Howard Marks Oaktree Client Memo, November 2013

Howard Marks is famous among many investors for his Client Memos as the chairman and cofounder of Oaktree Capital Management. He even weaved many of the older ones into a book, which I read and reviewed. I now try to read every one that comes out. Here’s the most recent client memo dated November 26th, 2013 [pdf]. Below are a few selected excerpts. First, a quick lesson on risk aversion:

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.

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.

What about now? Marks does see an increase in risk tolerance recently. But how bad is it?

A rise in risk tolerance is something that should get your attention and focus your concentration. But for it to be highly worrisome, it has to be accompanied by extended valuations. I don’t think we’re there yet. 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.

Low interest rates are driving people a bit nuts. This is also a reminder not to reach for yields in the form of risky bonds or bond-like instruments when you wouldn’t think of it otherwise.

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