in The New York Times of May 5, Warren Buffett told the crowd at this
year's Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:
There is so
much that's false and nutty in modern investing practice and modern investment
banking. If you just reduced the nonsense, that's a goal you should reasonably
As we look back
at the causes of the crisis approaching its second anniversary - and ahead
to how investors might conduct themselves better in the future - Buffett's
simple, homespun advice holds the key, as usual. I agree that investing practice
went off the rails in several fundamental ways. Perhaps this memo can help
get it back on.
Progress and Missteps
with the passage of time, but when I think back to the investment arena I
entered forty-plus years ago, it seems very different from that of 2003-07.
Institutional investing was done mainly by bank investment departments (like
the one I was part of), insurance companies and investment counselors - a
pretty dull bunch. And as I like to point out when I speak to business school
classes, "famous investor" was an oxymoron - few investment managers
were well known, chosen for magazine covers or listed among the top earners.
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."
were modest. Part of this likely was attributable to the narrow range of available
options: for the most part stocks and bonds. Stocks would average 9-10% per
year, it was held, but we might put together a portfolio that would do a little
better. And the admissible bonds were all investment grade, yielding moderate
We wanted to
earn a good return, limit the risks, beat the Dow and our competitors, and
retain our clients. But I don't remember any talk of "maximization,"
or anyone trying to "shoot the lights out." And by the way, no one
had ever heard of performance fees. Quite a different world from that of today.
Perhaps it would constitute a service if I pulled together a list of some
of the developments since then:
+ In the mid-1960s,
growth investing was invented, along with the belief that if you bought
the stocks of the "nifty-fifty" fastest-growing companies, you didn't
have to worry about paying the right price.
+ The first
of the investment boutiques was created in 1969, as I recall, when
highly respected portfolio managers from a number of traditional firms joined
together to form Jennison Associates. For the first time, institutional investing
+ We started
to hear more about investment personalities. There were the "Oscars"
(Schafer and Tang) and the "Freds" (Carr, Mates and Alger) - big
personalities with big performance, often working outside the institutional
+ In the early
1970s, modern portfolio theory began to seep from the University of
Chicago to Wall Street. With it came indexation, risk-adjusted returns, efficient
frontiers and risk/return optimization.
+ Around 1973,
put and call options escaped from obscurity and began to trade on exchanges
like the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
+ Given options'
widely varying time frames, strike prices and underlying stocks, a tool for
valuing them was required, and the Black-Scholes model filled the bill.
+ A small number
of leveraged buyouts took place starting in the mid-1970s, but they
attracted little attention.
+ 1977-79 saw
the birth of the high yield bond market. Up to that time, bonds rated
below investment grade couldn't be issued. That changed with the spread of
the argument - associated primarily with Michael Milken - that incremental
credit risk could responsibly be borne if offset by more-than-commensurate
+ Around 1980,
debt securitization began to occur, with packages of mortgages sliced
into securities of varying risk and return, with the highest-priority tranche
carrying the lowest yield, and so forth. This process was an example of disintermediation,
in which the making of loans moved out of the banks; 25 years later, this
would be called the shadow banking system.
+ One of the
first "quant" miracles came along in the 1980s: portfolio insurance.
Under this automated strategy, investors could ride stocks up but avoid losses
by entering stop-loss orders if they fell. It looked good on paper, but it
failed on Black Monday in 1987 when brokers didn't answer their phones.
+ In the mid-
to late 1980s, the ability to borrow large amounts of money through high yield
bond offerings made it possible for minor players to effect buyouts of large,
iconic companies, and "leverage" became part of investors'
+ When many
of those buyouts proved too highly levered to get through the 1990 recession
and went bust, investing in distressed debt gained currency.
+ Real estate
had boomed because of excessive tax incentives and the admission of real estate
to the portfolios of S&Ls, but it collapsed in 1991-92. When the Resolution
Trust Corporation took failed properties from S&Ls and sold them off,
"opportunistic" real estate investing was born.
investment managers made the big time, with Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett
becoming famous for consistently beating the equity indices.
