Neil Woodford - A lesson in humility

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In the UK, Neil Woodford is investing Royalty. He famously outperformed his peers over many years as manager of the Invesco Perpetual Income Fund. When, five years ago this month, he set up his own fund, the Woodford Equity Income Fund, it was billed as the fund launch of the decade.

Alas, for tens of thousands of investors taken in by the PR and marketing hype, it hasn’t worked out as planned. The fund’s performance has been consistently dreadful and, one after another over the last few months, Woodford’s biggest clients have been withdrawing their money. 

Last Friday, the Kent County Council pension fund committee announced that it too decided to cut its losses, and yesterday, Woodford and his fellow executives took the highly unusual step of suspending trading in the fund, blocking further investor withdrawals until further notice.

Suddenly everyone has an opinion on Woodford and why the fund was doomed to fail. A simple Google search will show you that some of the commentators and publications putting the boot in now once waxed lyrical about his stock-picking expertise.

We have spoken many times about our scepticism of the Woodford cult (and active fund managers in general) — the fact you can invest in an index fund at a fraction of the cost and the odds of reproducing his previous performance were always heavily stacked against him. But we take no pleasure in his downfall.

If anything good is to come out of this sorry affair, we hope it’s that we all learn a little humility.

Hugely intelligent though we are sure Woodford is, the idea that one person can outwit the collective wisdom of millions of market participants requires an enormous leap of faith. Very few people beat the market any more, at least not on a cost- and risk-adjusted basis or over meaningful time periods. Since the global financial crisis, not even Warren Buffett has managed to do it.

We desperately want to believe there’s someone out there, in the massively complex and random world of finance, who knows what’s going and who really can predict the future. But that doesn’t mean that person exists. Even if they do exist, the overwhelming evidence is that they’re almost impossible to identify in advance.

Its time for reflection, time for us all to be a little more humble, and a little more honest with ourselves. We include advisers like ourselves in that, as well as analysts, consultants, journalists, investors and, yes, fund managers too.

Strange though it seems to feel sorry for a multi-millionaire, you could actually do so for Neil Woodford. When you’re fêted for years as a genius, it must be crushing to have it gradually dawn on you that you probably aren’t one after all.

Ashton Chritchlow