Howard Right on the Mark(s)

July 30, 2009 at 4:00 am 1 comment

Legendary investor Howard Marks opines on the financial markets in his recently quarterly client memo. One should pay attention to these battle-tested veterans with scars to prove their survival skills.  Rather than neatly package a common theme from the long document I will highlight a few areas.

Marks is cautious but sees better buying opportunities ahead.

Marks is cautious but sees better buying opportunities ahead.

Recent Past vs. Long Past: For most of the 16 page memo Howard Marks reminisces on his 40+ years in the investment industry and contrasts the 2003-2007 period with the majority of his years. He states in the old days, “There were no swaps, index futures or listed options. Leverage wasn’t part of most institutional investors’ arsenal…or vocabulary. Private equity was unknown, and hedge funds were too few and outré to matter. Innovations like quantitative investing and structured products had yet to arrive, and few people had ever heard of ‘alpha.'”

Marks on Siegel: Marks targets Wharton Professor Jeremy Siegel as a contributor to the overly bullish mentality of 2003-2007, “Siegel’s research was encyclopedic and supported some dramatic conclusions, perhaps foremost among them his showing that there’s never been a 30-year period in which stocks didn’t outperform cash, bonds and inflation…but…30 years can be a long time to wait.”

Marks on Risk: “So yes, it’s true that investor’s can’t expect to make much money without taking risk. But that’s not the same as saying risk taking is sure to make you money…If risky investments always produced high returns, they wouldn’t be risky.” On the psychological impacts of risk, Marks goes on to say,  “When investors are unworried and risk-tolerant, they buy stocks at high p/e ratios and private companies at high EBITDA multiples, and they pile into bonds despite narrow yield spreads and into real estate at minimal “cap rates.'”

On Quant Models and Business Schools: Marks quotes Warren Buffet regarding the complexity of quantitative models, “If you need a computer or a calculator to make a calculation, you shouldn’t buy it.” Charlie Munger adds his two cents on why quantitative models exist: “They teach that in business schools because, well, they’ve got to do something.”

Investing as a Mixture of Art & ScienceIn my book I describe investing as a combination of “Art” and “Science.” Marks addresses a s similar insight through an Albert Einstein quote:

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Views on the Credit Rating Agencies: To highlight the absurdity of the mortgage credit rating system, Marks compares the agencies’ ratings to hamburger:  “If it’s possible to start with 100 pounds of hamburger and end up selling ten pounds of dog food, 40 pounds of sirloin and 50 pounds of filet mignon, the truth-in-labeling rules can’t be working.”

If you would like to access the remainder of memo, click here to read the rest. Overall, Mr. Marks gives a balanced view of the markets and economy, but feels “better buying opportunities lie ahead.” Thankfully, I’m finding some myself.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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Entry filed under: Profiles, Stocks. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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