(Ep.62) The Acquirers Podcast: Clayton Gardner – Titan Tech, An Old-School Hedge Fund Strategy In A Fintech Wrapper

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In this episode of The Acquirer’s Podcast Tobias chats with Clayton Gardner, co-founder of Titan, which is a mobile investing platform – it’s a hedge fund for everyone. During the interview Clayton provided some great insights into:

  • Titan’s 13F Replication Strategy In A Fintech Wrapper
  • Buy Good Companies That Will Not Have Free Cash Flow Impairment For The Next 3-5 Years
  • Set Up A Momentum Hedge To Offset False Positives
  • Is This The Start Of A Shift Away From Passive Investing?
  • Retail Investors Should Focus On Behavioral Edge
  • Stick With Your Investing Strategy During Drawdowns
  • There’s A Lot Of Good Stocks That Have Been Thrown Out With The Bath Water

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Full Transcript

Clayton Gardner:
… and it’s fine.

Tobias Carlisle:
All right. When you’re ready, let’s get into it.

Clayton Gardner:
Cool. Let’s do it.

Tobias Carlisle:
Hi I’m Tobias Carlisle, this is the Acquirers podcast. My special guest today is Clayton Gardner of Titan. He’s got a super-interesting story about moving from hedge funds to a dotcom startup in the investment space. We’ll talk to him right after this.

Speaker 3:
Tobias Carlisle is the founder and principal of Acquirers Fund. For regulatory reasons, he will not discuss any of his Acquirers Funds on this podcast. All opinions expressed by podcast participants are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Acquirers Funds or affiliates. For more information, visit acquirersfunds.com.

Tobias Carlisle:
Clay, how are you doing?

Clayton Gardner:
I’m great. Toby, how are you doing?

Titan’s 13F Replication Strategy In A Fintech Wrapper

Tobias Carlisle:
Well, thank you. So Titan. What is it?

Clayton Gardner:
So Titan is mobile investing platform and we’re democratizing hedge funds and all alternate strategies. So for anyone, you can download the app, sign up in two minutes. You can start with as little as $10, and what we do is our first product automatically invests you and manages your money in a portfolio of 20 stocks that are essentially high quality compounders.

Clayton Gardner:
So we use a quantitative, systematic approach to take all 10,000-plus stocks. We look at what the longterm, most fundamental, concentrated hedge funds are investing in across that universe, and then we assemble a 20 stock portfolio with their highest conviction picks and we rebalance that on a quarterly basis. We do our own fundamental diligence to vet them. So it’s a 20 stock best ideas portfolio, tend to be a lot of compounders. As so, that’s our first product.

Tobias Carlisle:
So they go to the website, and then it’s a little bit like Acorns or something like that? From the investment perspective, we’ll talk about the strategy in a moment, but what’s the interface, how does that all work?

Clayton Gardner:
It’s really simple. You can think about us more as an active manager, so if you’ve heard of welfare embetterment platforms where you’re downloading or you’re using a desktop app, you sign up, create an account, and then you deposit funds and you withdraw funds. Right? So it’s very simple. That’s the only action you just take today.

Clayton Gardner:
We’re a mobile platform so you can sign up in a few minutes. You fill out a little bit of information about yourself, create an account, and then deposit funds. You can deposit anywhere from $10 to hundreds of thousands of dollars and within a day or so you get instantly invested in this portfolio of 20 stocks, and we handle everything for you after that.

Tobias Carlisle:
I see, so the strategy is like a 13-F replication. It starts out there, and then you do some additional diligence. So let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the 13-F replication part of it first. Can you say who you’re tracking?

Clayton Gardner:
So we can’t say who we’re tracking at the fund level, but taking a step back when we were whiteboarding our first product, and I can talk about my background on the buy side, having worked at several different fundamental longterm-focused funds, the idea to do generation process for a lot of these funds starts with, what are the other high conviction hedge funds investing in? Right?

Clayton Gardner:
And so, they tend to be this melting pot of ideas, you’re meeting people at conferences, management meetings. Then you go do your own fundamental work but they all coalesce around some of the same names, especially if they have similar styles.

Clayton Gardner:
So my background was on the fundamental longterm deep research approach, so holding companies for three to five plus years, generally 10 to 20 long, similar number of shorts, and so when we were whiteboarding Titan we said, “We want our first product to look like our core circle of competence.”, which is this high quality concentrated portfolio of compounders.

Clayton Gardner:
In order to construct that portfolio, we said, “Why not use the same approach we used on the buy side?”, so starting with 13-F filings, which most funds above $100 million assets have to report every quarter, what we do is we look at the 13-F filings of funds that fit a few criteria that we believe represent longterm fundamental funds, right?

Clayton Gardner:
So if you look at-

Tobias Carlisle:
What are the criteria? Can you talk about that?

Clayton Gardner:
So if you think about the data that is represented in a 13-F filing, there’s all the long positions a manager owns, including the calls and put options. There’s the market value as of last quarter, the number of shares they own, and there’s the evolution of how that complexion looks each quarter.

Clayton Gardner:
So by doing some data science you can basically figure out what the quarterly turnover is, you can figure out what the concentration with the sizing is, so how much of a manager’s capital is in the top five to 10 picks versus 20 and onward pick. And you can figure out, okay, is this the type of manager that holds a name for three to six months, or three to six years?

Tobias Carlisle:
Right.

Clayton Gardner:
And similarly, you can get a sense, you can almost start to back into, is this a manager that tends to be more fundamental in flavor? If so, the probably are more concentrated, lower turnover. And then, also obviously do our own fundamental bottom’s up work.

Clayton Gardner:
If there’s a fund with five to 10 names, super-chunky position, maybe even a 13-D filed with that position tends to be more activist.

Tobias Carlisle:
Right.

Clayton Gardner:
So we can use these criteria to basically start to segregate funds into different strategy buckets, and our first product focuses exclusively on that fundamental longterm, and does tend to be more GARP in flavor. These are not value funds that are scraping for cigar butts, these are guys who hold these growth compounder positions.

Tobias Carlisle:
That’s a nice word, mate, scraping for cigar butts.