+ In the 1990s,
emerging market investing became the hot new thing, wowing people until
it took its knocks in the mid- to late 1990s due to the Mexican peso devaluation,
Asian financial crisis and Russian debt disavowal.
+ Quant investing
arrived, too, achieving its first real fame with the success of Long- Term
Capital Management. This Nobel Prize-laden firm used computer models to identify
fixed income arbitrage opportunities. Like most other investment miracles,
it worked until it didn't. Thanks to its use of enormous leverage, LTCM melted
down spectacularly in 1998.
real interest in the last half of the '90s was in common stocks, with
the frenzy accelerating but narrowing to tech-media-telecom stocks around
1997 and narrowing further to Internet stocks in 1999. The "limitless
potential" of these instruments was debunked in 2000, and the equity
market went into its first three-year decline since the Great Crash of '29.
capital funds, blessed with triple-digit returns thanks to the fevered
appetite for tech stocks, soared in the late 1990s and crashed soon thereafter.
+ After their
three-year slump, the loss of faith in common stocks caused investors to shift
their hopes to hedge funds - "absolute return" vehicles expected
to make money regardless of what went on in the world.
+ With the bifurcation
of strategies and managers into "beta-based" (market-driven) and
"alpha-based" (skill-driven), investors concluded they could identify
managers capable of alpha investing, emphasize it, perhaps synthesize
it, and "port" or carry it to their portfolios in additive combinations.
equity - sporting a new label free from the unpleasant history of "leveraged
buyouts" - became another popular alternative to traditional stocks and
bonds, and funds of $20 billion and more were raised at the apex in 2006-07.
+ Wall Street
came forward with a plan to package prosaic, reliable home mortgages into
collateralized debt obligations - the next high-return, low-risk free
lunch - with help from tranching, securitization and selling onward.
+ The key to
the purported success of this latest miracle lay in computer modeling.
It quantified the risk, assuming that mortgage defaults would remain uncorrelated
and benign as historically had been the case. But because careless mortgage
lending practices unknowingly had altered the probabilities, the default experience
turned out to be much worse than the models suggested or the modelers thought
+ Issuers of
collateralized loan obligations bought corporate loans using the same
processes that had been applied to CDOs. Their buying facilitated vast issuance
of syndicated bank loans carrying low interest rates and few protective covenants,
now called leveraged loans because the lending banks promptly sold off the
+ Options were
joined by futures and swaps under a new heading: derivatives. Heralded
for their ability to de-risk the financial system by shifting risk to those
best able to bear it, derivatives led to vast losses and something new: counterparty
+ The common
thread running through hedge funds, private equity funds and many other of
these investment innovations was incentive compensation. Expected to
align the interests of investment managers and their clients, in many cases
it encouraged excessive risk taking.
+ Computer modeling
was further harnessed to create "value at risk" and other
risk management tools designed to quantify how much would be lost if the investment
environment soured. This fooled people into thinking risk was under control
- a belief that, if acted on, has the potential to vastly increase risk.
At the end of
this progression we find an institutional investing world that bears little
resemblance to the quaint cottage industry with which the chronology began
more than forty years ago. Many of the developments served to increase risk
or had other negative implications, for investors individually and for the
economy overall. In the remainder of this memo, I'll discuss these trends
and their ramifications.
One thing that
caused a lot of people to lose money in the crisis was the popularization
of investing. Over the last few decades, as I described in The Long
View (January 2009), investing became widespread. Less than 10%
of adults owned stocks in the 1950s, in contrast to 40% today. (Economics
and Portfolio Strategy, June 1, 2009). Star investors became household names
and were venerated. How-to books were big sellers, and investors
graced the covers of magazines. Television networks were created to cover
investing 24/7, and Jim Cramer and the Money Honey became celebrities
in their own right.
to consider whether this democratization of investing represented
progress, because in things requiring special skill, its not necessarily
a plus when people conclude they can do them unaided. The popularization
with a big push from brokerage firms looking for business and media hungry
for customers was based on success stories, and it convinced people
that anyone can do it. Not only did this overstate the ease
of investing, but it also vastly understated the danger. (Risk
has become such an everyday word that it sounds harmless as in the
risk of underperformance and risk-adjusted performance.
