Integrity Competence Prudence
‘Investing, When It Looks The Easiest, Is At Its Hardest’
Wise words from Baupost Group founder Seth Klarman latest newsletter courtesy of zerohedge website:
Most U.S. investors today have a clear opinion about what everyone else has no choice but to do. Which is to say, with bonds yielding next to nothing, the only way investors have a chance of earning a return is to buy stocks. Everyone knows this, and is counting on it to remain the case. While economist David Rosenberg at Gluskin Sheff believes government actions could be directly or indirectly responsible for as many as 500 points in the S&P 500, or 30% of its current valuation, traders have confidence in Ben Bernanke because betting that his policies will drive equities higher has been a profitable wager. Bernanke, likewise, is undoubtedly pleased with these speculators for abetting his goal of asset price inflation, though we all know that he will not call them first when he decides to reverse direction on QE. Then, the rush for the exits will be madness, as today’ s “clarity” will have dissolved, leaving only great uncertainty and probably significant losses.
Investing, when it looks the easiest, is at its hardest. When just about everyone heavily invested is doing well, it is hard for others to resist jumping in. But a market relentlessly rising in the face of challenging fundamentals–recession in Europe and Japan, slowdown in China, fiscal stalemate and high unemployment in the U.S.– is the riskiest environment of all.
Only a small number of investors maintain the fortitude and client confidence to pursue long-term investment success even at the price of short-term underperformance. Most investors feel the hefty weight of short-term performance expectations, forcing them to take up marginal or highly speculative investments that we shun. When markets are rising, such investments may perform well, which means that our unwavering patience and discipline sometimes impairs our results and makes us appear overly cautious. The payoff from a risk-averse, long-term orientation is–just that–long term. It is measurable only over the span of many years, over one or more market cycles.
Our willingness to invest amidst failing markets is the best way we know to build positions at great prices, but this strategy, too, can cause short-term underperformance. Buying as prices are falling can look stupid until sellers are exhausted and buyers who held back cannot effectively deploy capital except at much higher prices. Our resolve in holding cash balances–sometimes very large ones–absent compelling opportunity is another potential performance drag.
But we know that in a world in which being anti-fragile is good, what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. Short-term underperforrnance doesn’t trouble us; indeed, because it is the price that must sometimes be paid for longer-term outperformance, it doesn’t even enter into our list of concerns. Patience and discipline can make you look foolishly out of touch until they make you look prudent and even prescient. Holding significant, low or even zero-yielding cash can seem ridiculous until you are one of the few with buying power amidst a sudden downdraft. Avoiding leverage may seem overly conservative until it becomes the only sane course. Concentrating your portfolio in the most compelling opportunities and avoiding over diversification for its own sake may sometimes lead to short-term underperformance, but eventually it pays off in outperformance.