Clayton Gardner:
Well, importantly there is, on average, the positions tend to be owned by five-plus funds, right? The important thing about this strategy is it’s fund-agnostic. So to your earlier question, which funds do we follow? We’re not saying, “Oh, let’s go pick X, Y, and Z funds. For example, let’s go pick a basket of tiger cubs and see what they own.”, because there’s obviously some bias there, right?

Clayton Gardner:
It’s the question of, how do we pick that fund in the first place. There’s probably some historical performance bias, some selection bias, and so what we do is we use a minimum number of funds must own each stock as the leading criteria, and we’re almost agnostic, so there’s some managers that will show up in the basket of funds that we track each quarter that are completely under the radar. They manage three, $400 million.

Tobias Carlisle:
Right.

Clayton Gardner:
And then, there’s the name brand funds managing 10 billion that you would definitely recognize if I told you. And so, what’s nice about this is we’re fund-agnostic so we’re not anchoring ourselves to the given manager who could, for whatever reason, close up shop, become a family office, and all of a sudden we have to redo our strategy.

Clayton Gardner:
So it’s almost a fund of fund approach, if you think about it that way. And obviously, because we’re a startup, so we’re not a fund. We separately manage accounts. We have compliance, legal, everything is as a service, so we’re able to do this. We charge a performance fee and 1% management fee.

Clayton Gardner:
So I think we’re giving folks a lot of beta, and so far, we’ve been giving them some alpha that would resemble what they’d get in a long-only fundamental fund at a fraction of the cost.

Tobias Carlisle:
So it’s like a best ideas fund and you’re agnostic to who goes in there but you’re looking for guys who are doing deep fundamental research and looking to hold for longer periods of time and you’re agnostic to what their style is, but you’re looking for maybe more growth at a reasonable price compounder-type investors. Is that a fair summary?

Clayton Gardner:
No, that’s exactly right. And that’s why there are some ETFs out there that try to do this. I could name a few that are essentially 13-F tracking ETFs. The reason we’re a platform, I could talk about our longer term mission and vision to build several of these funds and build custom portfolios for people, but part of the reason is that there is a qualitative element, right? It is a little bit quantamental in nature.

Clayton Gardner:
We have an in-house research team that’ vetting these, because there certain companies that will pop up that definitely seem to suggest that there’ some style drift within that basket of funds. So, for example, there’s a couple of companies that popped up on our screen that are almost certainly activist names, right?

Clayton Gardner:
And yeah, there’s a lot of longterm concentrated fundamental funds but they’ll hear an idea at a conference and they’ll do their own work and they’ll style drift a bit, and so that’s where our team comes in, so each product we launch, we have one today, has a mandate and it’s our in-house research team’s job to make sure each position that comes up in that screen is matching that mandate.

Tobias Carlisle:
So that’s what your fundamental approach is, it’s to make sure the positions match the mandate rather than doing any diligence yourself, or valuation work yourself. Is that how you’re doing it?

Clayton Gardner:
We do valuation work ourselves and it’s not so much today, in order to initiate a new position. It tends to be more to understand how to rotate into a new position when something happens. So I’ll give you a few tangible examples.

Clayton Gardner:
Historically clients of ours have owned Time Warner, which got acquired by AT&T, right? And it got acquired, I think, in June 2018, so the question naturally is, okay, 13-F filing is not coming out until August. They come out 45 days after quarter end. What are we doing for the two months between the time this ticker gets delisted and gets swallowed by AT&T and the next 13-F scrape.

Clayton Gardner:
So that’s were our team comes in and we’ll look at the next few securities in line and we’ll make a best judgment there. Same thing happened with a company called Altaba, which was a holding company essentially for Alibaba. Similar story.

Clayton Gardner:
So there’s certain acquisitions, spinoffs, divestitures, unique corporate actions that, again, these filings would pick up but on a delay basis and our clients look to us to make sure we’re making those right decisions intra-quarter.

Tobias Carlisle:
So Meb Faber has done some research on 13-F filings and one of the things that he observes is that the biggest position is often the worst performed in the 13-F filings. I’m guessing that you guys are avoiding that by doing some of the additional work and looking a few of the other funds. But have you considered that issue?

Clayton Gardner:
No, well, it’s interesting. One of the things we do is this first strategy is equal weighted. So we have done some work analyzing conviction. I know there’s some firms out there that have done similar studies to understand, are managers adding value by sizing things differently.

Tobias Carlisle:
Right.

Clayton Gardner:
I think, and there’s some data to suggest that the manager’s top 10 holdings do tend to perform better than, let’s say, their 15th or 20th idea. They’re better off investing more into those top few, so that’s actually one of the criteria that goes into our strategy. We actually only look at the top 10 holdings for these managers.

Clayton Gardner:
So we definitely have some conviction weighting, but the way we try to level that out is we do equal weigh all 20 stocks. So we rebalance each quarter, and so that’s how we try to make sure no position is becoming too big. And we back tested it and that’s a weighting that we’re comfortable with, but I definitely have seen some of the stuff that Meb’s mentioned in his book.

Retail Investors Should Focus On Behavioral Edge

Tobias Carlisle:
So it’s an interesting path. You’ve gone from a hedge fund background into a fintech but still hedge fund, maybe ideology or approach to investment. So can you talk about maybe where did you go to college, what did you do after school, and how did you get to this point?

Clayton Gardner:
For sure. I started investing when I was 12. I guess this was 2002. And I felt like a genius for the first five, six years.

Tobias Carlisle:
It was a good time to value.

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah, I made every mistake in the book but it was almost the most painful types of mistakes because I was very much a trial by fire type of investor. My parents let me buy my first stock when I was 12. I think it was Petronas or one of these oil companies. I heard about it on Mad Money. And that was my source of investing education for five, six years. They have their own value, but it was not the kind of financial media that’s teaching you the fundamentals.

Clayton Gardner:
I went to Wharton undergrad, started there in the fall 2008. A week after orientation, the world blew up. Lehman went under and I was basically riding that oil beta with my first few stocks thinking I was crushing it for the first five, six years, and then the world went to rubble overnight.

Clayton Gardner:
And I had no idea what I owned. I never did any fundamental analysis or any of the things we do today on the stocks I owned. I saw them as tickers and I was a very competitive person, so that’s why I got into investing. A huge athlete growing up and I’ve always loved the game aspect, the game theory aspect of investing.