Maybe we should switch to danger to remind people whats
I tend to pick on Wharton Professor Jeremy Siegel and his popular book Stocks
for the Long Run. Siegels research was encyclopedic and supported
some dramatic conclusions, perhaps foremost among them his showing that theres
never been a 30-year period in which stocks didnt outperform cash, bonds
and inflation. This convinced a lot of people to invest heavily in stocks.
But even if his long-term premise eventually holds true, anyone who invested
in the S&P 500 ten years ago and is now down 20% has learned
that 30 years can be a long time to wait.
The point is
that not everyone is suited to manage his or her own investments, and not
everyone should take on uncertain investments. The success of Bernard Madoffs
Ponzi scheme shows that even people who are wealthy and presumed sophisticated
can overlook risks. Might that be borne in mind the next time around?
At Ease with
Risk is something
every investor should think about constantly. We know we cant expect
to make money without taking chances. The reasons simple: if there was
a risk-free way to make good money that is, a path to profit free from
downside everyone would pursue it without hesitation. That would bid
up the price, bring down the return and introduce the risk that accompanies
So yes, its
true that investors cant expect to make much money without taking risk.
But thats not the same as saying risk taking is sure to make you money.
As I said in Risk (January 2006), if risky investments always
produced high returns, they wouldnt be risky.
The extra return
we hope to earn for holding stocks rather than bonds is called an equity risk
premium. The additional promised yield on high yield bonds relative to Treasurys
is called a credit risk premium. All along the upward-sloping capital market
line, the increase in potential return represents compensation for bearing
incremental risk. Except for those people who can generate alpha
or access alpha managers, investors shouldnt plan on getting added return
without bearing incremental risk. And for doing so, they should demand risk
But at some
point in the swing of the pendulum, people usually forget that truth and embrace
risk taking to excess. In short, in bull markets usually when things
have been going well for a while people tend to say, Risk is
my friend. The more risk I take, the greater my return will be. Id like
more risk, please.
is, risk tolerance is antithetical to successful investing. When people arent
afraid of risk, theyll accept risk without being compensated for doing
so . . . and risk compensation will disappear. This is a simple and inevitable
relationship. 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
In the years
leading up to the current crisis, it was as plain as the nose on your
face that prospective returns were low and risk was high. In simple
terms, there was too much money looking for a home, and too little risk aversion.
Valuation parameters rose and prospective returns fell, and yet the amount
of money available to managers grew steadily. Investors were attracted to
risky deals, complex structures, innovative transactions and leveraged instruments.
In each case, they seemed to accept the upside potential and ignore the downside.
few things as risky as the widespread belief that theres no risk, because
its only when investors are suitably risk-averse that prospective returns
will incorporate appropriate risk premiums. Hopefully in the future (a)
investors will remember to fear risk and demand risk premiums and (b) well
continue to be alert for times when they dont.
Among the risks
faced by the holder of an investment is the chance that if liquidity has dried
up at a time when it has to be sold, hell end up getting paid less than
its worth. Illiquidity is nothing but another source of risk, and
it should be treated no differently:
+ All else
being equal, investors should prefer liquid investments and dislike illiquidity.
+ Thus, before
making illiquid investments, investors should ascertain that theyre
being rewarded for bearing that risk with a sufficient return premium.
out of basic prudence, investors should limit the proportion of their portfolios
committed to illiquid investments. There are some risks investors shouldnt
take regardless of the return offered.
But just as
people can think of risk as a plus, so can they be attracted to illiquidity,
and for basically the same reason. There is something called an illiquidity
premium. Its the return increment investors should receive in exchange
for accepting illiquidity. But itll only exist if investors prefer liquidity.
If theyre indifferent, the premium wont be there.
Part of the
accepted wisdom of the pre-crisis years was that long-term institutional investors
should load up on illiquid investments, capitalizing on their ability to be
patient by garnering illiquidity premiums. In 2003-07, so many investors
adopted this approach that illiquidity premiums became endangered. For example,
as of the middle of 2008, the average $1 billion-plus endowment is said to
have had investments in and undrawn commitments to the main illiquid asset
classes (private equity, real estate and natural resources) equal to half
its net worth. Some had close to 90%.
to invest in locked-up private investment funds is based on a number of shoulds.
