“Now we’re seeing another upswing in risky behavior. It began surprisingly soon after the crisis, spurred on by central bank policies that depressed the return on safe investments.” Howard Marks

“Howard Marks and his firm Oaktree Capital largely avoided the financial crisis and were aggressive buyers of distressed assets in the aftermath; earning strong returns for their investors. In other words, Mr. Marks has gained his views from successful market participation over a long period of time. There are two key points Mr. Marks makes that I would like to highlight: 1) he makes clear that the Fed has coerced investors into riskier investment behavior; higher risk tolerance (just like I and others believe the Fed did in the pre-crisis period), and 2) he also makes clear that investment risk (and therefore the financial crisis) did not come from companies and securities and fraud as the government contends, but from capital markets cycles ”that always repeat”, where market participants become too risk-tolerant and drive prices too high relative to fundamentals.” Mike Perry, former Chairman and CEO, IndyMac Bank

“Where does investment risk come from? Not, in my view, primarily from companies, securities – pieces of paper – or institutions such as exchanges. No, in my view the greatest risk comes from prices that are too high relative to fundamentals. And how do prices get too high? Mainly because the actions of market participants take them there.” Howard Marks

Other Excerpts from Howard Marks’ November 2013 Letter to Oaktree Clients:

“Now we’re seeing another upswing in risky behavior. It began surprisingly soon after the crisis (see Warning Flags, May 2010), spurred on by central bank policies that depressed the return on safe investments. It has gathered steam ever since, but not to anywhere near the same degree as in 2006-07.

As I’ve said before, most people are aware of these uncertainties. Unlike the smugness, complacency and obliviousness of the pre-crisis years, today few people are as confident as they used to be about their ability to predict the future, or as certain that it will be rosy. Nevertheless, many investors are accepting (or maybe pursuing) increased risk.

The reason, of course, is that they feel they have to. The actions of the central banks to lower interest rates to stimulate economies have made this a low-return world. This has caused investors to move out on the risk curve in pursuit of the returns they want or need. Investors who used to get 6% from Treasurys have turned to high yield bonds for such a return, and so forth.

Movement up the risk curve brings cash inflows to riskier markets. Those cash inflows increase demand, cause prices to rise, enhance short-term returns, and contribute to the pro-risk behavior described above. Through this process, the race to the bottom is renewed.

In short, it’s my belief that when investors take on added risks – whether because of increased optimism or because they’re coerced to do so (as now) – they often forget to apply the caution they should. That’s bad for them. But if we’re not cognizant of the implications, it can also be bad for the rest of us.

Where does investment risk come from? Not, in my view, primarily from companies, securities – pieces of paper – or institutions such as exchanges. No, in my view the greatest risk comes from prices that are too high relative to fundamentals. And how do prices get too high? Mainly because the actions of market participants take them there.

Among the many pendulums that swing in the investments world – such as between fear and greed, and between depression and euphoria – one of the most important is the swing between risk aversion and risk tolerance.

Risk aversion is the essential element in sane markets. People are supposed to prefer safety over uncertainty, all other things being equal. When investors are sufficiently risk averse, they’ll (a) approach risky investments with caution and skepticism, (b) perform thorough due diligence, incorporating conservative assumptions, and (c) demand healthy incremental return as compensation for accepting incremental risk. This sort of behavior makes the market a relatively safe place.

But when investors drop their risk aversion and become risk-tolerant instead, they turn bold and trusting, fail to do as much due diligence, base their analysis on aggressive assumptions, and forget to demand adequate risk premiums as a reward for bearing increased risk. The result is a more dangerous world where asset prices are higher, prospective returns are lower, risk is elevated, the quality and safety of new issues deteriorates, and the premium for bearing risk is insufficient.

It’s one of my first principles that we never know where we’re going – given the unreliability of macro forecasting – but we ought to know where we are. “Where we are” means what the temperature of the market is: Are investors risk-averse or risk-tolerant? Are they behaving cautiously or aggressively? And thus is the market a safe place or a risky one?

Certainly risk tolerance has been increasing of late; high returns on risky assets have encouraged more of the same; and the markets are becoming more heated. The bottom line varies from sector to sector, but I have no doubt that markets are riskier than at any other time since the depths of the crisis in late 2008 (for credit) or early 2009 (for equities), and they are becoming more so.

I think most asset classes are priced fully – in many cases on the high side of fair – but not at bubble-type highs. Of course the exception is bonds in general, which the central banks are supporting at yields near all-time lows, meaning prices near all-time highs. But I don’t find them scary (unless their duration is long), since – if the issuers prove to be money-good – they’ll eventually pay off at par, erasing the interim mark-downs that will come when interest rates rise.

Here’s my conclusion from The Race to the Bottom. I’ll let it stand – another case of “ditto.”

. . . there’s a race to the bottom going on, reflecting a widespread reduction in the level of prudence on the part of investors and capital providers. No one can prove at this point that those who participate will be punished, or that their long-run performance won’t exceed that of the naysayers. But that is the usual pattern.”

Howard Marks to Oaktree Clients – The Race Is On

Posted on December 2, 2013, in Postings. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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