Clayton Gardner:
But it was a really hard lesson to learn, having lost basically all that the first few weeks I started school. So I promised myself at Wharton that I would learn the fundamentals of corporate valuation and more of the theoretical components, and then I went to the buy side, was fortunate to have to be able to skip the banking route that most business school grads go through.

Tobias Carlisle:
How did you manage that?

Clayton Gardner:
I had a couple internships at Goldman’s, their manager platform, so their fund-to-funds vehicles, and then at their multi-strategy hedge fund called Goldman Sachs Invested Partners.

Clayton Gardner:
So I had a few opportunities, a few right connections along the way that aligned me with the right people on the buy side so I was able to skip the horrors of banking. But no, my five, six years on the buy side was a couple of years in private equity doing public credit and privates at Cerberus, and then about four years doing fundamental long short at a fund out west called Farralon, and then a startup fund here in New York City.

Clayton Gardner:
So my experience was, I built my mental models a few different place on the private side, public side. But everything gravitated towards wanting to feel like an owner, whatever I was doing.

Clayton Gardner:
So my personal temperament is, I think about the edges that I have. I’ve found it’s really hard to find an informational edge in investing. If you do find one, it tends to decay really quickly so every novel source of informational edge I found on the buy side, whether it’s credit card, transaction data, geospatial Excel, recognition of shopper behavior.

Clayton Gardner:
Everything basically gets replicated, and then it becomes what a few of your prior guys have talked about, which is this meta-game theory, competition. And then, secondly analytical edge. There’s teams of quants and folks that I think are much better at doing that than I could be.

Clayton Gardner:
So I’m really left with a behavioral edge. And that’s the edge I think has the most duration to it today. I think it’s one that’s innate in most humans, so insofar as there’s humans in investing, which I think there should be and will be, I think that’s an edge that I’ve tried to exploit.

Clayton Gardner:
So that was really why I decided to, to your question, to get into fintech and launch a company, and serve the retail masses, so anyone who is unaccredited or accredited can invest in our product versus starting a fund, charging two and 20 and serving high net worth individuals.

Clayton Gardner:
It’s because I think there’s a way larger opportunity to basically help retail investors exploit the behavioral edge that I think they tend to trip over themselves on not having, because a lot of them, let’s face it, they don’t have that informational edge, they will never have an analytical edge. It’s really the only edge they can have.

Clayton Gardner:
So if you want to actively invest outside of an index fund approach, I think you have to be confident you have your behavioral edge, and so I can talk about some the things that we’re building to help people exploit that.

Tobias Carlisle:
Yeah, please. What are you guys building?

Clayton Gardner:
So the way that we thought about it is if you think what most retail investors have access to today, 90-something percent of them, I think it’s 97% of them are unaccredited. So immediately venture, privates, hedge funds, anything that charges carry, they can’t invest in. They’re not qualified.

Clayton Gardner:
So the question is, what can they invest in? Well, there’s mutual funds, there’s ETFs, most of which are passive, there’s some actively managed ETFs. Or they can do it themselves. They can trade their own portfolios. If I think about the core use experience for these retail investors, everything is treated as tickers.

Clayton Gardner:
So go back to my original point, my first five years investing when I was a teenager, I saw it exactly the way most retail investors see it today. You have a brokerage account, you go through whatever motions to figure out what tickers to populate in there, whether it’s listening to financial media, or you get a stock tip for your Uber driver, and you put it in the account, and then you watch it go up and down.

Clayton Gardner:
And most people try to piece together information to justify why a stock is going up or why it’s going down. They’ll tend to buy high, sell low. And there’s a lot of information and none of it is really tied to what they own. And so, that’s why, for example, most retail investors underperform in the funds that they invest in.

Clayton Gardner:
I think you probably heard the date point that Peter Lynch, for example, compounded 30% for I forget how long, at least, I think, a decade or two, and most of his retail investors underperformed him in a broader market because they were trading his mutual fund like an ETF.

Clayton Gardner:
So for first principles, we said, “Well, whatever we build, we have to make sure it’s direct to consumer and we have a distribution channel into this investor to be able to help them understand what they own, why they own it, to coach them through this volatility, because otherwise, this behavioral bias, they’re going to fall victim to.”

Clayton Gardner:
So that’s why we built a mobile app. We’re a platform, we’re not a fund. We’re not a ticker you can trade or find in any other account. You have to have a separately-managed account with us. And what that enables us to do is, we’re not just a graph in a mobile app and something you just watch go up and down. It’s a full research experience.

Clayton Gardner:
So imagine if any hedge fund you were investing with had a mobile app built for you, where you could FaceTime with the portfolio manager. He or she would send you realtime thoughts on a daily basis, push notifications. The same way that you think about consumer.

Clayton Gardner:
If you think about all the social apps. Everything is social, everything is mobile-first, it’s seamless yet finance is still super-archaic. So that was the idea for launching Titan. We have one product today, and I think we have a clear line of sight into other products that people should have in their portfolios, not just large cap growth equity, which we have today but every asset class, I think, including privates, over time will be democratized. They will be available to retail investors. It’s just a matter of when.

Tobias Carlisle:
Would you implement them in the same way, 13-F scraping as the first source of ideas or how would you do that?

Clayton Gardner:
No, we won’t. Some strategies will be primarily quantitative, systematic. Some will be more discretionary. Some will be a blend. So we think about a matrix and, honestly, we’re really listening to our clients when it comes to future products. I don’t think they care so much about how the sausage is made, ironically. That’s the one thing I’ve found about retail, different than institutional.

Clayton Gardner:
If you go to any institutional allocator, they’re going to ask you, rightfully so with massive sums of money on the line, everything about how you manage risk. They’re going to ask to see your Sharpe and your Sortino and all these statistics and they’re going to ask how exactly the investment process works, and you behave through drawdowns.

Clayton Gardner:
Retail investors, honestly, really just want an experience. The obviously care about returns but more than anything, it’s times like these. We’re in the coronavirus era right now, and in times like these are where I think advisors and retail investors are actually tested.

Clayton Gardner:
So that’s the difference. On the institutional side, it was much more quantitative, systematically testing, why should I give this manager money? On the retail investment side, the bar is honestly quite low. These mutual funds are still sending 10-page, 100-page prospectuses once a year and there’s Morningstar and all these backward-looking rating systems, and so the bar is quite low.