Illiquid investments should deliver correspondingly higher returns. Closed-end
investment funds should call down capital gradually. Cash distributions should
be forthcoming from some funds, enabling investors to meet capital calls from
others. And a secondary market should facilitate the sale of positions in
illiquid funds, if needed, at moderate discounts from their fair value. But
things that should happen often fail to happen. Thats why investors
should view potential premium returns skeptically and limit the risk they
bear, including illiquidity.
desire to earn money makes them willing to do things they havent done
before, especially if those things seem modern and sophisticated. Technological
complexity and higher math can be seductive in and of themselves. And good
times and rising markets encourage experimentation and erase skepticism. These
factors allow Wall Street to sell innovative products in bull markets (and
only in bull markets). But these innovations can be tested only in bear markets
. . . and invariably they are.
Many of the
investment techniques that were embraced in 2003-07 represented quantitative
innovations, and people seemed to think of that as an advantage rather than
a source of potential risk. Investors were attracted to black-box quant
funds, highly levered mortgage securities critically dependent on computer
models, alchemical portable alpha, and risk management based on sketchy historical
data. The dependability of these things was shaky, but the risks were glossed
over. As Alan Greenspan wrote in The Wall Street Journal of March 11:
It is now very
clear that the levels of complexity to which market practitioners at the height
of their euphoria tried to push risk-management techniques and products were
too much for even the most sophisticated market players to handle properly
put it in simpler terms at this years Berkshire meeting. If
you need a computer or a calculator to make the calculation, you shouldnt
buy it. And Charlie Munger added his own slant: Some of the
worst business decisions Ive ever seen are those with future projections
and discounts back. It seems like the higher mathematics with more false precision
should help you, but it doesnt. They teach that in business schools
because, well, theyve got to do something.
To close on
this subject, I want to share a quote I recently came across from Albert Einstein.
Ive often argued that the key to successful investing lies in subjective
judgments made by experienced, insightful professionals, not machinable processes,
decision rules and algorithms. I love the way Einstein put it:
that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
My memos on
the reasons for the crisis, like Whodunit (February 2008), show
that theres more than enough blame to go around and lots of causes to
cite. But if you boil it down, there was one indispensable ingredient in
the process that led to trillions of dollars of losses: misplaced trust in
credit ratings. The explanation is simple:
pressure for profits caused financial institutions to try to keep up with
the leaders. As is normal in good times, the profit leaders were those who
used the most leverage.
+ Thus institutions
sought to maximize their leverage, but the rules required that the greatest
leverage be used only with investments rated triple-A.
+ A handful
of credit rating agencies had been designated by the government as Nationally
Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations, despite their highly imperfect
+ The people
who guard the financial henhouse often have a tough time keeping up with
the foxes innovations. Whereas traditional bond analysis was a relatively
simple matter, derivatives and tiered securitizations were much more complex.
This allowed rating agency employees to be manipulated by the investment
banks quantitatively sophisticated and highly compensated financial
+ The rating
agencies proved too naïve, inept and/or venal to handle their assigned
financial institutions took the ratings at face value, enabling them
to pursue the promise of highly superior returns from supposedly riskless,
levered-up mortgage instruments. This deal clearly was too good to be true,
but the institutions leapt in anyway.
It all started
with those triple-A ratings. For his graduation from college this year,
Andrew Marks wrote an insightful thesis on the behavior that gave rise to
the credit crisis. I was pleased that he borrowed an idea from Whodunit:
if its 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 cant be working. Thats
exactly what happened when mortgage-related securities were rated.
took piles of residential mortgages many of them subprime and
turned them into residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). The fact that
other tranches were subordinated and would lose first allowed the rating agencies
to be cajoled into rating a lot of RMBS investment grade. Then RMBS were assembled
into collateralized debt obligations, with the same process repeated. In the
end, heaps of mortgages each of which was risky were turned
into CDO debt, more than 90% of which was rated triple-A, meaning it was supposed
to be almost risk-free.
