In this memo Howard Marks builds on the content of the 2014 memo, “Risk Revisited,” which itself followed on from “Risk,” published in January 2006.  This new memo has been prepared for inclusion in a book of memos covering Oaktree’s second decade (2005-2015) that will be distributed to Oaktree clients this fall.

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Howard Marks Memo: Risk Revisted Again

Memo to: Oaktree Clients

From: Howard Marks

Re: Risk Revisited Again

H/T Zach Kouwe 

In April 2014, I had good results with Dare to Be Great II, starting from the base established in an earlier memo (Dare to Be Great, September 2006) and adding new thoughts that had occurred to me in the intervening years. Also in 2006 I wrote Risk, my first memo devoted entirely to this key subject. My thinking continued to develop, causing me to dedicate three chapters to risk among the twenty in my book The Most Important Thing. This memo adds to what I’ve previously written on the topic. What Risk Really Means In the 2006 memo and in the book, I argued against the purported identity between volatility and risk. Volatility is the academic’s choice for defining and measuring risk. I think this is the case largely because volatility is quantifiable and thus usable in the calculations and models of modern finance theory. In the book I called it “machinable,” and there is no substitute for the purposes of the calculations.

However, while volatility is quantifiable and machinable – and can be an indicator or symptom of riskiness and even a specific form of risk – I think it falls far short as “the” definition of investment risk. In thinking about risk, we want to identify the thing that investors worry about and thus demand compensation for bearing. I don’t think most investors fear volatility. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say, “The prospective return isn’t high enough to warrant bearing all that volatility.” What they fear is the possibility of permanent loss.

Permanent loss is very different from volatility or fluctuation. A downward fluctuation – which by definition is temporary – doesn’t present a big problem if the investor is able to hold on and come out the other side. A permanent loss – from which there won’t be a rebound – can occur for either of two reasons: (a) an otherwise-temporary dip is locked in when the investor sells during a downswing – whether because of a loss of conviction; requirements stemming from his timeframe; financial exigency; or emotional pressures, or (b) the investment itself is unable to recover for fundamental reasons. We can ride out volatility, but we never get a chance to undo a permanent loss.

Of course, the problem with defining risk as the possibility of permanent loss is that it lacks the very thing volatility offers: quantifiability. The probability of loss is no more measurable than the probability of rain. It can be modeled, and it can be estimated (and by experts pretty well), but it cannot be known.

In Dare to Be Great II, I described the time I spent advising a sovereign wealth fund about how to organize for the next thirty years. My presentation was built significantly around my conviction that risk can’t be quantified a priori. Another of their advisors, a professor from a business school north of New York, insisted it can. This is something I prefer not to debate, especially with people who’re sure they have the answer but haven’t bet much money on it.

One of the things the professor was sure could be quantified was the maximum a portfolio could fall under adverse circumstances. But how can this be so if we don’t know how adverse circumstances can be or how they will influence returns? We might say “the market probably won’t fall more than x% as long as things aren’t worse than y and z,” but how can an absolute limit be specified? I wonder if the professor had anticipated that the S&P 500 could fall 57% in the global crisis.

While writing the original memo on risk in 2006, an important thought came to me for the first time. Forget about a priori; if you define risk as anything other than volatility, it can’t be measured even after the fact. If you buy something for $10 and sell it a year later for $20, was it risky or not? The novice would say the profit proves it was safe, while the academic would say it was clearly risky, since the only way to make 100% in a year is by taking a lot of risk. I’d say it might have been a brilliant, safe investment that was sure to double or a risky dart throw that got lucky.

Howard marks Risk

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