Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 15


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 15 “The Most Important Thing Is…Having a Sense for Where We Stand.” Cash, Risk, Opportunity Cost

“The period from 2004 through the middle of 2007 presented investors with one of the greatest opportunities to outperform by reducing their risk, if only they were perceptive enough to recognize what was going on and confident enough to act…Contrarian investors who had cut their risk and otherwise prepared during the lead-up to the crisis lost less in the 2008 meltdown and were best positioned to take advantage of the vast bargains it created.”

The quote above highlights a concept not given enough attention within the investment management industry – a fund manager’s ability to generate outperformance (versus a benchmark or on an absolute basis) derives not only from his/her ability to capture upside return, but also by avoiding downside loss!

Marks’ comment that some investors were “best positioned to take advantage” of newly available bargains reminds us of an interesting theoretical discussion on the value of cash, which it is based on not only what you can earn or purchase with it today, but also on what you can potentially purchase with it in the future. Jim Leitner, a former Yale Endowment Committee Member summarizes this concept best: “…we tend to ignore the inherent opportunity costs associated with a lack of cash…cash affords you flexibility…allocate that cash when attractive opportunities arise…When other assets have negative return forecast…there is no reason to not hold a low return cash portfolio…The correct way to measure the return on cash is more dynamic: cash is bound on the lower side by its actual return, whereas, the upper side possesses an additional element of positive return received from having the ability to take advantage of unique opportunities…Holding cash when markets are cheap is expensive, and holding cash when markets are expensive is cheap.”

Expected Return

“The seven scariest words in the world for the thoughtful investor – too much money chasing too few deals…You can tell when too much money is competing to be deployed…

…It helps to think of money as a commodity…Everyone’s money is pretty much the same. Yet institutions seeking to add to loan volume, and private equity funds and hedge funds seeking to increase their fees, all want to move more of it. So if you want to place more money – that is, get people to go to you instead of your competitors for their financing – you have to make your money cheaper.

One way to lower the price for your money is by reducing the interest rate you charge on loans. A slightly more subtle way is to agree to a higher price for the thing you’re buying, such as by paying a higher price/earnings ratio for a common stock or a higher total transaction price when you’re buying a company. Any way you slice it, you’re settling for a lower prospective return.”

The future expected return of any asset is a direct function of the price that you pay combined with the economic return potential of that asset.

Psychology, Risk, When To Buy, When To Sell

“…even if we can’t predict the timing and extent of cyclical fluctuations, it’s essential that we strive to ascertain where we stand in cyclical terms and act accordingly.”

“If we are alert and perceptive, we can gauge the behavior of those around us and from that judge what we should do. The essential ingredient here is inference, one of my favorite words. Everyone sees what happens each day, as reported in the media, But how many people make an effort to understand what those everyday events say about the psyches of market participants, the investment climate, and thus what we should do in response? Simply put, we must strive to understand the implications of what’s going on around us. When others are recklessly confident and buying aggressively, we should be highly cautious; when others are frightened into inaction or panic selling, we should become aggressive.”

“There are few fields in which decisions as to strategies and tactics aren’t influenced by what we see in the environment. Our pressure on the gas pedal varies depending on whether the road is empty or crowded. The golfer’s choice of club depends on the wind. Our decisions regarding outerwear certainly varies with the weather. Shouldn’t our investment actions be equally affected by the investing climate?”