This is a continuation in our series of portfolio construction & management highlights extracted from Seth Klarman's Margin of Safety. In Chapter 13 (Portfolio Management and Trading) - Part 2 below, Klarman shares his thoughts on the illusory nature of liquidity, and the tricky task of knowing when to sell. Liquidity, Catalyst, When To Buy, When To Sell
Liquidity can be illusory. As Louis Lowenstein has stated, ‘In the stock market, there is liquidity for the individual but not for the whole community. The distributable profits of a company are the only rewards for the community.’ In other words, while any one investor can achieve liquidity by selling to another investor, all investors taken together can only be made liquid by generally unpredictable external events such as takeover bids and corporate-share repurchases. Except for such extraordinary transactions, there must be a buyer for every seller of a security."
Liquidity is possible not only through sale of securities, but also through other events & catalysts that result in cash flowing into the portfolio.
“In times of general market stability the liquidity of a security or class of securities can appear high. In truth liquidity is closely correlated with investment fashion. During a market panic the liquidity that seemed miles wide in the course of an upswing may turn out only to have been inches deep. Some securities that traded in high volume when they were in favor may hardly trade at all when they go out of vogue.”
“For many securities the depth of the market as well as the quoted price is an important consideration. You cannot sell, after all, in the absence of a willing buyer; the likely presence of a buyer must therefore be a factor in the decision to sell. As the president of a small firm specializing in trading illiquid over-the-counter (pink-sheet) stocks once told me: ‘You have to feed the birdies when they are hungry.’”
Historical liquidity does not equal future liquidity. Miscalculation on this front has contributed to a phenomenon eloquently described as “up the stairs, out the window” syndrome.
When To Sell, Expected Return, Risk, Opportunity Cost
“Many investors are able to spot a bargain but have a harder time knowing when to sell. One reason is the difficulty of knowing precisely what an investment is worth. An investor buys with a range of value in mind at a price that provides a considerable margin of safety. As the market price appreciates, however, that safety margin decreases; the potential return diminishes and the downside risk increases. Not knowing the exact value of the investment, it is understandable that an investor cannot be confident in the sell decision as he or she was in the purchase decision.
To deal with the difficulty of knowing when to sell, some investors create results for selling…none of these rules make good sense. Indeed, there is only one valid rule for selling: all investments are for sale at the right price…Decisions to sell, like to buy, must be based upon underlying business value. Exactly when to sell – or buy – depends on the alternative opportunities that are available…It would be foolish to hold out for an extra fraction of a point of gain in a stock selling just below underlying value when the market offers many bargains.”
Awhile ago, we featured an interview with Steve Romick of FPA discussing the sizing & dilemma of whether to sell as price moves closer, though not quite yet, to intrinsic value. Here, Klarman's comment advises investors to also take into consideration "alternative opportunities that are available" during this decision making process.
When To Buy
“In my view, investors should usually refrain from purchasing a ‘full position’ (the maximum dollar commitment they intend to make) in a given security all at once…Buying a partial position leaves reserves that permit investors to ‘average down’ lowering their average cost per share, if prices decline.
Evaluating your own willingness to average down can help you distinguish prospective investments from speculations. If the security you are considering is truly a good investment, not a speculation, you would certainly want to own more at lower prices.”