The latest by Howard Marks is full of its usual informative nuggets of wisdom. I won’t regurgitate the entire letter here, but I wanted to pass along some of the more enlightening thoughts.
On the key to successful investing:
Especially since the publication of my book, people have been asking me for the secret to risk control. “Okay, I’ll read the 180 pages. But what’s really the most important thing?” If I had to identify a single key to consistently successful investing, I’d say it’s “cheapness.” Buying at low prices relative to intrinsic value (rigorously and conservatively derived) holds the key to earning dependably high returns, limiting risk and minimizing losses. It’s not the only thing that matters – obviously – but it’s something for which there is no substitute. Without doing the above, “investing” moves closer to “speculating,” a much less dependable activity. When investors are serene or even euphoric, rather than discomforted, prices rise and we become less likely to find the bargains we want.
So if you could ask just one question regarding an individual security, asset class or market, it should be “is it cheap?” Oaktree’s investment professionals try to ask it, in different ways, every day.
What makes for cheapness, asks Marks:
And what makes for cheapness? In sum, the attitudes and behavior of others.
I try to get away from it, but I can’t. The quote I return to most often in these memos, even 17 years after the first time, is another from Warren Buffett: “The less prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater prudence with which we should conduct our own affairs.” When others are paralyzed by fear, we can be aggressive. But when others are unafraid, we should tread with the utmost caution. Other people’s fearlessness invariably translates into inflated prices, depressed potential returns and elevated risk.
With that said, what does Marks think of the environment today and how does he think you should approach the current market:
One of the things that makes investing interesting is the ever-changing nature of the route to profit, the pitfalls that are present, and the tools and approaches that should be employed. Conscious decisions regarding these things should underlie all efforts to manage capital, and they must be revisited constantly as circumstances and asset prices change. What’s right today?
First, should you prepare for prosperity or not? By prosperity I mean a return to the happy days of the 1980s and ’90s, when reported economic growth was strong and consumers were eager to spend. My answer is that we’re not likely to see anything like that, in large part because in those decades the gap between stagnant incomes and vigorous consumption growth was bridged through buying on credit. Instead, in the years ahead I think (a) growth in employment and incomes will be sluggish, (b) consumers should be restrained in their borrowing as a result of having experienced the crisis, (c) consumer credit shouldn’t be available as readily, and (d) borrowing against home equity will be much less of a factor, especially because home equity is so scarce.
Second, should you worry more about losing money or about missing opportunities? This one’s easy for me. First, the macro uncertainties tell me we won’t be seeing a highly effervescent economy or market environment. Second, other people’s increasingly aggressive behavior tells me to seek cover. And third, since I don’t see many compellingly cheap assets, I doubt there will be gains big enough to make us kick ourselves for having invested too cautiously.
And that brings me to my third question: what tools should you employ? In late 2008 and early 2009, you needed just two things to achieve big profits: money to commit and the nerve to commit it. If you had caution, conservatism, risk control, discipline and selectivity, you probably achieved lower returns than otherwise (although having factored those things into your analysis might have given you the confidence needed to implement favorable conclusions in that terrible environment). The short answer was simple: money and nerve.
But what if you had money and nerve in 2006 or early 2007? The results would have been disastrous. In those times you needed caution, conservatism, risk control, discipline and selectivity to stay out of trouble. In short, when the market is defaulting on its job of being a disciplinarian, discernment becomes our individual responsibility.
Good stuff as always.