There They Go Again…Again – Howard Marks Memo

Some of the memos I’m happiest about having written came at times when bullish trends went too far, risk aversion disappeared and bubbles inflated. The first and best example is probably “bubble.com,” which raised questions about Internet and e-commerce stocks on the first business day of 2000. As I tell it, after ten years without a single response, that one made my memo writing an overnight success.

Another was “The Race to the Bottom” (February 2007), which talked about the mindless shouldering of risk that takes place when investors are eager to put money to work. Both of those memos raised doubts about investment trends that soon turned out to have been big mistakes.

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Those are only two of the many cautionary memos I’ve written over the years. In the last cycle, they started coming two years before “The Race to the Bottom” and included “There They Go Again” (the inspiration for this memo’s title), “Hindsight First, Please,” “Everyone Knows” and “It’s All Good.” When I wrote them, they appeared to be wrong for a while. It took time before they were shown to have been right, and just too early.

The memos that have raised yellow flags in the current up-cycle, starting with “How Quickly They Forget” in 2011 and including “On Uncertain Ground,” “Ditto,” and “The Race Is On,” also clearly were early, but so far they’re not right (and in fact, when you’re early by six or more years, it’s not clear you can ever be described as having been right). Since I’ve written so many cautionary memos, you might conclude that I’m just a born worrier who eventually is made to be right by the operation of the cycle, as is inevitable given enough time. I absolutely cannot disprove that interpretation. But my response would be that it’s essential to take note when sentiment (and thus market behavior) crosses into too-bullish territory, even though we know rising trends may well roll on for some time, and thus that such warnings are often premature. I think it’s better to turn cautious too soon (and thus perhaps underperform for a while) rather than too late, after the downslide has begun, making it hard to trim risk, achieve exits and cut losses.

Since I’m convinced “they” are at it again – engaging in willing risk-taking, funding risky deals and creating risky market conditions – it’s time for yet another cautionary memo. Too soon? I hope so; we’d rather make money for our clients in the next year or two than see the kind of bust that gives rise to bargains. (We all want there to be bargains, but no one’s eager to endure the price declines that create them.) Since we never know when risky behavior will bring on a market correction, I’m going to issue a warning today rather than wait until one is upon us.

I’m in the process of writing another book, going into great depth regarding one of the most important things discussed in my book The Most Important Thing: cycles, their causes, and what to do about them. It will be out next year, but this memo will give you a preview regarding one of the most important cyclical phenomena.

Before starting in, I want to apologize for the length of this memo, almost double the norm. First, the topic is wide-ranging – so much so that when I sat down to write, I found the task daunting. Second, my recent vacation gave me the luxury of time for writing. Believe it or not, I’ve cut what I could. I think what remains is essential.

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