Finally in discussing how to detect and respond to market cycle extremes, I want to return once more to the widespread panic that followed the bankruptcy filing by Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
Although the sub-prime mortgage crisis originated in a small corner of the financial and investment world, the impact was soon felt widely, particularly by the financial institutions that had underestimated the risk in mortgage backed securities and thus invested too heavily in them. As a result of the threat to these essential institutions, the impact metastasized to the stock and bond markets in all countries—and then to economies all around the world—in the form of the Global Financial Crisis.
Thus, as I described earlier, money market funds and commercial paper had to be guaranteed by the U.S. government. A number of prominent banks and financial institutions failed or had to be bailed out/rescued/absorbed. No one knew how far the carnage would spread. The equity and debt markets collapsed. Now the generalizing was on the negative side: “the financial system could totally melt down” in a vicious circle without end.
Since the generalizations were on the downside, the error-making machine went into reverse. No greed, only fear. No optimism, only pessimism. No risk tolerance, only risk aversion. No ability to see positives, only negatives. No willingness to interpret things positively, only negatively. No ability to imagine good outcomes, only bad. Thus we reached the day on which I had the discussion mentioned back on pages 131–132, in which the pension fund head was unable or unwilling to accept that any assumption regarding possible defaults could be conservative enough.
What was the essential observation? Here’s what I wrote in “The Limits to Negativism” (October 2008):
Contrarianism—doing the opposite of what others do, or “leaning against the wind”—is essential for investment success. But as the credit crisis reached a peak last week, people succumbed to the wind rather than resisting. I found very few who were optimistic; most were pessimistic to some degree. Some became genuinely depressed—even a few great investors I know. Increasingly negative tales of the coming meltdown were exchanged via email. No one applied skepticism, or said “that horror story’s unlikely to be true.” Pessimism fed on itself. People’s only concern was bullet-proofing their portfolios to get through the coming collapse, or raising enough cash to meet redemptions. The one thing they weren’t doing last week was making aggressive bids for securities. So prices fell and fell, several points at a time—the old expression is “gapped down.”
The key—as usual—was to become skeptical of what “everyone” was saying and doing. One might have said, “Sure, the negative story may turn out to be true, but certainly it’s priced into the market. So there’s little to be gained from betting on it. On the other hand, if it turns out not to be true, the appreciation from today’s depressed levels will be enormous. I buy!” The negative story may have looked compelling, but it’s the positive story—which few believed—that held, and still holds, the greater potential for profit.
At this market cycle extreme, all the news truly was negative . . . and certainly not imaginary. The only questions I received were “How far will it go?” and “What will be the effects?” Given that asset prices reflected nothing but abject pessimism regarding these things—I’d say near-suicidal thinking—the key to profiting lay in recognizing that even in the face of uniformly bad news and a very poor outlook, pessimism can be overdone, and thus assets can become too cheap.
It was the excessiveness of the prevailing pessimism that led me to write “The Limits to Negativism” at the credit market’s low ebb in October 2008. In it I pointed out, as mentioned in the chapter on attitudes toward risk, that the superior investor’s essential skepticism “calls for pessimism when optimism is excessive. But it also calls for optimism when pessimism is excessive.” That variety of skepticism was totally lacking in the market’s darkest days, of course.
Shortly after Lehman’s bankruptcy filing on September 15, 2008, Bruce Karsh and I reached the conclusion that (a) no one could know how far the financial institution meltdown would go, but (b) negativity was certainly rampant and very possibly excessive, and assets looked terribly cheap. Thinking strategically, we decided that if the financial world ended—which no one could rule out—it wouldn’t matter whether we’d bought or not. But if the world didn’t end and we hadn’t bought, we would have failed to do our job.
So we bought debt aggressively. Oaktree invested more than a half a billion dollars a week over the fifteen weeks from September 15 through the end of the year. Some days we thought we were going too fast, and some days too slow; that probably meant we had it about right. The world didn’t end; the vicious cycle of financial institution implosion stopped with Lehman Brothers; the capital markets reopened; the financial institutions came back to life; debt was again able to be refinanced; bankruptcies turned out to be very few relative to history; and the assets we bought appreciated substantially. In short, paying heed to the cycle was rewarded.