"It is a bad sign for the market when all the bears give up. If no-one is left to be converted, it usually means no-one is left to buy.” The extraordinarily low level of "bearish" outlooks combined with extreme levels of complacency within the financial markets has historically been a "poor cocktail" for future investment success.
History teaches clear lessons about how this episode will end – namely with a decline that wipes out years and years of prior market returns. The fact that few investors – in aggregate – will get out is simply a matter of arithmetic and equilibrium. The best that investors can hope for is that someone else will be found to hold the bag, but that requires success at what I’ll call the Exit Rule for Bubbles: you only get out if you panic before everyone else does. Look at it as a game of musical chairs with a progressively contracting number of greater fools.
Volatility is the academic's choice for defining and measuring risk; but Oaktree Capital's Howard Marks warns Bloomberg TV's Stephanie Ruhle that "while volatility is quantifiable and machinable... it falls far short as 'the' definition of investment risk." In fact, he berates, "I don't think most investors fear volatility. In fact, I've never heard anyone say, 'The prospective return isn't high enough to warrant bearing all that volatility.' What they fear is the possibility of permanent loss." With $91 billion under management, perhaps it's worth listening to (and reading) his perspective: "In brief, if riskier investments could be counted on to produce higher returns, they wouldn’t be riskier. Misplaced reliance on the benefits of risk bearing has led investors to some very unpleasant surprises."
This past week has seen the market repeatedly attempt new "all-time" highs only to be found wanting. There has been plenty of headline data for the "bulls" to feast on from the ECB announcing a program to buy bonds, surging ISM data and improvement in productivity. However, the underlying data has kept the "bears" in the game with new orders and employment showing weakness, unit labor costs shrinking and the realization that the ECB's plans are likely be ineffectual.
The current elevation in asset prices is clearly beginning to reach levels of exuberance particularly in high yield "junk" bonds (and small caps). This time, like every other time before, will eventually end the same. However, while this time "is not different" in terms of outcome, the fundamental level from which the eventual "reversion to the mean" occurs will likely surprise most of the mainstream "bullish" clergy. Take a step back from the media, and Wall Street commentary, for a moment and make an honest assessment of the financial markets today. If your job is to "bet" when the "odds" of winning are in our favor, then exactly how "strong" is the fundamental hand you are currently betting on? (and are you willing toi bet your retirement on it?)
Cognitive biases are an anathema to portfolio management as it impairs our ability to remain emotionally disconnected from our money. As history all too clearly shows, investors always do the "opposite" of what they should when it comes to investing their own money. They "buy high" as the emotion of "greed" overtakes logic and "sell low" as "fear" impairs the decision making process. Here are 5 of the most insidious biases that will keep you from achieving your long term investment goals. As individuals, we are investing our hard earned "savings" into the Wall Street casino. Our job is to "bet" when the "odds" of winning are in our favor. With interest rates at abnormally low levels, inflation rising, economic data continuing the "muddle" through and the Federal Reserve extracting their support; exactly how "strong" is that hand you are betting on?
Echoing Charlie Munger, Oaktree's Howard Marks warns today's institutional and retail investors that "everything that’s important in investing is counterintuitive, and everything that’s obvious is wrong." These words seem critically important at a time when the world and his pet rabbit is a self-proclaimed stock-picking export. Be "uncomfortably idiosyncratic," Marks advises, noting thaty most great investments begin in discomfort as "non-conformists don’t enjoy the warmth that comes with being at the center of the herd." Dare to be different is his message, "dare to be wrong," or as Charlie Munger told him, "it’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid." While Marks philosophically adds that "being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong," he warns the lulled masses that "you can’t take the same actions as everyone else and expect to outperform."
The market has had a rough start of the year flipping between positive and negative year-to-date returns. However, despite all of the recent turmoil from an emerging markets scare, concerns over how soon the Fed will start to hike interest rates and signs of deterioration in the underlying technical foundations of the market, investors remain extremely optimistic about their investments. It is, of course, at these times that investors should start to become more cautious about the risk they undertake. Unfortunately, the "greed factor," combined with the ever bullish Wall Street "buy and hold so I can charge you a fee" advice, often deafens the voice of common sense. "Not surprisingly, lessons learned in 2008 were only learned temporarily. These are the inevitable cycles of greed and fear, of peaks and troughs."
Howard Marks once wrote that being a "contrarian" is a lonely profession. However, as investors, it is the downside that is far more damaging to our financial health than potentially missing out on a short term opportunity. Opportunities come and go, but replacing lost capital is a difficult and time consuming proposition. So, the question that we will "ponder" this weekend is whether the current consolidation is another in a long series of "buy the dip" opportunities, or does "something wicked this way come?" Here are some "words of caution" worth considering in trying to answer that question.
A month ago we presented a must read interview by Swiss Finanz und Wirtschaft with respected value investor Howard Marks, in which, when explaining the motives driving rational investing he summarized simply, "in the end, the devil always wins." Today, we are happy to bring our readers the following interview with one of our favorite strategists, GMO's James Montier, in which true to form, Montier packs no punches, and says that the market is now overvalued by 50% to 70%, adding that there is "nothing at all" that has an attractive valuation, and that he sees a "hideous opportunity set."
As Bill Clinton once famously stated; "What is....is" and while the current market "IS" within a bullish trend currently, it doesn't mean that this will always be the case. This is why, as investors, we must modify Clinton's line to: "What is...is...until it isn't." That thought is the foundation of this weekend's "Things To Ponder." In order to recognize when market dynamics have changed for the worse, we must be aware of the risks that are currently mounting.
Jefferies, Deutsche Bank, and now Citi and JPMorgan are all facing a collapse in trading volumes as Bloomberg reports the two banks brace for a fourth straight drop in first-quarter trading revenues - a period of the year when the largest investment banks typically earn the most from that business. “It sounds like more bloodletting on Wall Street,” warns one analyst, as Citi expects trading revenue to drop by a “high mid-teens” percentage.
"If I ask you what’s the risk in investing, you would answer the risk of losing money. But there actually are two risks in investing: One is to lose money and the other is to miss opportunity. You can eliminate either one, but you can’t eliminate both at the same time. So the question is how you’re going to position yourself versus these two risks: straight down the middle, more aggressive or more defensive. I think of it like a comedy movie where a guy is considering some activity. On his right shoulder is sitting an angel in a white robe. He says: «No, don’t do it! It’s not prudent, it’s not a good idea, it’s not proper and you’ll get in trouble». On the other shoulder is the devil in a red robe with his pitchfork. He whispers: «Do it, you’ll get rich». In the end, the devil usually wins. Caution, maturity and doing the right thing are old-fashioned ideas. And when they do battle against the desire to get rich, other than in panic times the desire to get rich usually wins. That’s why bubbles are created and frauds like Bernie Madoff get money." - Howard Marks
With the market more bullishly positioned, more euphoric, and more levered than almost any time in history, it is perhaps worth "pondering" what some of the risks to this optimism could be...