Clayton Gardner:
So I think we just need to continue to build transparent products that we can explain to people in English and whether it’s quantitative or qualitative, I think is almost secondary to them.

***

Stick With Your Investing Strategy During Drawdowns

Tobias Carlisle:
Given that you’re retail-focused and today we’ve gone through a 25% down, which is the first time we’ve been down this much since 2007 to 2009, all the other drawdowns before then have been much shallower and have rebounded very quickly, how have you found your investors to be reacting so far?

Clayton Gardner:
Surprisingly well. If you would have asked me that a month ago, I probably would have given you a more conservative answer. I would have said most retail investors, it’s a challenge in all of financial advisory. You can tell clients a million different things. Some fraction of them are just never going to listen. Right?

Clayton Gardner:
Whatever media or data point they hear, or soundbite from friends, is going to override whatever it is a trusted authority says, and they’re going to open their account and they’re going to sell no matter what anyone says in the interim. That’s probably the conservative approach I would have told you.

Clayton Gardner:
But we’ve had two massive drawdowns since we launched Titan, both market-driven, and momentum and beta-driven, to a large extent. The first was Q4 of 2018. We saw over 99% of the asset retention and client retention. We’re seeing similar, actually a little bit better data this time around.

Clayton Gardner:
So we actually had our best month in company history, in terms of net inflows in February, and that’s including the first few weeks when the coronavirus concerns really started to hit the tape, and that’s continued into March, so we’re on track for a similar strong month in March.

Clayton Gardner:
So I think it comes down to, what are we doing differently? I’m sure there’s other platforms out there, advisors that are losing clients, losing assets, not just on a market performance basis but on a gross assets basis as well. And the only thing I can chalk it up to is our core differentiator, which is that we have a distribution platform direct into our consumers’ pockets, into our retail investors’ pockets.

Clayton Gardner:
We’re chatting with them in real time. It’s a two-way street. It’s not sending them emails, sending them reports, hoping they read. It’s, we’re actually capturing questions every day, people asking questions about how we’re thinking about hedging their portfolios, which we’ve started doing recently and shorting the S&P.

Clayton Gardner:
And so, it’s this dynamic feedback look that is right alongside their money that I think is giving them confidence to actually, they’re adding on this weakness. Now, that said, one of the challenges as an advisor is you don’t want to be pumping your book all the time, right? You have a fiduciary responsibility to tell them how it is.

Clayton Gardner:
So we’ve been really candid with people. In this drawdown, for example, we’ve talked about this second wave and there’s a double dip phenomenon, and we told our clients several weeks ago. We started shorting the S&P for clients, hedging their books, I think it was right around the end of February, so about two weeks ago, candidly telling them, “You could be in for a lot more pain for the next few months.”

Clayton Gardner:
There’s a lot more shoes to drop. There’s a lot of known unknown and a lot of advisors, for example, that’s exactly counter to their business model, right? If their clients pull assets, that’s their source of revenue. So as a startup we’re definitely taking a longterm view.

Clayton Gardner:
Right now, we’re optimizing for client engagement, client retention, and user delight, frankly, almost at the expense of asset growth because we know, we build that trust early on, that’s something that these advisors that have straight mutual funds and don’t know who their investors are going to have a real challenge retaining them.

***

There’s A Lot Of Good Stocks That Have Been Thrown Out With The Bath Water

Tobias Carlisle:
Let’s talk a little bit about the opportunity set that you’re seeing. Is it improving? Are you excited about what’s coming up?

Clayton Gardner:
Definitely. So I’m just pulling up our screener here, watch list. It’s funny because after the big run we say in 2019 a lot of these names still aren’t screaming cheap.

Tobias Carlisle:
Right.

Clayton Gardner:
But if I look at the disparity, if I just look at how there’s been this 15, 20%-plus drawdowns, almost equally weighted across the portfolio of ours in a lot of our screens, a lot of these companies that are just completely unlevered, hard to imagine how people rip out internet. There’s some of these industrial distributors that are sole-source suppliers.

Clayton Gardner:
I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s gotten thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak, so we’re definitely getting incrementally more excited. Our portfolio is definitely priced at a premium to the broader market. I think about the average ROIC of our portfolio, it’s historically been about 25%, so higher ROIC companies, generally speaking, if that’s a sustainable ROIC, they should trade at a premium.

Clayton Gardner:
So these names are traded at low to mid 20s P/E multiples, and we’ve been pretty clear with clients, this is a GARP portfolio, this is our strategy and it’s definitely subject to drawdowns. We saw a big momentum derisking back in August, September. We call it the great momentum reversal, so our clients, they know what they’re getting into and the S&P has been at 18 times.

Clayton Gardner:
So we’ve been trading at a premium for a while, we still are, but I just see a lot of names, particularly the big tech names. And I know people are going disagree and there’s definitely, for example, companies like Microsoft, some of these companies that are trading. They may be doing mid teens earnings growth and trading at 30-plus times earnings.

Clayton Gardner:
You can’t argue they’re cheap, but if I just look out three to five-plus years, even if you assume 2020 is a wash, with respect to coronavirus and the broader economic growth backdrop, it’s hard to imagine these companies 30 to 40% of intrinsic value has been shaved off in a matter of months.

Clayton Gardner:
So we’re definitely excited. I think it’s informing how we’re thinking about our second, third and so on strategies that we’re launching to clients. If our first product right now is large cap US growth, compounders in nature, we definitely see a lot of value on the small cap side of the spectrum. Haven’t done that much work internationally, but yeah, definitely incremental buyers. We think the next six months are going to be really rocky.

***

Set Up A Momentum Hedge To Offset False Positives

Tobias Carlisle:
What’s your expectation for the way that the portfolio will perform through a full business cycle? Do you have any view on when is a better time for the portfolio, and when is a worse time for the portfolio? So, for example, if I talk about deep value, deep value does very well, typically at the tail end of a drawdown, and then will do better out of the bottom but tends to lag at the tail end of a bull market because the valued bid just goes away a little bit, so how do you think about that?

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah. It’s a good question. We honestly haven’t thought too much about the relative sizing and weighting of this because we just don’t have other strategies right now. So if I think about our clients, most of their core alternative, a lot of these clients are rolling over accounts from the Schwab or the Vanguards of the world.

