Our National Predicament: Excerpts from Seth Klarman’s 2010 Leter
The financial collapse of 2008 highlighted our national predicament. The sudden decline in consumer activity that followed the plunges in the housing and stock markets represented a reasonable – indeed a desirable – response to overindebtedness. Yet the federal government saw this well-advised retrenchment as cataclysmic, because the national economy had grown dependent on our living beyond our means. The imagination of our financial leaders remains so shallow that their response to a crisis caused by overleverage and excess has been to recreate, as nearly as possible, the conditions that fomented it, as if the events of 2008 were a rogue wave of financial woe that can never recur. It is only in Fantasyland that the solution to vastly excessive debt is more debt and the answer to overconsumption is less saving and more spending. Worse still, we have yet to see a serious assessment by policymakers of the causes of the 2008 financial market and economic collapses so that we might take action to ward off a repeat performance. The government’s knee-jerk response to contraction was to prop up economic activity by any and every means possible; the hole in consumer activity had to be materially repaired on the government tab. While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner ingenuously professes a belief that the U.S. will never lose its AAA rating, Moody’s recently warned that, absent a change, a downgrading could be just around the comer. Or, in the words of David Letterman, “I heard the U.S. debt may now lose its triple-A rating. And I said to myself, well who cares what the auto club thinks.”
Most of us learned about the Great Depression from our parents or grandparents who developed a “Depressionmentality,” by which for decades people shunned leverage, embraced thrift, and thought twice before quitting their secure jobs to join risky ventures. By bailing out the economy rather than allowing the pain of the economic and market collapses to be felt, the government has endowed our generation with a “really-bad-couple-of-weeks-mentality”: no lasting lessons are learned; the government endlessly intervenes in the economy, and, ironically, the first thing to strongly rebound from the 2008 collapse isn’t jobs or economic activity but speculation.
Benjamin Graham’s margin-of-safety concept – to invest at a sufficient discount so that even bad luck or the vicissitudes of the business cycle won’t derail an investment – is applicable to the economy as a whole. Bridges intended for ten-ton trucks are overbuilt by engineers to hold vehicles of 30 tons. Responsible investors assume their best judgments will sometimes go awry and insist on bargain purchases that allow room for error. Likewise, an economy built with no margin of safety will eventually implode. Governments that run huge deficits, promise entitlements that will be next-to impossible to deliver, and depend on the beneficence of foreigners to stay afloat inevitably must collapse – perhaps not imminently but eventually, as Greece and Ireland have recently discovered.
It is clear, both in the financial markets and in government policy, that no long-term lessons have been drawn from the events of 2008. A friend recently posited that adversity is valuable not for what it teaches but for what it reveals. The current episode of financial adversity reveals some unpleasant truths about the character and will of our country and its leaders, and offers an unpleasant picture of the future that awaits, unless we quickly find a way to change course.
The Demonization of Short-Seller
While we rarely sell securities short – both because of the degree of execution difficulty and theoretically unlimited risk compared to limited potential return – we do believe that short-selling serves a vitally important function. Markets, of course, fluctuate; driven by human emotion, greed, and fear, they can reach significantly overvalued levels. This is bad, both because it can induce some who cannot afford losses to speculate, and because it can lead to an improper allocation of society’s resources. The recent housing bubble illustrates the problem: excessive home prices led to excessive home building, eventually resulting in a price collapse, large loan losses, and great personal hardship. In addition, the decline that follows periods of market overvaluation is bad for the broader economy, for confidence, and for rational decision making; it also frequently triggers government intervention in markets, with all of its inevitable distorting effects. Just as value buyers can dampen downside volatility, short-sellers can dampen the upside excesses. They don’t actually change the eventual outcomes, just help us get there sooner. This makes short-sellers unpopular, as the uninformed masses enjoy high and rising securities prices for the short-term profits they produce, without understanding the societal costs of the future reversal. The less you understand valuation, the more that overvaluation seems like a free lunch – which of course it isn’t.
From our experience, much long-oriented analysis is simplistic, highly optimistic, and sloppy. Short-sellers, by going against the long-term tide of economic growth and the short-term swells of public opinion and margins calls, are forced to be crackerjack analysts. Their work product is usually top-notch and needs to be. Short-sellers shouldn’t be reviled or banned; most should be celebrated and encouraged. They are the policemen of the financial markets, identifying frauds and cautioning against bubbles. In effect, they protect the unsophisticated from predatory schemes that regulators and enforcement agencies don’t seem able to prevent.
