Seth Klarman: Aliens Would Question Our Intelligence If They Examined The Behavior Of Financial Market Participants

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One of the best book’s ever written on investing is Margin of Safety, by Seth Klarman. In one passage in particular Klarman illustrates how interplanetary visitors would question the intelligence of human beings if they examined the behavior of financial market participants.

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Here is an excerpt from that book:

If interplanetary visitors landed on Earth and examined the workings of our financial markets and the behavior of financial market participants, they would no doubt question the intelligence of the planet’s inhabitants. Wall Street, the financial marketplace where capital is allocated worldwide, is in many ways just a gigantic casino. The recipient of up-front fees on every transaction, Wall Street clearly is more concerned with the volume of activity than its economic utility.

Pension and endowment funds responsible for the security and enhancement of long-term retirement, educational, and philanthropic resources employ investment managers who frenetically trade long-term securities on a very short-term basis, each trying to outguess and consequently outperform others doing the same thing. In addition, hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in virtual or complete ignorance of underlying business fundamentals, often using indexing strategies designed to avoid significant underperformance at the cost of assured mediocrity. Individual and institutional investors alike frequently demonstrate an inability to make long-term investment decisions based on business fundamentals.

There are a number of reasons for this: among them the performance pressures faced by institutional investors, the compensation structure of Wall Street, and the frenzied atmosphere of the financial markets. As a result, investors, particularly institutional investors, become enmeshed in a short-term relative-performance derby, whereby temporary price fluctuations become the dominant focus.

Relative-performance-oriented investors, already focused on short-term returns, frequently are attracted to the latest market fads as a source of superior relative performance. The temptation of making a fast buck is great, and many investors find it difficult to fight the crowd.

Investors are sometimes their own worst enemies. When prices are generally rising, for example, greed leads investors to speculate, to make substantial, high-risk bets based upon optimistic predictions, and to focus on return while ignoring risk.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, when prices are generally falling, fear of loss causes investors to focus solely on the possibility of continued price declines to the exclusion of investment fundamentals. Regardless of the market environment, many investors seek a formula for success. The unfortunate reality is that investment success cannot be captured in a mathematical equation or a computer program.

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