Lee West’s fifth-floor office at Santa Monica-based Drake Capital Securities Inc. defies the usual stereotypes of a stockbroker’s office.
There are no guys in rumpled shirts on two phones at once, yelling “Buy!” into one and “Sell!” into the other. There also are no dog-eared financial reports, back issues of the Wall Street Journal or decaying containers of take-out Chinese food.
There’s just West’s desk, with its four precise stacks of files on the top, a credenza to one side with a computer, a television tuned to CNBC with the sound turned down, and four books propped up against the window including “The Warren Buffet Way,” by Robert Hagstrom.
West himself, as it turns out, is as low-stress as the environment he has created. By mid-morning on a recent Thursday, with the Dow Jones Industrial average all over the map now up 80, now down 25 West’s necktie remained tightly knotted, his sleeves buttoned at the wrist and his voice at low volume.
“If I have my clients in something that’s risky enough to take a huge loss in 90 minutes, then I shouldn’t be managing people’s money,” West observed.
Unlike Drake Capital’s stock and bond traders, who must be at work well before the market opens in New York at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time, West seldom makes it to his office before 7:30 a.m.
By then, some of the 30 outside money managers with whom he works will have already made some trades with his clients’ money, and they will call him with the details. More often than not, West doesn’t have to call his clients to tell them about individual trades.
“I talk with them at least once a week,” he said. “We go over the parameters of what they want and the level of risk they’re comfortable with and they let me take it from there.”
West almost never makes an investment for a client without putting some of his own money into play. “If I’ve done that much homework and I bring my clients to the table, that means I believe in it too,” he said.
Now senior vice president and portfolio manager at Drake Capital, West started in the stock brokerage business 14 years ago after graduating from UCLA with a degree in business finance. Following stints at Shearson American Express and Oppenheimer & Co. Inc., West headed out on his own. But after managing his own fund for a couple of years, he decided he needed the infrastructure that Drake Capital had to offer.
“It meant I could pass a long a lot of savings to my clients,” West said.
Being at a boutique firm like Drake also allowed West to concentrate his efforts on fewer clients. While at Shearson and Oppenheimer, West had up to a 1,000 clients at a time. Now he has less than 100.
Most of his accounts are people he’s known for a number of years, and nearly all of them have portfolios worth more than $1 million.
At the big houses, it’s still a volume business for brokers. But while he makes a portion of his personal income from commissions, a bigger share comes from his own investments into the companies he recommends to his clients.
“The days of the stock jockey are numbered,” West said. With commissions increasingly squeezed by discount brokers and online trading, brokers themselves have to become more diversified, he adds.
West estimates that he has access to about $1 billion in capital. He spends most of his day on the phone to his stable of money managers and research departments, sniffing out new opportunities and reassessing ongoing investments.
“I don’t pretend to be a stock picker,” West said. “It’s too much of a crap shoot. But I can go to the guys who are specialized in one area of the market and get their advice and invest through them.”
Particularly hot right now are managers who specialize in short selling that is, managers who make money when stock prices fall. So far this year, the portfolio of the short-selling manager with whom West works is up around 22 percent.
As for prognostications, West recommends avoiding stocks on the major indexes.
“I could not in good conscience buy the Dow or S & P; 500 right now,” West said. “The risk/reward ratio isn’t there.”
West, who has been bearish on the market since last September, added that because he’s been wrong in the past, the Dow could add another 15 percent by years’ end. But, he quickly added, the potential for a 30 percent to 40 percent sell-off is very real.
“If you haven’t made a good deal of your money by now, you’re too late,” West said.