Moreover, the short-seller who is fundamentally wrong, who mistakenly sells short an undervalued security, will lose money and, if the pattern continues, will eventually go broke. Short-sellers, like long-only buyers, need to be right more than they are wrong; when they are right, their actions are socially beneficial, not harmful. The only exception to this point, the only danger short-sellers pose to society, is when, in the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, they spread false rumors that prevent a company that needs regular financing (such as brokerage firms) from being funded. Then, their predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies, enabling them to profit, whether or not they were fundamentally correct; they may actually be able to change the outcome. Yet, even in this situation, one may wonder whether any company – or highly leveraged government, for that matter – should employ a funding model that depends on perpetual access to the capital markets, which are notoriously fickle, volatile, subject to the influence of malicious gossip, and short-term oriented. In any event, mechanisms such as the uptick rule and rules against market manipulation already exist to prevent such misbehavior by short-sellers.
A Framework for Investment Success
Two elements are vital in designing an investment approach for long-term success. First, answer the question, ”what’s your edge?” In highly competitive financial markets, with thousands of very smart, hardworking participants, what will enable you to reliably outperform the field? Your toolkit is critically important: truly long-term capital; a flexible approach that enables you to move opportunistically across a broad array of markets, securities, and asset classes; deep industry knowledge; strong sourcing relationships; and a solid grounding in value investing principles.
But because investing is, in many ways, a zero-sum activity in which your returns above the market indices are derived from the mistakes, overreactions or inattention of others as much as from your own clever insights, there is a second element in designing a sound investment approach: you must consider the competitive landscape and the behavior of other market participants. As in football, you are well-advised to take advantage of what your opponents give you: if they are defending the run, passing is probably your best option, even if you have a star running back. If scores of other investors are rigidly committed to fast-growing technology stocks, your brilliant tech analyst may not be able to help you outperform. If your competitors are not paying attention to, or indeed are dumping, Greek equities or U.S. housing debt, these asset classes may be worth your attention, regardless of the currently poor fundamentals that are driving others’ decisions. Where to best apply your focus and skills depends partially on where others are applying theirs.
When observing your competitors, your focus should be on their approach and process, not their results. Short-term performance envy causes many of the shortcomings that lock most investors into a perpetual cycle of underachievement. You should watch your competitors not out of jealousy, but out of respect, and focus your efforts not on replicating others’ portfolios, but on looking for opportunities where they are not.
Much of the investment business is centered around asset-gathering activities. In a field dominated by a short-term, relative performance orientation, significant underperformance is disastrous for retention of assets, while mediocre performance is not. Thus, because protracted periods of underperformance can threaten one’s business, most investment firms aim for assured, trend-following mediocrity while shunning the potential achievement of strong outperformance. The only way for investors to significantly outperform is to periodically stand far apart from the crowd, something few are willing or able to do.
In addition, most traditional investors are limited by a variety of constraints: narrow skill-sets, legal restrictions contained in investment prospectuses or partnership agreements, or psychological inhibitions. High-grade bond funds can only purchase investment-grade bonds; when a bond falls below BBB, they are typically forced to sell (or think that they should), regardless of price. When a mortgage security is downgraded because it will not return par to its holders, a large swath of potential purchasers will not even consider buying it, and many must purge it. When a company omits a cash dividend, some equity funds are obliged to sell that stock. And, of course, when a stock is deleted from an index, it must immediately be dumped by many. Sometimes, a drop in a stock’s price is reason enough for some holders to sell. Such behavior often creates supply-demand imbalances where bargains can be found. The dimly lit comers and crevasses existing outside of mainstream mandates may contain opportunity. Given that time is often an investor’s scarcest resource, filling one’s in-box with the most compelling potential opportunities that others are forced to or choose to sell (or are constrained from buying) makes great sense.
Price is perhaps the single most important criterion in sound investment decision making. Every security or asset is a “buy” at one price, a “hold” at a higher price, and a “sell” at some still higher price. Yet most investors in all asset classes love simplicity, rosy outlooks, and the prospect of smooth sailing. They prefer what is performing well to what has recently lagged, often regardless of price. They prefer full buildings and trophy properties to fixer-uppers that need to be filled, even though empty or unloved buildings may be the far more compelling, and even safer, investments. Because investors are not usually penalized for adhering to conventional practices, doing so is the less professionally risky strategy, even though it virtually guarantees against superior performance.
