Howard Marks' Book: Chapter 7


Continuation of portfolio management highlights from Howard Marks’ book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Chapter 7 “The Most Important Thing Is…Recognizing Risk” Risk, Capital Preservation, Compounding

“…Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch, Bill Miller and Julian Robertson. In general their records are remarkable because of their decades of consistency and absence of disasters, not just their high returns.”

“How do you enjoy the full gain in up markets while simultaneously being positioned to achieve superior performance in down markets? By capturing the up-market gain while bearing below-market risk…no mean feat.”

“The road to long-term investment success runs through risk control more than through aggressiveness. Over a full career, most investors’ results will be determined more by how many losers they have, and how bad they are, than by the greatness of their winners.”

The resilient yet participatory portfolio (this term was stolen from a very smart man named Ted Lucas at Lattice Strategies in San Francisco) – a rare creature not easily found. We know it exists because a legendary few, such as those listed above, have found it before. How to find it for ourselves remains the ever perplexing question.

Our regular Readers know that we’re obsessed with the complementary relationship between capital preservation and compounding. For more on this, be sure to check out commentary from Stanley Druckenmiller and Warren Buffett – yes, two very different investors.

Conservatism, Hedging

“Since usually there are more good years in the markets than bad years, and since it takes bad years for the value of risk control to become evident in reduced losses, the cost of risk control – in the form of return foregone – can seem excessive. In good years in the market, risk-conscious investors must content themselves with the knowledge that they benefited from its presence in the portfolio, even though it wasn’t needed…the fruits…come only in the form of losses that don’t happen.”

People talk a lot about mitigating risk in the form of hedging. But what about remaining conservatively positioned (such as having more cash) and incurring the cost of lower portfolio returns? Isn’t the “return foregone” in this case akin to hedging premium?

Conservatism, Fat Tail

“It’s easy to say that they should have made more conservative assumptions. But how conservative? You can’t run a business on the basis of worst-case assumptions. You won’t be able to do anything. And anyway, a ‘worst-case assumption’ is really a misnomer; there’s no such thing, short of a total loss…once you grant that such a decline can happen – for the first time – what extent should you prepare for? Two percent? Ten? Fifty?”

“Even if we realize that unusual, unlikely things can happen, in order to act we make reasoned decisions and knowingly accept that risk when well paid to do so. Once in a while, a ‘black swan’ will materialize. But if in the future we always said, ‘We can’t do such-and-such, because the outcome could be worse than we’ve ever seen before,” we’d be frozen in inaction.

So in most things, you can’t prepare for the worst case. It should suffice to be prepared for once-in-a-generation events. But a generation isn’t forever, and there will be times when that standard is exceeded. What do you do about that? I’ve mused in the past about how much one should devote to preparing for the unlikely disaster. Among other things, the events of 2007-2008 prove there’s no easy answer.”

Risk, Making Mistakes, Process Over Outcome

“High absolute return is much more recognizable and titillating than superior risk-adjusted performance. That’s why it’s high-returning investors who get their pictures in the papers. Since it’s hard to gauge risk and risk-adjusted performance (even after the fact), and since the importance of managing risk is widely underappreciated, investors rarely gain recognition for having done a great job in this regard. That’s especially true in good times.”

“Risk – the possibility of loss – is not observable. What is observable is loss, and generally happens only when risk collides with negative events…loss is what happens when risk meets adversity. Risk is the potential for loss if things go wrong. As long as things go well, loss does not arise. Risk gives rise to loss only when negative events occur in the environment.”

“…the absence of loss does not necessarily mean the portfolio was safely constructed…A good builder is able to avoid construction flaws, while a poor builder incorporates construction flaws. When there are no earthquakes, you can’t tell the difference…That’s what’s behind Warren Buffett’s observation that other than when the tide goes out, we can’t tell which swimmers are clothed and which are naked.”

Good risk management = implementing prevention measures.

Once planted, the seeds of risk can remain dormant for years. Whether or not they sprout into loss depends on the environment and its conditions.

In other words, mistakes that result in losses are often made long before losses occur. Although loss was not the ultimate outcome does not mean mistakes were not made.