Seth Klarman: A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm
This is from 2005. In case you haven’t read it yet, below is an excerpt followed by a link to the full PDF
A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm by Seth Klarman
Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.
Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.
If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.
One of the biggest trends in recent years, indexing, emanates directly from a belief in market efficiency. If the markets are efficient, why try to outperform? Paying minimal commissions and minuscule management fees puts investors two steps ahead of everyone else. Reasonable enough if the market is efficient, but what if it is not?
Decades after market efficiency was first hypothesized, there remains little apparent interest among academics in seriously challenging the theory’s precepts. Dozens of professional investors, running value-oriented mutual funds and hedge funds, have achieved stellar records of market outperformance, many with considerably less volatility than the market as a whole. It seems obvious that these professional investors should be carefully studied in order to develop a true and complete understanding of how the stock market works. Are they simply lucky? Are they incurring hidden risks that explain their returns? Or are there systemic factors that enable some investors to reliably outperform? Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the country, is a value investor; he built his net worth gradually over nearly fifty years of successful investing. Moreover, his net worth continues to grow handsomely. Yet his record is explained away by academics as aberrational! Rather than studying Buffett exhaustively to see what lessons could be learned, academics cling desperately to their faulty theories.
It turns out that this inflexibility of thinking is nothing new. I am intrigued by the observations of a brilliant man who probably would have been an exceptional value investor had he not had something more important to do one century ago. This man was Wilbur Wright, whose aeronautical accomplishments are recounted in James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air.3 Wright contrasted his family’s hands-on approach to learning to fly with the more cerebral efforts of Samuel Pierpont Langley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian in that era, who was generally considered the Wright brothers’ most formidable domestic competitor in manned flight.4 Wright compared man’s first steps toward flight with the more ordinary challenge of riding a horse. He declared:
There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trials.