In his letter to investors, Seth Klarman noted that “most” investors are downplaying risk and this “never turns out well,” noting that most people are not prepared for anything bad to happen. “No one can know what the future holds, but any year in which the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX) jumps 32% and the NASDAQ Composite (INDEXNASDAQ:.IXIC) 40% while corporate earnings barely increase should be cause for concern, not further exuberance,” Seth Klarman’s investor letter said. “It might not look like it now, but markets don’t exist simply to enrich people.”
Noting that stock markets have risk and are not guaranteed investments may seem like an obvious notation, but against today’s backdrop of never before witnessed manipulated markets Seth Klarman sagely notes “Someday, financial markets will again decline. Someday, rising stock and bond markets will no longer be government policy. Someday, QE will end and money won’t be free. Someday, corporate failure will be permitted. Someday, the economy will turn down again, and someday, somewhere, somehow, investors will lose money and once again come to favor capital preservation over speculation. Someday, interest rates will be higher, bond prices lower, and the prospective return from owning fixed-income instruments will again be roughly commensurate with the risk.”
When will this happen? “Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday,” he writes, then starts to consider what a collapse might look like. “When the markets reverse, everything investors thought they knew will be turned upside down and inside out. ‘Buy the dips’ will be replaced with ‘what was I thinking?’ Just when investors become convinced that it can’t get any worse, it will. They will be painfully reminded of why it’s always a good time to be risk-averse, and that the pain of investment loss is considerably more unpleasant than the pleasure from any gain. They will be reminded that it’s easier to buy than to sell, and that in bear markets, all to many investments turn into roach motels: ‘You can get in but you can’t get out.’ Correlations of otherwise uncorrelated investments will temporarily be extremely high. Investors in bear markets are always tested and retested. Anyone who is poorly positioned and ill-prepared will find there’s a long way to fall. Few, if any, will escape unscathed.”
Seth Klarman’s focus on Fed
Seth Klarman then once again turned his sharp rhetorical knife to the academics that run the US Federal Reserve who seem to think that controlling free markets is a matter of communications policy.
“The Fed, in its ongoing attempt to tamp down market volatility as much as possible decided in 2013 that its real problem was communication,” Seth Klarman dryly wrote. “If only it could find a way to communicate to the financial markets the clarity and predictability of policy actions, it could be even more effective in its machinations. No longer would markets react abruptly to Fed pronouncements. Investors and markets would be tamed.” The Fed has been harshly criticized by professional traders for its lack of understanding of real world market mechanics.
This lack of understanding is a concern given that the Fed is taking the economy into uncharted territory with unprecedented stimulus. “As experienced travelers who watch the markets and the Fed with considerable skepticism (and occasional amusement), we can assure you that the Fed’s itinerary is bound to be exceptional, each stop more exciting than the one before,” Seth Klarman wrote, sounding a common theme among professional market watchers. “Weather can suddenly turn foul, the navigation faulty, and the deckhands hard to understand. In short, the Fed captain and crew are proficient in theory but lack real world experience. This is an adventure into unexplored terrain, to parts unknown; the Fed has no map, because no one has ever been here before. Most such journeys end badly.”
While the mainstream media is loaded with flattering articles of the Fed’s brilliance in quantitative easing and its stimulus program, the real beneficiaries of such a policy are the largest banks. Here Seth Klarman notes they have placed the economy at great risk without achieving much reward. “Before 2009, the Fed had never bought a single mortgage bond in its nearly 100-year history,” Seth Klarman writes of the key component of the Fed’s policy that took risky assets off the bank’s balance sheets. “By 2013, the Fed was by far the largest holder of those bonds, holding over $4 trillion and counting. For that hefty sum, GDP was apparently raised as little as 25 basis points in the aggregate. In other words, the policy has been a near-total failure. Bernanke is left arguing that some action was better than none. QE in effect, had become Wall Street’s new ‘too big to fail’ policy.”
Seth Klarman: What do economists know?
There has been considerable discussion that the academic side of the economics profession has little clue how markets really work. Economic academics, who now make up the majority of the Fed governors, often look at the world from the standpoint of a game of chess, where one can explore different options and there is now a “right” or “wrong” approach to market manipulation.
“The 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics was shared by three academics: two were proponents of the efficient market hypothesis and the third was a behavioral economist, who believes in market inefficiency,” Seth Klarman wrote. “We suppose that could be considered a hedged position for the awards committee, one that would never occur in the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, where a prize shared among three with divergent views would be an embarrassing mistake or a bad joke. While a Nobel Prize might well be the culmination of a life’s work, shouldn’t the work accurately describe the real world?”
Another interesting insight on the topic was to come from David Rosenberg, Chief Economist and Strategist at GluskinSheff, who recently wondered “[A]m I the only one to find some humour, if not irony, in the fact that the three U.S. economists who won the Nobel Prize for Economics did so because they ‘laid the foundation for the current understanding of asset prices’ at the same time that these asset prices are being determined less today by market-determined forces but rather by the distorting effects of the unprecedented central bank manipulation?”
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