based on getting as much money as you can and giving your clients bullish tips. Mr. Conte said FusionAnalytics avoided this conflict of interest by charging a percentage of assets under management, allowing them to focus on results.

As I've written several times before, it's important for investors to see investment advisors and corporate executives in person to gauge their credibility. Human intuition, honed for thousands of years, may not always be correct, but it can sometimes save investors a lot of grief. One reason Madoff might have secluded himself from his investors and created an exclusive (read: isolated) existence is probably because he knew his lies would produce tell-tale signals. Mr. Conte and Mr. Lane both came across as credible, decent men. I wouldn't be surprised to see them doing very well in the future. In a world where a Madoff can exist, it's nice to know that a Mike Conte and a Kevin Lane can also thrive.

One final note: during my chat with Mr. Conte, we experienced a 4.3 earthquake. This was Mr. Conte's first earthquake, and I got to share it with him. It's always good to see how investment advisors operate under pressure. Mr. Conte's face got a little red when he realized what was happening, but he kept his composure. Mr. Conte, welcome to California.

FYI: here is an article re: Mr. Lane's timely calls:



Anonymous said...

Were they wearing suits?

That always cracks me up when the
East Coasters show up in suit & tie.

K_Yew said...

They wore suit jackets, but no tie--so someone did give them the "casual Silicon Valley" memo :-)