Some years ago Seth Klarman gave a fantastic speech at the MIT Sloan Investment Management Club. During his speech Klarman suggested that the mainstream approach to investing has is backwards saying:
“Right at the core, the mainstream has it backwards. Warren Buffett often quips that the first rule of investing is to not lose money, and the second rule is to not forget the first rule. Yet few investors approach the world with such a strict standard of risk avoidance. For 25 years, my firm has strived to not lose money—successfully for 24 of those 25 years—and, by investing cautiously and not losing, ample returns have been generated. Had we strived to generate high returns, I am certain that we would have allowed excessive risk into the portfolio—and with risk comes losses.”
He went on to discuss how you can successfully exploit opportunities by remaining calm, cautious and focused in the manic world of investing. Here is an excerpt from that speech:
As the father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, advised in 1934, smart investors look to the market not as a guide for what to do but as a creator of opportunity. The excessive exuberance and panic of others generates mispricings that can be exploited by those who are able to keep their wits about them.
For three quarters of a century, this advice has helped a great many value investors become very rich, not quickly, but relentlessly, in good markets and in bad. After 25 years in business trying to do the right thing for our clients every day, after 25 years of never using leverage and sometimes holding significant cash, we still are forced to explain ourselves because what we do—which sounds so incredibly simple—is seen as so very odd.
When so many other lose their heads, speculating rather than investing, riding the market’s momentum regardless of valuation, embracing unconscionable amounts of leverage, betting that what hasn’t happened before won’t ever happen, and trusting computer models that greatly oversimplify the real world, there is constant and enormous pressure to capitulate.
Clients, of course, want it both ways, too, in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world. They want to make lots of money when everyone else is, and to not lose money when the market goes down. Who is going to tell them that these desires are essentially in conflict, and that those who promise them the former are almost certainly not those who can deliver the latter?
The stock market is the story of cycles and of the human behavior that is responsible for overreactions in both directions. Success in the market leads to excess, as bystanders are lured in by observing their friends and neighbors becoming rich, as naysayers are trounced by zealous participants, and as the effects of leverage reinforce early successes. Then, eventually, and perhaps after more time than contrarians would like, the worm turns, the last incremental buyer gets in, the last speculative dollar is borrowed and invested, and someone decides or is forced to sell.
Things quickly work in reverse, as leveraged investors receive margin calls and panicked investors dump their holdings regardless of price. Then, the wisdom of caution is once again evident, as not losing money becomes the watchword of the day. Investors should always keep in mind that the most important metric is not the returns achieved but the returns weighed against the risks incurred. Ultimately, nothing should be more important to investors than the ability to sleep soundly at night.
You can find the entire speech here:
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Article by Johnny Hopkins, The Acquirer's Multiple