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Buffett pulls ahead in wager against hedge funds

Date: Friday, January 25, 2013
Author: Carol Loomis, Forbes

Five years into a ten-year bet that an S&P index fund can beat hedge fund funds-of-funds, Warren Buffett is in the lead for the first time.

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

FORTUNE -- It's halfway time in the 10-year stock market wager sometimes called The Million-Dollar Bet—that's Warren Buffett backing the performance of an S&P index fund vs. a New York money manager backing five funds of hedge funds—and there's double-barreled news.

Item One: For the first time since the bet started five years ago, Buffett has moved ahead—by an okay margin to boot. Item Two: For the first time ever as well, both sides have crawled out of the ditch (though the funds of funds barely made it) and are showing positive results.

About that history of bad results, of course, you need to keep in mind that this bet started in the gut-wrenching year of 2008, which left both contenders deep in the red. Buffett, though, was definitely a deeper shade of red:  Vanguard's Admiral shares—the S&P index fund he'd backed—lost 37% in 2008 vs. a 24% drop, on the average, for Protégé's five funds of funds.

Reporting on that first year of the bet, Fortune quoted Buffett as just hoping he could be like the fabled tortoise that ultimately passes the hare.

MORE: Why the world's biggest hedge fund missed big in 2012

So now the tortoise, after crawling four more years, indeed leads. At the five-year mark, the Vanguard index fund backed by Buffett is up by 8.69%. The five funds of funds picked by Protégé Partners to carry its flag in the race are up, on the average, only—"gulp," says Protégé partner Ted Seides—0.13%.

By the terms of the bet, the identity of those five funds has never been made public. It has always been assumed, however, that one of them is a fund of funds run by Protégé itself.

The strength of 2012's stock market is naturally what carried the contestants into the black. The market's vigor is displayed in the performance of the index fund, which rose by 15.96% last year. In contrast, the five funds of funds managed a 2012 gain, on the average, of only 6.46%.

From his trailing position, and probably having heard enough about the tortoise, Protégé's Seides imagines an alternative future for the bet by recalling the movie, City Slickers. In it, says Seides, "Billy Crystal's character asks Jack Palance's character, Curly, if he has killed anyone today—and Curly answers, 'Day ain't over yet.'"

We'll let that suspense hang and report still one more piece of news about this bet. This bulletin concerns the 10-year zero-coupon bond that the two bettors, Buffett and Protégé, bought with the collateral they put up as the bet began. Each contributed about $320,000, so a total of roughly $640,000 went into the bond. Its value was set to rise gradually to $1 million—thus the nickname for the bet—by its conclusion on December 31, 2017.

MORE: Jed Rakoff: The judge who rules on business

But as Fortune.com reported last year (Buffett gains ground in hedge fund bet), the zero-coupon bond proceeded to perform so splendidly in the prevailing environment of falling interest rates that by 2012 it was already worth almost $1 million.

That remarkable result suggested to Buffett and Protégé that they could revise the terms of the bet and quite possibly get more than $1 million to the charity ultimately benefitting from the bet. That will be Girls Inc. of Omaha if Buffett wins and Absolute Returns for Kids if the victor is Protégé.

So the zero-coupon bond was sold for nearly $1 million toward the close of 2012, and by agreement between Buffett and Protégé, the proceeds were put into the B stock of Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA). Berkshire's shares have risen since, and the current value of the investment is well over $1 million.

And couldn't the stock fall? It certainly could, but that won't make a whit of difference to the winning charity—because Buffett has guaranteed that it will get at least $1 million at the end of the bet. On the upside, meanwhile, there's no ceiling on what the charity can walk away with. That depends simply on what happens to Berkshire's stock between now and the bet's conclusion.

Fortune senior editor-at-large Carol Loomis, who wrote this article, is a longtime friend of Warren Buffett's, a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, and editor of his annual letter to shareholders.