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Kevin Byun on Equity Market Folly, Dangers of Protectionism, and 'Mr. Magoo' Pretenders

Kevin Byun, Denali InvestorsH. Kevin Byun, managing partner of Denali Investors, provides some enlightening commentary in his just-released Q1 letter to investors. Byun argues that the equity market is behaving as irrationally on the upside today as it did on the downside in late 2008 and early 2009. He attributes some of the recently exuberant action to so-called "Mr. Magoo pretenders" who suffered big losses in 2008 and may still be chasing their high watermarks. In a quest to recoup losses and get paid, Messieurs Magoo appear content to gamble with their investors' capital, risking disaster yet again. Byun also discusses his concerns surrounding the recent rise of protectionism.

Download Byun's Q1 letter or keep reading his market commentary here:

The first quarter of 2010 has been marked by a continued upward creep in the markets, in stark contrast to recent fear and dislocation. From the lows reached far back in March, when the S&P broke to 667, we have seen a rally of over 75%.

2010, as it turns out, is a make-or-break year for many funds. The severe drawdown in 2008 and massive run-up in 2009 showed once again that it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally. With many funds still below high water marks, their urgency for near-term performance in 2010 is greatly magnified. How can these fund managers properly invest with a long-term view when a short-term sword of Damocles hangs precariously above? Can these Mr. Magoo pretenders make it another year? And so career risk, business risk, and behavioral finance, rather than the best interests of their investors, comes to the fore.

With 2010 shaping up to be another interesting year, my view remains that the potential big-picture range and probability of outcomes have widened considerably, although the expected value or average represented through the market may appear narrow. With all the dislocations, machinations, and interventions, the potential energy in the markets is building once again. Exactly how and when the kinetic shifts occur remain an unknown, but the set up to dramatic changes appears to be in place. Expect the water to be choppy.

One related area that has become a topic of increasing attention, just to pick one out of the hat, is that of exchange rates, namely the call coming from some corners for China to let their currency float. From my perspective, it is not analytically prudent to draw a line in the sand on the issue due to the tricky and ever present law of unintended consequences. There are many interpretations even for concepts far simpler than floating and fixed rate frameworks, but let’s venture through. Regarding these unintended consequences, I would like to humbly present the following words as food for thought.

I often see politicians on the news putting the issue in binary terms, as right versus wrong, as good versus bad, as us versus them. This may prove to be a great disservice. Indeed, our country has outsourced many jobs, and low level ones at that. But this means we have also outsourced our unemployment and social unrest. Can you imagine what our unemployment number would look like if the capital base and employee base that supplies our goods just from China were simply put inside the US? Would it surprise you that this would approach Great Depression numbers? The migrant workers and unemployed masses of the Great Depression actually do exist today. But it simply goes unnoticed here because that too has been outsourced!

Conversely, what I have never seen a politician ever mention in the exchange rate debate is the likely resulting inflation. Why not? The average person is already stretched and living paycheck to paycheck. The group that will be impacted the most, which is that same group to which politicians pander, will find costs for basic items moving further out of range. Does it make sense that twenty pairs of tube socks from China are available for $8 retail? For every dollar prices for these tube socks move up to reflect true domestic and rate adjusted costs, a dollar less is available for other necessities. Such limited financial resources create an increasingly desperate zero sum game. Do I buy food or do I buy school supplies for the kids? If exchange rates do float and there is inflation, what will be the call to action then? Who will be the scapegoat? This may result in further finger pointing and a resurgence of social unrest, trade tariffs, trade barriers, and protectionism. This will be part of a negative reflexive process that may have much more severe and unfortunate consequences. But no one is talking about that.

If you are intellectually honest, you have to admit this is not a simple scenario to figure out for which this discussion barely scratches the surface and does not do justice.

As such, I present the following parable not as an answer, but as a surprisingly liberating approach for the analytical mind. It is a story my father told me a long time ago.

“Seh-Ong Ji Ma”
(Seh-Ong’s Wise Horse)

There was a farmer named Seh-Ong that had a beautiful and strong horse. The neighbors complimented, “You are so lucky to have such a beautiful and strong horse.” The farmer replied, “We’ll see.”

Days later, the horse ran away from the farm and could not be found. The neighbors wailed, “You are so unlucky to have lost such a beautiful and strong horse.” The farmer replied, “We’ll see.”

Days later, the farmer’s horse returned, but had brought back seven other wild horses that were equally beautiful and strong. The neighbors complimented, “You are so lucky to have so many beautiful and strong horses.” The farmer replied, “We’ll see.”

Days later, the farmer’s son was attempting to train one of the wild horses, fell off the horse, and broke his leg. The neighbors wailed, “You are so unlucky to have your son break his leg.” The farmer replied, “We’ll see.”

Days later, the king’s army came through to take all the able-bodied young men for war. The neighbors complimented, “You are so lucky to have your son spared from the war.”

The farmer replied, “We’ll see.”

For me, this is one of the most powerful, simple, and elegant lessons of life and, therefore, investing.

Read Kevin Byun's Q1 2010 Denali Investors letter.

Download Kevin's 2009 presentation at Columbia Business School.

Read an excerpt of our exclusive interview with Kevin.

Disclosure: No positions