Keynes said . . . a speculator is one who runs risks of which he is
aware and an investor is one who runs risks of which he is unaware.
Speculators who bought the low end of the CDO barrel with their eyes open
to the risk suffered total losses on a small part of their capital. But the
highly levered, esteemed investing institutions that accepted the higher ratings
without questioning the mortgage alchemy lost large amounts of capital, because
of the ease with which theyd been able to lever holdings of triple-A
and super-senior CDOs. Ronald Reagan said of arms treaties, Trust,
then verify. If only financial institutions had done the same.
The rating agencies
were diverted from their mission by a business model that made them dependent
on security issuers for their revenues. This eliminated their objectivity
and co-opted them into the rating-maximization process. Regardless of that
happening, however, its clear that the stability of our financial institutions
never should have been allowed to rely so heavily on the competence of a few
for-profit (and far-from-perfect) rating agencies. In the future, when people
reviewing the crisis say, If only they had . . . , the subject
will often be credit ratings. Bottom line: investors must never again abdicate
the essential task of assessing risk. Its their number-one job to perform
thorough, skeptical analysis.
You Bet . . .
If I had
to choose a single phrase to sum up investor attitudes in 2003-07, it would
be the old Las Vegas motto: The more you bet, the more you win when
you win. Casino profits ride on getting people to bet more. In the
financial markets just before the crisis, players needed no such encouragement.
They wanted to bet more, and the availability of leverage helped them do so.
One of the major
trends embedded in the chronology on pages two and three was toward increasing
the availability of leverage. Now, Ive never heard of any of Oaktrees
institutional clients buying on margin or taking out a loan to make investments.
It might not be considered normal for fiduciaries, and tax-exempt
investors would have to worry about Unrelated Business Taxable Income.
None of us go
out and buy Intel chips, but weve all seen commercials designed to get
us to buy products with Intel inside. In the same way, investors
became increasingly able to buy investment products with leverage inside .
. . that is, to participate in levered strategies rather than borrow explicitly
to make investments. Think about these elements from my earlier list of
who would never buy stocks on margin were able to invest in private equity
funds that would buy companies on leverage of four times or more.
+ The delayed
and irregular nature of drawdowns caused people who had earmarked $100 for
private investment funds to make commitments totaling $140.
swaps and futures in fact, many derivatives are nothing but
ways for investors to access the return on large amounts of assets with
little money down.
+ Many hedge
funds used borrowings or derivatives to access the returns on more assets
than their capital would allow them to buy.
+ When people
wanted to invest $100 in markets with skill-derived return bolted on, portable
alpha had them invest $90 in hedge funds with perceived alpha and
the rest in futures covering $100 worth of the passive market index. This
gave them a stake in the performance of $190 of assets for every $100 of
of these techniques exposed investors to the gains or losses on increased
amounts of assets. If thats not leverage, what is? In fact, an article
entitled Harvard Endowment Chief Is Earning Degree in Crisis Management
in The New York Times of February 21 said of Harvard, The endowment
was squeezed partly because it had invested more than its assets . . .
(emphasis added). I find this statement quite remarkable, and yet no one has
remarked on it to me.
be surprising that people engaging in these levered strategies made more than
others when the market rose. But 2008 showed the flip side of that equation
in action. In the future, investors should consider whether they really
want to lever their capital or just invest the amount they have.
Apart from the
increasing use of leverage, another trend that characterized the five years
before the crisis was the widespread imposition of incentive fees.
In the 1960s,
at the start of my chronology, only hedge funds commanded incentive fees,
and there were too few for most people to know or care about. But fee arrangements
that can be simplified as two-and-twenty flowered with private
equity in the 1980s, distressed debt, opportunistic real estate and venture
capital funds in the 1990s, and hedge funds in the 2000s. Soon they were everyplace.
Here are my
basic thoughts on this sort of arrangement. (Oaktree receives incentive compensation
on roughly half its assets; my objection isnt with regard to the fees
themselves, but rather the way theyve been applied.)