Clayton Gardner:
When I see how they’re allocating, most of our clients are coming from a place of diversification. There’s not even really a thoughtful approach to the weighting or any of the value versus growth or small versus large weighting dynamics that you alluded to. Early cycle, late cycle. Most of them, honestly, are just invested across, on average, probably 10 to 15 old school mutual funds paying one to one and half percent so they’re effectively earning under these securities.

Clayton Gardner:
They’re almost just matching the index, doing a little bit worse and paying a high fee to the advisor to do so. So I think first step, as far as get invested, and what we do through the business cycle view this core flagship strategy as a better index by pretty much any means.

Clayton Gardner:
The vast majority of the indexes returns have come from the companies that we own. If you looked at the top 10 drivers of return, probably over the last 20 years, and you looked at our algorithm, how that’s evolved, how the portfolio has evolved over the last 10, 20 years, the vast majority of those largest contributors have been in our composite.

Clayton Gardner:
So the whole point here is that these super stocks that tend to drive most of the returns through the business cycle we’re going to capture with this flagship strategy. Our beta is about 1.15, 1.2, so I think people come in expecting it be a little bit more volatile but so far, keep in mind, this is a hedge strategy too, so this is not just a long only. There is a dynamic hedge component where we-

Tobias Carlisle:
How are you hedging? What’s the trigger for the hedge?

Clayton Gardner:
So it’s a momentum hedge. It’s systematic in nature. What we do is we’re looking at the Titan composite, this flagship strategy composite, so the 20 stock, equal weighted, and we look at that compared to the S&P’s trailing 12-month moving average.

Clayton Gardner:
So at a high level, you could say, “Oh, it’s a simplistic trailing momentum hedge, but the whole point here is, again, it gets back to the behavioral aspect that I mentioned. Most clients’ problem is they fear volatility, or they say they want to be longterm investors, and then they have a drawdown like we’ve had recently and they’ve totally forgotten about their original mandate.

Clayton Gardner:
So the goal here is, when you onboard to Titan, we capture your risk profile. So we’re going to ask you a few questions and we’ll basically put you into either aggressive, moderate, conservative.

Clayton Gardner:
And aggressive users, theoretically they are answering questions and they’re in that bucket because they’re willing to tolerate more volatility so they should be less hedged in any environment. Whereas conservative investors should be more hedged in pretty much all environments.

Clayton Gardner:
And so, the thing about how it works in an environment like this, our momentum hedge triggered at the end of February. So our 12-month moving average versus the S&P’s average performance for the last 12 months, it was crazy because we had significantly out-performed. So the magnitude of a drawdown, and the speed of that drawdown happened so quickly that we turned that hedge on at the end of February. And so far-

Tobias Carlisle:
Is it monthly? Are you looking at it on a monthly basis or are you looking at it on a daily basis? How are-

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah. That’s a good question. We do it monthly. A lot of clients have asked about this. The reason we do it monthly is because, if you look historically, it depends. As your scale gets greater I think you can afford to do this more, but just the number of times the momentum of Titan versus the S&P, the crossover happens, can trigger all sorts of trading consequences.

Clayton Gardner:
Keep in mind. We’re managing separately managed accounts. We also offer fractional shares. So we have our own fractional share trading system, so clients come interesting us, they toss 500, 1000, 10,000 bucks in and they’re equal weighted across stocks like Amazon and Booking Holdings, right? So these are stocks well over $1000.

Clayton Gardner:
So that’s point number one, is we’re investing in fractional shares, and what that means is, obviously the more we trade, the more trades we’re making, so if the hedge is turning on and off every day, which it would, potentially, if we’re evaluating it daily, there’s all sorts of tax consequences and slippage associated with those fractional shares.

Clayton Gardner:
So we’ve found, we back tested this, that monthly, the downside to doing it monthly is obviously is that let’s say we turn the hedge on at the end of February, all of a sudden this coronavirus thing was a complete one-time event, blue skies emerge, and a week later into mid-March, everything has gone back to normal.

Clayton Gardner:
Getting stuck with a one month hedge, we’re basically short beta in a potentially vicious rally eats into returns. So that’s the cost of doing it monthly. But the benefit-

Tobias Carlisle:
The whipsaw.

Clayton Gardner:
The whipsaw. But the benefit, obviously, and we call those the false-

Tobias Carlisle:
The false positive.

Clayton Gardner:
False positives, exactly. So we back tested it and generally speaking, the way to think about it is the number of times where there’s a false positive, the hedge turns on and you actually cost our clients money. In the real deal events, where the hedge is actually on for a number of months, which I personally, it’s not investment advice, but I personally suspect it will be, if our thoughts on how this situation will play out, the magnitude of the volatility and the drawdown foregone that our clients have by having that hedge on offsets all the times that the false positive costs them.

Clayton Gardner:
So it’s a monthly hedge. It’s systematic in nature. We’re very unemotional about it and the day it turns, it turns. And the goal there, again, is it does, through the cycle, it does eat into compounded returns a bit, so whether you’re aggressive, moderate or conservative, you come to Titan, having the hedge in place at Titan will eat into a bit of your compounded returns, but it does improve Sharpe pretty meaningfully.

Clayton Gardner:
So the volatility, even this year to date, and it actually has improved year to date returns as well, so we have outperformed the S&P, which is surprising given our higher beta, but across risk profiles this year as a result of having that hedge on.

Clayton Gardner:
So it’s something that it is personalized, so that’s why, again, we’re not a mutual fund or a ticker. Some clients ask us, “I would love to own Titan in my E-trade account, or my Vanguard account.” We tell them, “We wouldn’t be able to personalize this hedge if we didn’t know who you were. We wouldn’t be able to know who you were if we didn’t have this direct to consumer platform.

Tobias Carlisle:
It’s been a very rough time for trend following because it’s been a period where there have been lots of whipsaws, and so it’s lag, which is what happens at the end of a bull market. You get the false positives where it gets switched on and the market runs away, but the reason to have it is for exactly the thing that we’re going through now. It should chop off that max DD, max drawdown, should be much, much lower or better than it would otherwise be without it.

Tobias Carlisle:
And I think anybody who has been through a 2007, 2009 or a 2000, 2002 sees the value of it. Folks probably who got whipsawed in 2018 probably don’t, but I think it’s a good approach. I think it should work. I’d be interested to see how you guys go with it.

