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Howard Marks on the mindless shouldering of risk

[Editor’s note: We are fans of Howard Marks' regular memos to his clients, and Chris Cuffe has personally received permission in the past to publish some of Marks' material not usually available to the public. His latest memo is so long at 23 pages that he apologises to his clients. He explains why current market conditions require great caution and that investors are accepting risks they would have shunned in the past. He argues it’s better to underperform for a while than cut positions too late. This article extracts some highlights.]

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"Some of the memos I’m happiest about having written came at times when bullish trends went too far, risk aversion disappeared and bubbles inflated. The first and best example is probably “bubble.com,” which raised questions about Internet and e-commerce stocks on the first business day of 2000. As I tell it, after ten years without a single response, that one made my memo writing an overnight success.

Another was “The Race to the Bottom” (February 2007), which talked about the mindless shouldering of risk that takes place when investors are eager to put money to work. Both of those memos raised doubts about investment trends that soon turned out to have been big mistakes."

Today’s Investment Environment

"I’ll merely reference what I think are the four most noteworthy components of current conditions:

  • The uncertainties are unusual in terms of number, scale and insolubility in areas including secular economic growth; the impact of central banks; interest rates and inflation; political dysfunction; geopolitical trouble spots; and the long-term impact of technology.
  • In the vast majority of asset classes, prospective returns are just about the lowest they’ve ever been.
  • Asset prices are high across the board. Almost nothing can be bought below its intrinsic value, and there are few bargains. In general the best we can do is look for things that are less over-priced than others.
  • Pro-risk behavior is commonplace, as the majority of investors embrace increased risk as the route to the returns they want or need."

Super-stocks

"The super-stocks that lead a bull market inevitably become priced for perfection. And in many cases the companies’ perfection turns out eventually to be either illusory or ephemeral. Some of the “can’t lose” companies of the Nifty-Fifty were ultimately crippled by massive changes in their markets, including Kodak, Polaroid, Xerox, Sears and Simplicity Pattern (do you see many people sewing their own clothes these days?). Not only did the perfection that investors had paid for evaporate, but even the successful companies’ stock prices reverted to more-normal valuation multiples, resulting in sub-par equity returns.

The powerful multiple expansion that makes a small number of stocks the leaders in a bull market is often reversed in the correction that follows, saddling them with the biggest losses. But when the mood is positive and things are going well, the likelihood of such a development is easily overlooked.

Investors should choose their risk posture based on an assessment of what’s being offered in terms of absolute return, absolute risk, and thus absolute risk-adjusted return. But today – on that famous other hand – investors generally don’t have the luxury of holding out for absolute returns and safety like they enjoyed in the past."

Observations and Implications

"As I said, most of the phenomena described above seem reasonable given the rest of what’s going on in today’s economic and financial world. But step back for perspective and put them together, and what do we see?

  • Some of the highest equity valuations in history.
  • The so-called VIX index of fear at an all-time low.
  • The elevation of a can’t-lose group of stocks.
  • The movement of more than a trillion dollars into value-agnostic investing.
  • The lowest yields in history on low-rated bonds and loans.
  • Yields on emerging market debt that are lower still.
  • The most fundraising in history for private equity.
  • The biggest fund of all time raised for levered tech investing.
  • Billions in digital currencies whose value has multiplied dramatically.

I absolutely am not saying stocks are too high, the FAANGs will falter, credit investing is risky, digital currencies are sure to end up worthless, or private equity commitments won’t pay off. All I’m saying is that for all the things listed above to simultaneously be gaining in popularity and attracting so much capital, credulousness has to be high and risk aversion has to be low. It’s not that these things are doomed, just that their returns may not fully justify their risk. And, more importantly, that they show the temperature of today’s market to be elevated. Not a nonsensical bubble – just high and therefore risky.

Try to think of the things that could knock today’s market off kilter, like a surprising spike in inflation, a significant slowdown in growth, central banks losing control, or the big tech stocks running into trouble. The good news is that they all seem unlikely. The bad news is that their unlikelihood causes all these concerns to be dismissed, leaving the markets susceptible should any of them actually occur. That means this is a market in which riskiness is being tolerated and perhaps ignored, and one in which most investors are happy to bear risk. Thus it’s not one in which we should do so.

The basic proposition is simple: Investors make the most and the safest money when they do things other people don’t want to do. But when investors are unworried and glad to make risky investments (or worried but investing anyway, because the low-risk alternatives are unappealing), asset prices will be high, risk premiums will be low, and markets will be risky. That’s what happens when there’s too much money and too little fear.

I’ll close with a final “ditto,” from “The Race to the Bottom” of just over ten years ago:

If you refuse to fall into line in carefree markets like today’s, it’s likely that, for a while, you’ll (a) lag in terms of return and (b) look like an old fogey. But neither of those is much of a price to pay if it means keeping your head (and capital) when others eventually lose theirs. In my experience, times of laxness have always been followed eventually by corrections in which penalties are imposed. It may not happen this time, but I’ll take that risk. In the meantime, Oaktree and its people will continue to apply the standards that have served us so well over the last [thirty] years."

 

Extracts from Oaktree Capital’s Memos from Howard Marks, “There they go again … again”, July 2017.

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