The end of the world is a terribly bad bet but yet television pundits were out in force last week proclaiming the beginning of a bear market and perhaps the end of the world as we know it. The definition of a bear market is a market that is down 20% from its highs. At the S&P 500's lows last week the market was already down 15%. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict that the market has a 50/50 chance of going down another 5%.
The reason that the pundits are out and about screaming like Chicken Little is that they were not prepared for a move lower in asset prices. We, on the other hand, had lowered our equity allocations and raised our cash position. That way we were prepared to outperform given a sharp move lower while having excess cash to deploy given better valuations and cheaper assets. Being an asset manager is a lot like being in charge of buying the groceries. If one is in charge of buying the groceries you haven't done your job appropriately if when going to the grocery store and finding New York Strip marked down 15% you don't have any cash in your pocket.
We have been underweight equities and overweight cash for some time now seeing an overvaluation in asset prices. This overvaluation in asset prices coupled with the unintended negative consequences of the Federal Reserve's zero interest rate policy led us to surmise that a re-pricing of assets was in order. While underweight equities at that time we did not feel as though we would miss any truly outstanding returns.
Given stretched equity valuations it seemed far better for us to have some insurance in case markets headed lower. Markets go down far faster than they go up and any underperformance is quickly made up with an outsized cash position. Suffice to say 2016 has been a boon to relative performance if one was prepared for this correction in the markets.
Howard Marks' latest missive came across my desk this week and as my long time readers know I read everything from Mr. Marks that I can find. He is one of the great investing minds of our time and is kind enough to share his thoughts on investing. Mr. Marks has warned for some time that valuations were a bit rich by telling us to "move forward, but with caution". It is now that he sees better values. While not saying that now is THE time to buy he does mention that now may be A time to buy.
As I mentioned above, since the middle of 2011 - by which time the quest for return had resulted in rather full prices for debt, over-generous capital markets and pro-risk investor behavior - Oaktree's mantra has been "move forward, but with caution." We've felt it was right to invest in our markets, but also that our investments had to reflect a healthy dose of prudence.
Now, as discussed above, investors' optimism has deflated a bit, some negativity has come into the equation, and prices have moved lower. Depending importantly on which market we're talking about and how it has fared in recent months, we consider it appropriate to move forward with a little less caution. - Howard Marks
We have fielded a larger number of calls this week from concerned clients and we take our role as counselor seriously. Being in tune with one's emotions is probably the most important criteria for investing success. As a former specialist on the NYSE it was our job to be a provider of contra liquidity. That is to say it was our job to be buying when others were selling and selling when others were buying. It was a great training ground to understand one's own emotions and of the potential madness in crowds.
It trained me to have a contrarian viewpoint. When confronted with excessive buying or selling by market participants it naturally became an instinct to question the extreme nature of the emotions driving that buying or selling. It is not to say that the crowd was always wrong or that we do not feel the emotions of fear and greed. It is that we are keenly aware in that moment to be objective in our approach and to recognize when there is fear or panic in the sellers mind and act appropriately. By being aware of one's emotions one can more easily use others fear or greed to profit.
That's one of the crazy things: in the real world, things generally fluctuate between "pretty good" and "not so hot." But in the world of investing, perception often swings from "flawless" to "hopeless." The pendulum careens from one extreme to the other, spending almost no time at "the happy medium" and rather little in the range of reasonableness. First there's denial, and then there's capitulation. Howard Marks - Oaktree
The same concern seemed to be repeated one every client call this week. "Is this 2008 all over again?" Quite frankly, I don't believe so. I think that this situation is different. I think that most investors are suffering from recency bias. Recency bias is the tendency to think that trends and patterns that have happened in the recent past will occur again. Investors burned by the 50% downturn in the Internet Bubble of 2000 and the 50% downturn in the Housing Bubble of 2008 are afraid that we are at that same precipice again.
I do not have a crystal ball but I do not see the same excesses in current markets as I saw in 2000 and 2008 but I do see investors preparing for a coming storm. If investors are prepared then the storm effects will not be as bad as when they were not prepared in 2000 and 2008. Furthermore, it is our perception that there are overvaluations that need to be corrected but not bubble type excesses.
Even in the oil sector there were not bubble like valuations but just simply a misallocation of resources due to Federal Reserve zero interest rate policy. The negative implications of which have obviously come to pass. It also seems that while the bursting of the Housing Bubble in 2008 did bring us to the brink of a global meltdown that was mostly due to the weak balance sheets of US banks. That is no longer the issue that it was in 2008 as the Federal Reserve has made sure that bank balance sheets, at least here in the US, are much less vulnerable than they were in 2008.
So let's all back away from the ledge. It is not the end of the world as we know it. If we can understand our fear and use it to our advantage we will be better off for it in the long run. We are positioned appropriately and looking for that New York Strip to go on sale. We will continue to maintain albeit somewhat higher levels of cash as equity valuations continue to become more reasonable and put those dry powder funds to work. We think it will be prudent to avoid exposure to momentum stocks and continue to rotate into more reasonably valued shares.