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Oaktree’s Howard Marks on Market Valuation, Devil, Gold and how Low Risk with his personal Money

On a day where the market hit a new high, we turn to Howard Marks, chairman of Oaktree Capital (OAK), who I believe is one of the great writers in the wealth management space.

Devil and Angel:

If I ask you what’s the risk in investing, you would answer the risk of losing money. But there actually are two risks in investing: One is to lose money and the other is to miss opportunity. You can eliminate either one, but you can’t eliminate both at the same time. So the question is how you’re going to position yourself versus these two risks: straight down the middle, more aggressive or more defensive. I think of it like a comedy movie where a guy is considering some activity. On his right shoulder is sitting an angel in a white robe. He says: «No, don’t do it! It’s not prudent, it’s not a good idea, it’s not proper and you’ll get in trouble». On the other shoulder is the devil in a red robe with his pitchfork. He whispers: «Do it, you’ll get rich». In the end, the devil usually wins. Caution, maturity and doing the right thing are old-fashioned ideas. And when they do battle against the desire to get rich, other than in panic times the desire to get rich usually wins. That’s why bubbles are created and frauds like Bernie Madoff get money.

The warning flags we should all have:

There are two main things to watch: valuation and behavior. A great thing about investing is that you have historic valuation standards. You should be aware of them, but you shouldn’t be a slave to them.  You can compare the current P/E ratio to historic standards and see that the current P/E ratio is about fair relative to history. So valuations are moderate to a little expensive in most areas.

Looking at investor behavior, you can ask yourself: Is everybody at the club, on the train or in the office talking about stocks? Is everybody having fun and making easy money? Is everybody saying «even though the market has doubled, I’m going to put more money in»? Is every deal sold out? Is every fund sold out? In other words: Is the party rolling? And if that’s the case, then you should be very cautious. It’s like Warren Buffett says in one of my favorite quotes: «The less prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own affairs».

What people think causal may not be the case:

One thing you can never be sure of in the investment world is «if A, then B».  Processes and linkages are not always predictable.

There is no intelligent way to invest in Gold:

A professional tries to invest by looking at a company and figuring out how much money it makes and how much money it is going to make in the future. Then he figures out what this company is worth and compares the current price to that value.

But you can’t figure out what gold is worth. It doesn’t really have much practical use and it doesn’t produce income. You might say: Gold (Gold 1327.6 -0.28%) is a good buy because it’s a store of value, it protects against inflation, and it gives comfort in times of panic. So you argue that’s a good reason to buy gold today at $1300. But the trouble is that all those things were also truth when it was at $1900, and the person who bought it there has lost a third of his money.

Therefore, you can’t invest intelligently in gold. There is no way to translate those virtues into a dollar figure. By the way: If you take the word «gold» and you take away the letter «l» then you have god. And it’s the same analysis: Either you believe in it or you don’t.

On Oaktree’s mantra and possibly the Value Investing Mantra – Avoiding the losers more than picking the winners:

First of all, unlike in investing, there’s not that much luck in tennis. A pro like Roger Federer knows exactly where the ball is going to go when he moves his shoulder, his elbow, his hip and his legs in a certain way. But in investing that’s not true. Outcomes aren’t fully predictable or dependable. And there’s more: When Federer plays he tries to hit winners. If he does not hit a winner and gives an easy return, Nadal will stuff it down his throat.

But when you and I play together, I don’t have to try to hit winners. I can beat you by not hitting losers. I’m just going to keep the ball in play. I put it every time back knowing that if I can do it twenty times you’re finally going to hit the ball into the net or off the court. So I don’t have to hit a winner. I only have to avoid hitting a loser.

And that’s our motto at Oaktree Capital, too. We want to make a large number of competent investments and have none of them to blow up. And if we avoid the losers, the winners take care of themselves.

His personal portfolio return target is only 6%:

Before the crisis, I used Treasuries for virtually all my money that was not invested in Oaktree. That allowed me to get a return of around 6% with total safety.

[ In the end the Devil usually wins| Finanz and Wirtschaft]

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