Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Howard Marks Memo: The Long View

The Importance of Cycles

In my opinion, there are two key concepts that investors must master: value and cycles. For each asset you’re considering, you must have a strongly held view of its intrinsic value. When its price is below that value, it’s generally a buy. When its price is higher, it’s a sell. In a nutshell, that’s value investing.

But values aren’t fixed; they move in response to changes in the economic environment. Thus, cyclical considerations influence an asset’s current value. Value depends on earnings, for example, and earnings are shaped by the economic cycle and the price being charged for liquidity.

Further, security prices are greatly affected by investor behavior; thus we can be aided in investing safely by understanding where we stand in terms of the market cycle. What’s going on in terms of investor psychology, and how does it tell us to act in the short run? We want to buy when prices seem attractive. But if investors are giddy and optimism is rampant, we have to consider whether a better buying opportunity mightn’t come along later.
Of all the investment adages I use, this one remains the most important: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.” Practices and innovations often move from exotic to mainstream to overdone, especially if they’re initially successful. What early investors did safely, the latecomers tried in 2003-07 with excessive leverage applied to overpriced and often inappropriate assets. As I wrote in “It’s All Good” (July 2007), leverage was the “ketchup” of this period, used to make unattractive underlying investments appear tasty. The results have been disastrous.

Here’s another way to put it, from The Wall Street Journal of November 24,

When it comes to booms gone bust, “over-investment and overspeculation are often
important; but they would have far less serious results were they not conducted
with borrowed money.”

That statement wasn’t made in reference to current events; that was Irving Fisher writing 76 years ago (“The Debt-Inflation Theory of Great Depressions,” Econometrica, March 1933). Borrowed money lets economic units expand the scale of their activity. But it doesn’t add value or make things better; it just makes gains bigger and losses more painful. There’s an old saying in Las Vegas: “The more you bet, the more you win when you win.” But they always forget to add “. . . and the more you lose when you lose.”

In one of those beautiful phrasings that demonstrate his mastery of language, Jim Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer has described liquidity and leverage as “money of the mind.” By this he means they’re intangible and ephemeral, not dependable like assets or equity capital. Someone may lend you money one day but refuse to renew your loan when it comes due. Thus, leverage is purely a function of the lender’s mood. The free-and-easy lending of 2003-07 has turned into an extreme credit crunch, and the unavailability of credit is both the root and the hallmark of today’s biggest problems. Those who expand the scope of their operations on the basis of borrowed money should always consider the possibility that lenders will change their mind.