How a cat beat professionals at stockpicking

A teachable moment.

The Observer spent 2012 challenging a panel of professional stockpickers – a wealth manager, stockbroker and fund manager – to beat schoolchildren and a cat at making a profit from the stock market. The cat won:

Each team invested a notional £5,000 in five companies from the FTSE All-Share index at the start of the year. After every three months, they could exchange any stocks, replacing them with others from the index.

By the end of September the professionals had generated £497 of profit compared with £292 managed by Orlando. But an unexpected turnaround in the final quarter has resulted in the cat's portfolio increasing by an average of 4.2% to end the year at £5,542.60, compared with the professionals' £5,176.60.

Click through for some awful puns.

Naturally, this is a teachable moment. Matt Yglesias points out that, even if the cat had lost, once fees are factored in it would almost certainly have beaten the professionals. The traditional "2 and 20" fee of hedge fund managers – that's two per cent of the investment and 20 per cent of the profit – is easily enough to turn a market-beating fund into a market-losing investment.

But the cat may have been aided by the year in which the competition took place. Zero Hedge reports that, over 2012, the S&P rose 16 per cent, meaning that:

A whopping 88% of hedge funds, as well as some 65% of large-cap core, 80% of large cap value, and 67% of small-cap mutual funds underperformed the market.

Barron's explains why a strong index is bad for hedgies:

Hedge funds typically lag behind broader indexes slightly during years with double-digit S&P gains—they do have to hedge, after all—but it's rarely by this much.

Managers across all strategies are concerned about another 2008-like market crash, but in the meantime, they've been hurt by central banks' persistence at keeping interest rates low. Add in volatility and a U.S. presidential election where the top three issues are the economy, the economy, and the economy, and it's clear that hedge-fund managers are more concerned about managing risk than gambling on equities. Investors and other industry observers say that for perhaps the first time since the phrase hedge fund entered the lexicon, hot or gimmicky strategies aren't worth investing in at all. It's the manager that counts.

The cat was picking from the FTSE rather than S&P, but much the same lessons apply. Markets have performed well this year; gimmicky stockpicking strategies haven't; and, of course, there was a healthy dose of feline luck.

But maybe hedge funds and stockpicking are always over-valued? Warren Buffett thinks so; he made a $1m bet in 2007 that:

Over a ten-year period commencing on January 1, 2008, and ending on December 31, 2017, the S&P 500 will outperform a portfolio of funds of hedge funds, when performance is measured on a basis net of fees, costs and expenses.

That's critical of funds-of-funds – which add another layer of returns-destroying fees – but it's representative of a growing trend. If you must invest in something more complicated than an all-shares index, try a dart-board and a list of stocks.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.