By now, the arc of Bill Miller’s three- decade investing career is well documented: from genius to failure and back to genius.
But as the Legg Mason stock picker builds on a three-year rebound following his disastrous recession-era record, the pain of that historic crash can still be heard in his voice and the questions from his biggest critics remain. Is Bill Miller, 65, truly a great investor or does his aggressive stock-buying strategy, scooping up out-of-favor companies, merely magnify the broader market trends -- up a lot when times are good, down a lot when times are bad?
It’s a question that Bill Gross, the bond “king” who’s shared a similar career path to Miller’s, has essentially asked about that whole generation of bull-market investing savants -- everyone from Warren Buffett to George Soros. In comments Gross made during a particularly acute moment of reflection back in 2013, his thoughts at one point turned to Miller, a man he said that, while an “esteemed public icon,” would need to put up a few more years of beating his rivals to cement his reputation as a great investor.
Some say it will take even more than that.
“Bill Miller would need to have more than a few good years to get back into people’s good graces,” said Lawrence Glazer, managing partner at Mayflower Advisors in Boston, where he helps oversee $2 billion. “It would take that to get them to overlook the downturn.”
Miller doesn’t accept that view. Two Legg Mason funds he has run for decades have performed better on average than the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. On that long-term basis, through bull and bear markets, he has “crushed” the general market and proved his worth as a money manager, he said.
While he is willing to take the blame “for a really big mistake” prior to the recession, Miller is clearly still sensitive about the damage the crisis did to his reputation.
“I find it interesting,” he said, “that the press was very quick to anoint people -- I won’t name them -- who got something right once in a row. At the same time they decided that people with 20-year track records apparently just lost it.”
Miller, a North Carolina native who went on to study at nearby Washington and Lee University, made his mark by beating the S&P 500 15 years in a row, from 1991 through 2005. He zeroed in on cheap financial stocks and undervalued technology names such as Dell Computer Corp. and America Online Inc.