Clayton Gardner:
No, that’s funny because we actually did activate that hedge, it was January 1st of 2019. So you can imagine what clients were saying because we finished Jan ’19, I think it was up something like mid-teens, and the market too was up 13% on the S&P. So January was, it just rallied.

Tobias Carlisle:
Went up a little bit.

Clayton Gardner:
The hedge quote/unquote ripped our faces off, and so we definitely got an earful from clients. It was a good learning experience, right? And they’re getting educated just as we are as we’re doing live trading. We’ve tested all this stuff on a back tested basis, but you don’t really get to understand the clients’ pain points and how they think about it until you’re live, and yeah.

Clayton Gardner:
I think, like you said, it’s just a batting average, or I should say, slugging average thing. If we can be right, in terms of real deal events versus false positives 51% of the time, like you said, just the magnitude of the drawdown that we’ll be able to save, I think will make it worthwhile.

Tobias Carlisle:
The toughest thing is when you test it and you’re testing it on a monthly basis or something like that, when you’re two weeks into it and you feel like you should have it on, or the first time that it crosses through and you want to put it on.

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah.

Tobias Carlisle:
I think that’s the hardest thing about using the moving average.

Clayton Gardner:
Totally.

***

Tobias Carlisle:
The Titan domain is a great… you’ve got titanvest.com but you’ve been having some negotiations for titan.com, which would be, that’s an awesome domain if you can get that one. What’s happening there?

Clayton Gardner:
For sure. I’m actually pulling it up right now to make sure it’s still. Okay, so now they’re redirecting it. That’s funny. Yeah, so our company is called Titan, or more formally Titan Invest, and Titan, obviously is what we go by. Very simple, very punchy name. We tried to get the domain when we founded the company about two years ago, and naturally it was taken. It’s a very common pronoun.

Tobias Carlisle:
It’s short. It’s great.

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah, and there’s all sorts of Titans. There’s probably 50 of 60 different Titans out there. There’s several investment advisors named Titan and there’s also insurance companies named Titan.

Clayton Gardner:
So titan.com was owned by Titan Insurance but they went out of business some number of months ago and the domain was up for sale, so we threw in a few offers. They did not bite, and it looks like they’ve now redirected it back to Nationwide, which is interesting.

Clayton Gardner:
We would love to be Titan, as we think investing is probably just scraping the surface of what we’ll do longterm, and some people do call us Titanvest. We’ll take it, but for now, Titan Invest didn’t necessarily roll off the tongue. Titanvest felt like a nice little amalgamation.

Tobias Carlisle:
It’s so hard to get a good dotcom. And it’s hard because there are a lot of guys squatting on them and when you go to buy them, their expectations for what they’re going to get are just so high and it doesn’t help when you’ve got…

Tobias Carlisle:
Every now and again, some sale goes through for $3 million, just to keep their minds about some sort of gigantic payday that you could have when I think a few thousand dollars is probably really all these things are worth for the most part.

Clayton Gardner:
For sure. And at the end, there’s definitely some other tech startups that the ROI analysis is interesting because I’m trying to think of a few that come to mind. calm.com. Calm is a meditation app and I think if the CEO and founder was on a few podcasts talking about, I think they paid, it was something like 300,000, maybe half a million dollars or more, which is a pretty meaningful amount of their cumulative funding to date at the time to buy calm.com

Clayton Gardner:
You ask yourself, a scrappy founder, you’re like, “Oh man, you’re really betting the ranch.”, but I think now they’re doing something like hundreds of millions of annual revenue so it’s definitely paid off for them.

Clayton Gardner:
I think the benefits of SEO, brand recognition, are definitely there, it’s a hard eye math, it’s a chunk of change to deposit up front for potentially no payoff so it’s a negotiation, for sure.

Tobias Carlisle:
What are you invested in? Do you personally invest in the strategy or you’re allowed to have a PA? How does that work?

Clayton Gardner:
It’s a great question. Vast majority of my net worth is invested in Titan, both individual, and then we also offer traditional Roth IRAs. We’ll be rolling out trust accounts, corporate accounts, a bunch of other account types. And then, in terms of PAs, we are allowed to have PAs. Similar to how things work on the buy side. We have a trade approval process.

Tobias Carlisle:
Conflict rules and things.

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah. Chief Compliance Officer has to sign off on everything. We can own companies in the Titan book, and we do. Personally, the only reason I have a PA that’s not a Titan is because we haven’t yet rolled out the ability to own single stock beyond the holistic financial portfolios that we offer. Yet, I said yet. We plan to, down the road.

Clayton Gardner:
But no, it’s a great question because that honestly how I think about the future strategies we’re launching. Right? Coming from the buy side, the dream is we want every retail investor to be able to invest like one of my idols, David Swensen at Yale Endowment, which is he’s not sitting there in S&P 500 index, right? And I get that some number of years in a row all the pensions and endowments will underperform the S&P and people will say, “See, even these pros can’t beat the indexes.”

Clayton Gardner:
And it always tends to be like this arbitrary timeline over which they’re evaluating. And again, people don’t take into account things that you and I talk about, which is beta and, what are your actual mandate on a risk adjusted basis? And so, the way that we’re approaching it as a pie chart is five, 10 years from now, what I would want my PA to look like is I only would want half a sliver of a bunch of different asset classes that I couldn’t get if I wasn’t accredited today.

Clayton Gardner:
So you have your absolute return piece, you have your domestic and foreign equity piece, you have some alternatives which probably includes a little bit of crypto, even the folks like [Mongoose 00:38:21] Hates Rat Poison, I call it shock insurance. Probably a little bit of real estate, right, and other privates. Some venture. And then, some cash, right? Fixed income.

Clayton Gardner:
Most people, it’s cash or a bunch of mutual funds and index funds. And there’s not rhyme or reason or science behind it. Right now we just have the domestic equity. We’re thinking about absolute return, we’re thinking about international, different size spectrums, so over time we want to build out that boilerplate pie chart for people, customized based on the risk profile that I talked about and I think if we do it the way we’ve been doing it, we can do so.

Is This The Start Of A Shift Away From Passive Investing?

Clayton Gardner:
We can be a part of the trend in the industry which is obviously we see fee compression right across acted management. I do think there is going to be a big change in how fees get charged. A lot of thoughts on that. Right now it’s just managed-

Tobias Carlisle:
What’s going to change?