+ It seems
obvious that incentive fees should go only to managers with the skill needed
to add enough to returns to more than offset the fees other than
through the mere assumption of incremental risk. For example, after
a high yield bond managers .50% fee, a 12% gross return becomes 11.5%
net. A credit hedge fund charging a 2% management fee and 20% of the profits
would have to earn a 16.375% gross return to net 11.5%. Thats 36%
more return. How many managers in a given asset class can generate this
incremental 36% other than through an increase in risk? A few? Perhaps.
The majority? Never.
incentive fee arrangements should be exceptional, but theyre not.
These fees didnt go to just the proven managers (or the ones whose
returns came from skill rather than beta); they went to everyone. If you
raised your hand in 2003-07 and said Im a hedge fund manager,
you got a few billion to manage at two-and-twenty, even if you didnt
have a record of successfully managing money over periods that included
+ The run-of-the-mill
managers ease of obtaining incentive fees was enhanced each time a
top manager capped a fund. As I wrote in Safety First . . . But Where?
(April 2001), When the best are closed, the rest will get funded.
+ In fact,
whereas two-and-twenty was unheard-of in the old days, it became the norm
in 2003-07. This enabled a handful of managers with truly outstanding records
to demand profit shares ranging up to 50%.
erred in using the term alignment of interests to describe the
effect of incentive compensation on their relationships with managers. Allowing
managers to share in the upside can bring forth best efforts, but it can
also encourage risk bearing instead of risk consciousness. Most managers
just dont have enough money to invest in their funds such that loss
of it could fully balance their potential fees and upside participation.
Instead of alignment, then, incentive compensation must be viewed largely
as a heads we win; tails you lose arrangement. Clearly, it must
be accorded only to the few managers who can be trusted with it.
the responsibility for overpaying doesnt lie with the person who asks
for excessive compensation, but rather with the one who pays it. How
many potential LPs ever said, He may be a great manager, but hes
not worth that fee. I think most applied little price discipline,
as they were driven by the need to fill asset class allocations and/or the
fear that if they said no, they might miss out on a good thing (more on
this subject later).
all the time nowadays what I expect to happen with investment manager compensation.
First, I remind people that what should happen and what will happen are two
different things. Then I make my main point: there should be much more differentiation.
Whereas in past years everyones fees were generous and pretty much
the same, the post-2007 period is providing an acid test that will show who
helped their clients and who didnt. Appropriate compensation adjustments
actually helped their clients before and during this difficult period
few in number, I think will deserve to be very well compensated, and
their services could be in strong demand. The rest should receive smaller
fees or be denied incentive arrangements, and some might turn to other lines
of work. Oaktree hopes to be among the former group. Well see.
The inputs used
by a business to make its products are its costs. The money it receives for
its output are its revenues. The difference between revenues and costs are
its profits. At the University of Chicago, I was taught that by maximizing
profits that is, maximizing the excess of output over input
a company maximizes its contribution to society. This is among the notions
that have been dispelled, exposing the imperfections of the free-market system.
(Hold on; Im not saying its a bad system, just not perfect.)
maximization is exalted to excess, ethics and responsibility can go into decline,
a phenomenon that played a substantial role in getting us where we are. The
pursuit of short-term profit can lead to actions that are counterproductive
for others, for society and for the long run. For example:
+ A money
managers desire to add to assets under management, and thus profits,
can lead him to take in all the money he can. But when asset prices and
risks are high and prospective returns are low, this clearly isnt
good for his clients.
financial products to anyone wholl buy them, as opposed to those for
whom theyre right, can put investors at unnecessary risk.
+ And cajoling
rating agencies into assigning the highest rating to debt backed by questionable
collateral can put whole economies in jeopardy, as weve seen.
One of the concepts
that governed my early years, but about which Ive heard little in recent
years, is fiduciary duty. Fiduciary duty is the obligation to
look out for the welfare of others, as opposed to maximizing for yourself.
