In January 2004 I received a letter from Warren Buffett (how’s that for name dropping?) in which he wrote, “I’ve commented about junk bonds that last year’s weeds have become this year’s flowers. I liked them better when they were weeds.”
Warren’s phrasings are always the clearest, catchiest and most on-target, and I thought this Buffettism captured the thought particularly well. Thus for Oaktree’s 2004 investor conference we used the phrase “Yesterday’s Weeds . . . Today’s Flowers” as the title of a slide depicting the snapback of high yield bonds. It showed the 45% average yield at which a sample of ten bonds could have been bought during the Enron-plus-telecom meltdown of 2002 and the 6% average yield at which they could have been sold in 2003; on average, the yields had fallen by 87% in just thirteen months. The idea went fullcircle in 2005, when Warren used our slide at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting to illustrate how rapidly things can change in the world of investing.
And that’s the point of this memo. Asset prices fluctuate much more than fundamentals. This happens because, rather than applying moderation and balancing greed against fear, euphoria against depression, and risk tolerance against risk aversion, investors tend to oscillate wildly between the extremes. They apply optimism when things are going well in the world (elevating prices beyond reason) and pessimism when things are going poorly (depressing prices unreasonably). Shortness of memory plays a major part in abetting these swings. If investors remembered past bubbles and busts and their causes,and learned from them, the swings would moderate. But, in short, they don’t. And they may be forgetting again.
High yield bonds and many other investment media have once again gone from being weeds to flowers – from pariahs to market darlings – and it happened in a startlingly short period of time. As is so often the case, things that investors wouldn’t touch in the depths of the crisis in late 2008 now strike them as good buys at twice the price. The swing of this pendulum recurs regularly and creates some of the greatest opportunities to lose or gain. Thus we must always be mindful.