Clayton Gardner:
Folks like Schwab are testing, well, not even testing. They’ve rolled out the subscription fee model. I don’t love the up front fee that they charge, up front planning fee, which is basically getting their first year of revenue first day. They used to charge 28 bips on, I think, for their intelligent portfolio’s premium, and now, I think it’s 38 bucks a month. $300 up front planning fee.

Clayton Gardner:
I do think, again, cross-pollinating ideas from the consumer world, especially the consumer subscription model world, into fintech, I think has a lot of interesting dynamics. Now, naturally there’s a bunch of tailwinds in asset management that I think are important to compensating manager that are going to be hard to give up. Naturally, this six to seven percent equity tailwinds from rising markets over time is a nice revenue boost.

Clayton Gardner:
If you were Schwab you can go, “Oh, we’re going to go compound our assets at six percent doing no work because of this nice market tailwind.”, that’s a tough thing to give up by going subscription but even just on the back end, I think as a startup, all the opportunities for us to have a sound business model and give more value back to clients, we could make several meaningful revenue streams without having to charge clients because you do things that we’re going to be approved to do on a regulatory basis like earning interest on invested cash, and lending out securities that have a high borrow, and things like that.

Clayton Gardner:
So I’m excited. I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I do think for CFPs, I think the asset model makes a lot of sense, or I should say the subscription model makes a lot of sense. If you’re doing a fee for service tax, like estate planning service, a review of financial plan, you’re about to buy a home. That’s things that are naturally, I think dollar-based. You’re essentially valuing someone’s time, some human’s time, and these are not things that can easily be done by software.

Clayton Gardner:
But asset management, I think a lot of these guys charging 25 basis points to rebalance and do taxless harvesting, which has been marketed as this secret sauce which our CTO could build in a day. I don’t think those things have much longevity. I think it’s mostly marketing. I think those things will go to zero over time, so I do think a lot of these robo-advisors… And that’s what you’ve seen, right? They’re all rolling out cash accounts and preferred line of credit. It’s because they realize, I think they see the writing on the wall that unless you really have a differentiated active strategy to have performance and/or some really unique engagement model, fees are going to zero.

Clayton Gardner:
So you have to either go for fees outside of conventional asset management and charge those to consumer, or you have to make revenue on the back end. So for now, we’re focused on that former. We’re focused on active differentiate strategies, and because we have a platform direct to our investors, we can do things not that are novel on the experience and engagement front that I think they find worth paying for.

Tobias Carlisle:
Do you know what’s funny. The first decade of the 2000s was two gigantic crashes and no appreciation in the S&P 500 for the entire 10 years, and there was nobody talking, at that stage, about you just buy the S&P 500, you pay three bips and you don’t worry about it. Last 10 years, S&P 500 is probably the best performed strategy in the world, get it for three bips and everything else looks really ugly beside that.

Tobias Carlisle:
But I think that my feeling is the next 10 years is going to look a lot more like the first 10 years than the last 10 years because I think folks are probably, this is the kind of wake-up call to make folks move away from those passive strategies for very low fees and I think it will be better for guys who are doing something active, so I think you’re probably in a very good position for the coming decade.

Clayton Gardner:
No, it will also just be interesting. It’s not where most of the assets are. Most of the assets are still in these institutional, the Schwabs and the Vanguards, but you mentioned, the tech startups. A lot of these just have not lived through a cycle, right? And just observing the liquidity and, again, a lot of these have been challenging businesses for folks to fund.

Clayton Gardner:
Because we’re in the active space and we have very high user engagement, we’re able to grow organically without spending much money on marketing but I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at how these business models work but a lot of these companies are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a customer, and like I said, making 20, 50 bucks a year.

Clayton Gardner:
It’s a really tough model, and so they’ve been dependent on the venture market to subsidize their business models and I’m sure there’s venture, I know there was venture subsidization back in the first decade of this century, but especially in the last five to 10 years, DDC startups, these fintech consumer startups, have been massively subsidized and paying dollars directly to Facebook and Google to try to acquire clients without much differentiation.

Clayton Gardner:
Again, they’re passive, low cost products that you can finagle yourself if you have enough gumption, so I think it will be interesting. But I do agree with you. I think active is disproportionately set up to do much better than it has been.

Tobias Carlisle:
Yeah, it’s been a funny 10 years and I agree that that’s the case. There’s a lot of non-economic or non-rational actors who are funded through VC and who can lose the money because I think they’re on that morphine drip of… The expectation is that the next round is going to be really easy to raise, and that’s been true for a really, really extended period of time.

Tobias Carlisle:
It certainly wasn’t like that. The lat 1990s was pretty quick. I wasn’t working at that stage but I think it was pretty quick, and then the 2000s were just brutal. All of that money just disappeared. This time, it’s gone so on, and I think it’s funny how often I talk to somebody and all they’re doing is looking towards the next VC round.

Clayton Gardner:
Yeah. It’s crazy how quickly things change as well. I don’t know if you know, Sequoia, they actually put out a pretty infamous memo, I think it was 2007 or 2008. It was pre-depression. It wasn’t exactly called a bottom, or called a drawdown, but it was called RIP Good Times. And they actually went into talking about their predictions for how the venture landscape was going to dry up, how founders should be hoarding cash, cutting burn as much as possible, doing layoffs where necessary and basically preparing for this winter.

Clayton Gardner:
And they actually just put out one in response to that, the VC community, ironically, I think a lot of what… Some of these folks have been faster moving, in terms of self-quarantine, and maybe it’s because they have a global purview and they see a lot deal flow and just have a lot of boots on the ground, but a few of these funds in the VC community have a really good perspective, I think, on how just market conditions are evolving.

Clayton Gardner:
A few funds have self-quarantined for the coronavirus back in late January, early February and so, Sequoia put out a memo, basically 12 years later now, not RIP Good Times, but something along the lines of Prepare For This Winter. It will be interesting to see how it jives with public markets. There was this tail wagging the dog for a while, which is public markets would behave as long as the venture markets were willing to fund these companies, and there’s a dynamic of privates staying private for longer, but WeWork was the poster child, clearly, for VCs not willing to fund growth at all costs.