It can be driven by ethics or by fear of legal consequences; either way, it
tends to cause caution to be emphasized.
a course of action, we should ask, Is it right? Not necessarily
the cleverest practice or the most profitable, but the right thing? The
people I think of perverting the mortgage securitization process never wondered
whether they were getting an appropriate rating, but whether it was the highest
possible. Not whether they were doing the right thing for clients or society,
but whether they were wringing maximum proceeds out of a pile of mortgage
collateral and thus maximizing profits for their employers and bonuses for
A lot of misdeeds
have been blamed on excessive emphasis on short-term results in setting compensation.
The more compensation stresses the long run, the more it creates big-picture
benefits. Long-term profits do more good for companies, for business
overall and for society than does short-term self-interest.
on the Wrong Risk
Ive thought about it over the last few months, the more Ive concluded
that investors face two main risks: (1) the risk of losing money and (2) the
risk of missing opportunity. Investors can eliminate one or the other,
but not both. More commonly, they must consider how to balance the two. How
they do so will have a great impact on their results. This is the old dilemma
fear or greed? that people talk about so much. Its part
of the choice between offense and defense that I often stress (see, for example,
Whats Your Game Plan? September 2003).
is that investors often fail to strike an appropriate balance between the
two risks. In a pattern that exemplifies the swing of the pendulum from optimistic
to pessimistic and back, investors regularly oscillate between extremes at
which they consider one to the exclusion of the other, not a mixture of the
One of the ways
I try to get a sense for whats going on is by imagining the conversations
investors are having with each other . . . or with themselves. In 2003-07,
with most investors worried only about achieving returns, I think the conversation
went like this: Id better not make less than my peers. Am I behaving
as aggressively as I should? Am I using as much leverage as my competitor?
Have I shifted enough from stocks and bonds to alternatives, or am I being
an old fogey? If my commitments to private equity are 140% of the amount I
actually want to invest, is that enough, or should I do more?
Few people seemed
to worry about losses. Or if they were worried, they played anyway, fearing
that if they didnt, theyd be left behind. That must be what drove
Citigroups Chuck Prince when he said, as long as the musics
playing, youve got to get up and dance. Were still dancing.
The implications clear: No worries; high prices. No risk aversion;
no risk premiums. Certainly that describes the markets in 2003-07.
In the fourth
quarter of 2008, when asset prices were collapsing, I imagined a very different
conversation from that of 2003-07, with most investors saying, I dont
care if I never make another dollar in the market; I just dont want
to lose any more. Get me out! Attitudes toward the two risks were still
unbalanced, but in the opposite direction.
Just as risk
premiums disappear when risk is ignored, so can prospective returns soar when
risk aversion is excessive. In late 2008, economic fundamentals were terrible;
technical conditions consisted of forced selling and an absence of buyers;
and market psychology melted down. Risk aversion predominated, and fear of
missing out disappeared. These are the conditions under which assets are most
likely to be available for purchase at prices way below their fair value.
Theyre also the conditions in which most people go on buying strikes.
In the future,
investors should do a better job of balancing the fear of losing money and
the fear of missing out. My response is simple: Good luck with that.
are rising and investors are obsessed with the fear of missing out, the desire
is for maximum returns. Heres the inner conversation I imagine: I
need a return of 8% a year. But Id rather have 10%. 14% would be great,
and the possibility of 16% warrants adding to my risk. Its worth using
leverage for a shot at 20%, and with twice as much leverage, I might get 24%.
words, more is better. And of course it is . . . except that to pursue
higher returns, you have to give up something. That something is safety. But
in hot times, no one worries about losing money, just missing out. So they
try to maximize.
be a point at which investors say, I need 8%, and it would be great
if I could get 16%. But to try, I would have to do things that expose me to
excessive loss. Ill settle for a safer 10% instead. Ive
labeled this concept good-enough returns. Its based on the
belief that the possibility of more isnt always better. There should
be a point at which investors decline to take more risk in the pursuit of
more return, because theyre satisfied with the return they expect and
would rather achieve that with high confidence than try for more at the risk
of falling short (or losing money).
will probably say that in 2003-07, they didnt blindly pursue maximization;
it was the other guys. But someone did it, and were living with the
consequences. I like it better when society balances risk and return rather
than trying to maximize. Less gain, perhaps, but also less pain.