Finally, most investors feel compelled to be fully invested at all times – principally because evaluation of their performance is both frequent and relative. For them, it is almost as if investing were merely a game and no client’s hardearned money was at risk. To require full investment all the time is to remove an important tool from investors’ toolkits: the ability to wait patiently for compelling opportunities that may arise in the future. Moreover, an investor who is too worried about missing out on the upside of a potential investment may be exposing himself to substantial downside risk precisely when valuation is extended. A thoughtful investment approach focuses at least as much on risk as on return. But in the moment-by-moment frenzy of the markets, all the pressure is on generating returns, risk be damned.
What drives long-term investment success? In the Internet era, everyone has a voluminous amount of information but not everyone knows how to use it. A well-considered investment process – thoughtful, intellectually honest, teamoriented, and single-mindedly focused on making good investment decisions at every turn – can make all of the difference. Investors with short time horizons are oblivious to kernels of information that may influence investment outcomes years from now. Everyone can ask questions, but not everyone can identify the right questions to ask. Everyone searches for opportunity, but most look only where the searching is straightforward even if undeniably highly competitive.
In the markets of late 2008, everything was for sale as investors were caught in a contagion of selling due to panic, margin calls, and investor redemptions. Even while modeling very conservative scenarios, many securities could have been purchased at extremely attractive prices – if one had capital with which to buy them and the stamina to hold them in the face of falling prices. By late 2010, froth had returned to the markets, as investors with short-term relative performance orientations sought to keep up with the herd. Exuberant buying had replaced frenzied selling, as investors purchased securities offering limited returns even on far rosier economic assumptionss.
Most investors take comfort from calm, steadily rising markets; roiling markets can drive investor panic. But these conventional reactions are inverted. When all feels calm and prices surge, the markets may feel safe; but, in fact, they are dangerous because few investors are focusing on risk. When one feels in the pit of one’s stomach the fear that accompanies plunging market prices, risk-taking becomes considerably less risky, because risk is often priced into an asset’s lower market valuation. Investment success requires standing apart from the frenzy – the short-term, relative performance game played by most investors.
Investment success also requires remembering that securities prices are not blips on a Bloomberg terminal but are fractional interests in – or claims on – companies. Business fundamentals, not price quotations, convey useful information. With so many market participants fixated on short-term investment performance, successful investing requires a focus not on how one is doing, but on corporate balance sheets and income and cash flow statements.
Government interventions are a wild card for even the most disciplined investors. On one hand, the U.S. government has regularly intervened in markets for decades, especially by lowering interest rates at the first sign of bad economic news, which has the effect of artificially inflating securities prices. Today, monetary easing and fiscal stimulus augment consumer demand, increasing risks not only regarding the integrity and sustainability of securities prices but also those surrounding the sustainability of business results. It is hard for investors to get their bearings when they cannot readily distinguish durable business performance from ephemeral results. Endless manipulation of government statistics adds to the challenge of determining the sustainability – and therefore the proper valuation – of business performance. As securities prices are propped up and interest rates are manipulated sharply lower (thereby justifying those higher prices in the minds of many), prudent investors must demand a wide margin of safety. This is especially so because financial excesses contain the seeds of their own destruction. Market exuberance leads to business exuberance – production of more goods and services than demand ultimately justifies. Of course, when market and economic excesses are finally corrected, there is a tendency to over-shoot, creating low-risk opportunities for value investors who have remained patient and disciplined.
Yet another long-term risk confronts investors: the government’s fiscal and monetary experiments may go awry, resulting in runaway inflation or currency collapse. Bottom-up value investors would not wish to bet the ranch on a macroeconomic view, but neither would they be wise to ignore the macroeconomy altogether. Disaster hedging – always an important tool for investors – takes on heightened significance in today’s unprecedentedly challenging environment. Yet, as this insight is not unique to us, the cost of insurance is high. There are no easy ways to navigate these turbulent waters. But because the greatest risks are of currency debasement and runaway inflation, protection against a currency collapse – such as exposure to gold – and against much higher interest rates seem like necessary hedges to maintain.