Clayton Gardner:
So now, there’s definitely a narrative in the VC community, in the startup community, shifting to prove your business model. Prove profitability on this marginal customer at the seed stage of funding, not at the series G. And it’s going to be interesting to see how the public markets react. A lot of these SaaS companies, even some of the higher quality, stickier enterprise SaaS companies that are now public, it’s going to be interesting to see when and if they can catch a bid again right, in terms of the multiples.

Clayton Gardner:
It’s one of the things we’ve had a view on, if you look at our portfolio, we’ve been long some of these enterprise SaaS names. A few companies like Twilio and ServiceNow, that we think have really unique business models and have some contrarian element to them that make them prospective compounders, but I do think there’s definitely a lot of questions now around profitability, and so it will be interesting to see how that unfolds.

***

Buy Good Companies That Will Not Have Free Cash Flow Impairment For The Next 3-5 Years

Tobias Carlisle:
On coronavirus, I think it’s been quite interesting watching FinTwit, because I think a lot of guys on FinTwit were very early to it too because I think that they, and VCs are probably the same, a lot of guys understand that exponential growth curve really well, which is not intuitive unless you model it out and think about, which is what you’re doing when you’re building a model for a business and trying to value it, you’re thinking about that exponential growth curve.

Tobias Carlisle:
And you could look at other countries and see where they were and look at the US relative to those. So I think it’s been interesting, it’s one of those things where there’s a lot of shade thrown at guys for being amateur virologists, and things like that, but I think that some of those guys need some credit, They did, Ben Hunt, I don’t know if you follow these guys on Twitter, but they were very, very early to this stuff and calling it out. That’s epsilon. Epsilon theory.

Clayton Gardner:
For sure. Yeah, yeah, Ben Hunt. No, it’s a great point. And I’ll be the first person to say I’m not an epidemiologist. I actually come from a family of physicians and my dad, for example, is the first person to say, “I have no frigging clue what’s going.”, but your point on exponential growth is actually a really good one. And it’s also a second and third order thinking. Right?

Clayton Gardner:
I think a lot of investors are better than the average American or average human on thinking what second and third order impacts are. And are they priced in, are they over or undervalued? And so, one of the things that came to mind with coronavirus is I have no idea on… Or not, and all these things. I’ll try to go to the most reputable primary source to understand what that means, but I’m not going to have any predictions on whether that’s priced in or not, or how that may or may not unfold.

Clayton Gardner:
But what is pretty clear is there is certain second and third order impacts that I think investors were appreciating long before the public has, namely this hospital bed thing.

Tobias Carlisle:
Yeah.

Clayton Gardner:
Connecting the dots between the exponential growth pandemics and outbreaks and the second or third order economic consequences. I think there’s something like 900,000 or a million hospital beds in the US, and 75% occupancy, call it, for a variety of just general health reasons.

Clayton Gardner:
So if there’s a quarter of a million beds are free, if you just roll out that exponential growth curve, I think there’s something like the doubling of cases, it happens every six days, and I think the reported number is probably a fraction of the actual number, so even if you’re in the low to mid single digit thousands of cases today, it’s early to mid-March, you just roll that through, you’re looking at millions of cases by late April, early May, right?

Clayton Gardner:
And say it’s only a 10% bed rate, right? 10% is so infectious they have to get hospitalized, maybe even ICU, you’re looking at full hospital bed capacity utilization by late April or early May.

Clayton Gardner:
Now obviously, there’s a bunch of underlying assumptions on the exponential curve continuing, there not being any containment ability to mitigate that curve, and then barring any massive systemic upgrade or deployment of new beds on the supply side, whether that means existing patients are getting pushed out, or how that affects the system that’s naturally constrained is a second order consequence, and I’m sure there’s third and fourth order consequences as well, but that’s one that I heard.

Clayton Gardner:
So yeah, I think the broader point is it’s honestly more game theory and math, and basic fundamentals involved, as opposed to having to predict this specific virus. So that’s how we approach it, Toby, is we’re looking, like Buffett said, we’re looking for two foot hurdles to step over. We’re not trying to, what’s the latest speculative healthcare stock that I think could massively re-rate because they produce an N-95 mask, or something like that.

Clayton Gardner:
We’re looking for companies that, with a pretty high degree of certainty, if you look out three to five years, we don’t see material free cashflow impairment. Certainly, a lot of these stocks were expensive, now they’re just 20% less expensive and so that’s the reason we’re not telling clients, “Go hand over fist and all in, back up the truck.” There could be this second wave phenomenon.

Clayton Gardner:
But if I look out three to five years, those are the two foot hurdles. It’s this diverse strategies full of compounders, a couple name, Booking, Disney, that are travel-exposed, Apple. Travel or China-exposed definitely have gotten hit hardest, are probably going to have the worst years just from an earnings decline perspective, but looking out three to five years, I just don’t see, unless this is completely different than history, it’s hard to see how a pandemic just materially affects these types of companies.

Clayton Gardner:
I think certain sectors like oil, we just had this oil price war a few days ago between the Saudis and Russia, on the industrial side, how that affects employment and the ripple through the economy. Not saying that there won’t be a significant hit to GDP growth but just longterm earnings growth, which is how we think, we’re modeling longterm EPS growth, and then multiples on that, it’s hard to see how these stocks are lower five years from now.

Tobias Carlisle:
Yeah. I agree with all of that completely. I think that’s well-stated. We’re just about coming up on time, Clay. If folks want to get in contact with you what’s the best way of doing that?

Clayton Gardner:
So head to our website, which is titanvest.com, T-I-T-A-N-V-E-S-T-

Tobias Carlisle:
For the moment.

Clayton Gardner:
For the moment. Yeah. titan.com potentially in the future. You could also shoot me an email, clay@titanvest.com. I’m on Twitter, I’m trying to become more active, if you DM me, I’ll definitely respond, and yeah, again, we’re a small team, so one of us, if you get a message from us, it’s definitely one of us. A small research team and a small developer team as well. So, we’re nimble, we’ll be quick to respond, be happy to chat.

Tobias Carlisle:
What’s the Twitter handle again?

Clayton Gardner:
So my Twitter handle is @virtualclay. And then, Titan’s is @titanvest.

Tobias Carlisle:
Cool. Clayton Gardner, Titan, thank you very much.

Clayton Gardner:
Thank you.

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