of nothing, as my mother used to say, Im going to use the opportunity
provided by this memo to discuss market conditions and the outlook. On the
heard a lot recently about green shoots: mostly cases where things
have stopped getting worse or the rate of decline is slowing. A few areas
have shown actual improvement, such as consumer confidence and durable goods
orders. Its important when you consider these improvements, however,
to bear in mind that when you get deep into a recession, the comparisons are
against depressed periods, and thus easier.
heartening to see the capital markets open again, such that banks can recapitalize
and borrowers can extend maturities and delever. Noteworthily, Michael Milken
and Jonathan Simons wrote in The Wall Street Journal of June 20 that, Global
corporations have raised nearly $2 trillion in public and private markets
this year . . .
opinion regarding markets and the governments actions has grown more
positive, and as Bruce Karsh says, Armageddon is off the table.
(He and I both felt 6-9 months ago that a financial system meltdown absolutely
couldnt be ruled out.)
are significant, but there also are many unresolved negatives:
is still terrible. Sales trends are poor. Where profits are up, its
often due to cost-cutting, not growth. (Remember, one mans economy
measure is anothers job loss not always a plus for the overall
is still rising, and with incomes shrinking, savings rising as a percentage
of shrinking incomes, and credit scarcer, its hard to see whose spending
will power a recovery.
+ The outlook
for residential and, particularly, commercial real estate remains poor,
with implications for further write-offs on the part of the banks. Ditto
for credit card receivables.
+ Many companies
are likely to experience debt refinancing challenges, defaults, bankruptcies
such as rising interest rates and rising oil prices have the power to impede
no one can say with confidence what will be the big-picture ramifications
of trillions of dollars of federal deficit spending, or the states
not predicting that these things will turn out badly, merely citing potential
negatives that may not be fully reflected in todays higher asset prices.
My greatest concern surrounds the fact that were in the middle of
an unprecedented crisis, brought on by never-seen-before financial behavior,
against which novel remedies are being attempted. And yet many people seem
confident that a business-as-usual recovery lies ahead. Theyre applying
normal lag times and extrapolating normal decline/recovery relationships.
The words of the late Amos Tversky aptly represent my view: Its
frightening to think that you might not know something, but more frightening
to think that, by and large, the world is run by people who have faith that
they know exactly whats going on.
a towering intellect who sadly passed away a month ago, made some important
contributions to the way I think about investing. Perhaps foremost among them
was his trenchant observation that, Risk means more things can happen
than will happen. Investors today may think they know what lies ahead,
but they should at least acknowledge that risk is high, the range of possibilities
is wider than it was ever thought to be, and there are a few that could be
when no one worried about risk, or late 2008 when few investors cared about
opportunity, the two seem to be in better balance given the revival of risk
taking this year. Thus the markets have recovered, with most of them up 30%
or more from their bottoms (debt in December and stocks in March).
If you and I
had spoken six months ago, we might have reflected on the significant stock
market rallies that occurred during the decade-long Great Depression, including
a 67% gain in the Dow in 1933. How uncalled-for those rallies appear in retrospect.
But now weve had one of our own.
improved psychology and risk tolerance have played a big part in the recent
rally. These things have strengthened even as economic fundamentals havent,
and that could be worrisome. (On June 23, talking about general resilience
not investor attitudes President Obama said the American people
. . .are still more optimistic than the facts alone would justify.)
On the other hand, theres good reason to believe that at their lows,
security prices had understated the merits. So are prices ahead of fundamentals
today, or have they merely recovered from too low to in
balance? Theres no way to know for sure.
Unlike the fourth
quarter of last year when assets were depressed by terrible fundamentals,
technicals and psychology theyre no longer at giveaway prices.
Neither are they clearly overvalued. Maybe we should say closer to fair.
and value in reasonable balance, the course of security prices will largely
be determined by future economic developments that defy prediction. Thus I
find it hard to be highly opinionated at this juncture. Few things are
compelling sells here, but I wouldnt be a pedal-to-the-metal buyer either.
On balance, I think better buying opportunities lie ahead.