One of our favorite investors here at The Acquirer’s Multiple is of course Seth Klarman. Klarman is one of the smartest investors on the planet and he’s always been very open in sharing his insights with other investors.
While Klarman has provided dozens of investing lessons over the years via his speeches, interviews, and shareholder letters, here is a collection of twenty-five timeless investing lessons that will resonate with all value investors:
1. We are big fans of fear, and in investing it is clearly better to be scared than sorry.
2. Most investors take comfort from calm, steadily rising markets; roiling markets can drive investor panic. But these conventional reactions are inverted. When all feels calm and prices surge, the markets may feel safe; but, in fact, they are dangerous because few investors are focusing on risk. When one feels in the pit of one’s stomach the fear that accompanies plunging market prices, risk-taking becomes considerably less risky, because risk is often priced into an asset’s lower market valuation. Investment success requires standing apart from the frenzy – the short-term, relative performance game played by most investors.
3. Value investors should concentrate their holdings in their best ideas; if you can tell a good investment from a bad one, you can also distinguish a great one from a good one.
4. The prospective return must always be generous relative to the risk incurred. For riskier investments, the upside potential must be many multiples of any potential loss. We believe there is room for a few of these potential five and ten baggers in a diversified, low-risk portfolio.
5. When you have been doing this for a while, you start to become more proficient about where to look, which rocks to look under. The rocks we look under tend to have a few things in common.
6. Price is perhaps the single most important criterion in sound investment decision making. Every security or asset is a “buy” at one price, a “hold” at a higher price, and a “sell” at some still higher price. Yet most investors in all asset classes love simplicity, rosy outlooks, and the prospect of smooth sailing. They prefer what is performing well to what has recently lagged, often regardless of price. They prefer full buildings and trophy properties to fixer-uppers that need to be filled, even though empty or unloved buildings may be the far more compelling, and even safer, investments. Because investors are not usually penalized for adhering to conventional practices, doing so is the less professionally risky strategy, even though it virtually guarantees against superior performance.
7. Rather than buy from smart, informed sellers, we want to buy from urgent, distressed or emotional sellers.
8. The real secret to investing is that there is no secret to investing. Every important aspect of value investing has been made available to the public many times over, beginning with the first edition of Security Analysis. That so many people fail to follow this timeless and almost foolproof approach enables those who adopt it to remain successful. The foibles of human nature that result in the mass pursuit of instant wealth and effortless gain seem certain to be with us forever. So long as people succumb to this aspect of their natures, value investing will remain, as it has been for 75 years, a sound and low-risk approach to successful long-term investing.
9. Great investments don’t just knock on the door and say ‘buy me’.
10. Our willingness to hold cash during fallow periods has enabled us to maintain a strict sell discipline regardless of whether we had anything promising to replace what we sold. This view on cash, combined with a truly long-term investment perspective, has also enabled us to avoid the gun-to-the-head mentality that pressures many investors to own less-than-stellar investments.
11. While it is always tempting to try to time the market and wait for the bottom to be reached (as if it would be obvious when it arrived), such a strategy has proven over the years to be deeply flawed. Historically, little volume transacted at the bottom or on the way back up and competition from other buyers will be much greater when the markets settle down and the economy begins to recover. Moreover, the price recovery from a bottom can be very swift. Therefore, an investor should put money to work amidst the throes of a bear market, appreciating that things will likely get worse before they get better.
12. We specialize in the highly complex while mostly avoiding plain vanilla, which is typically more fully priced.
13. It is much harder psychologically to be unsure than to be sure; certainty builds confidence, and confidence reinforces certainty. Yet being overly certain in an uncertain, protean, and ultimately unknowable world is hazardous for investors. To be sure, uncertainty breeds doubt, which can be paralyzing. But uncertainty also motivates diligence, as one pursues the unattainable goal of eliminating all doubt. Unlike premature or false certainty, which induces flawed analysis and failed judgments, a healthy uncertainty drives the quest for justifiable conviction.
14. Robert Rubin once observed that some people are more certain of everything than he is of anything. One can see the investment universe as full of certainties, or one can see it as replete with probabilities. Those who reflect and hesitate make far less in a bull market, but those who never question themselves get obliterated when the bear market comes. In investing, certainty can be a serious problem, because it causes one not to reassess flawed conclusions. Nobody can know all the facts. Instead, one must rely on shreds of evidence, kernels of truth, and what one suspects to be true but cannot prove.
15. In a rising market, everyone makes money and a value philosophy is unnecessary. But because there is no certain way to predict what the market will do, one must follow a value philosophy at all times. By controlling risk and limiting loss through extensive fundamental analysis, strict discipline, and endless patience, value investors can expect good results with limited downside.
16. In a world in which most investors appear interested in figuring out how to make money every second and chase the idea du jour, there’s also something validating about the message that it’s okay to do nothing and wait for opportunities to present themselves or to pay off. That’s lonely and contrary a lot of the time, but reminding yourself that that’s what it takes is quite helpful.
17. One way of dealing with information being more available is to stop playing the game and seek out securities or asset classes where there’s less information or competition.
18. As Graham, Dodd and Buffett have all said, you should always remember that you don’t have to swing at every pitch. You can wait for opportunities that fit your criteria and if you don’t find them, patiently wait. Deciding not to panic is still a decision.
19. We make no heroic assumptions in our analysis, hoping, instead, that by compounding multiple conservative assumptions, we will create such a substantial margin of safety that a lot can go wrong without impairing our capital much or even at all. We never invest just to invest and don’t bet blindly on mean reversion or on historical relationships holding up. Our settings are permanently turned to “risk off”.
20. Typically, we make money when we buy things. We count the profits later, but we know we have captured them when we buy the bargain.
21. People should be highly skeptical of anyone’s, including their own, ability to predict the future, and instead pursue strategies that can survive whatever may occur. Taleb advises us to be “anti-fragile”-i.e., to embrace those elements that benefit from volatility, variability, stress, and disorder. This is exactly what we strive to do at Baupost, and Taleb has coined a name for it. The world will always deliver surprises coming from left field, things that have never happened before or, at least, that no one can remember having happened.
22. Warren Buffett is right when he says you should invest as if the market is going to be closed for the next five years. The fundamental principles of value investing, if they make sense to you, can allow you to survive and prosper when everyone else is rudderless. We have a proven map with which to navigate. It sounds kind of crazy, but in times of turmoil in the market. I’ve felt a sort of serenity in knowing that if I’ve checked and rechecked my work, one plus one still equals two regardless of where a stock trades right after I buy it.
23. Buying bargains is the sweet spot of value investors, although how small a discount one might accept can be subject to debate. Selling is more difficult because it involves securities that are closer to fully priced. As with buying, investors need a discipline for selling. First, sell targets, once set, should be regularly adjusted to reflect all currently available information. Second, individual investors must consider tax consequences. Third, whether or not an investor is fully invested may influence the urgency of raising cash from a stockholding as it approaches full valuation. The availability of better bargains might also make one a more eager seller. Finally, value investors should completely exit a security by the time it reaches full value; owning overvalued securities is the realm of speculators.
24. But because investing is, in many ways, a zero-sum activity in which your returns above the market indices are derived from the mistakes, overreactions or inattention of others as much as from your own clever insights, there is a second element in designing a sound investment approach: you must consider the competitive landscape and the behavior of other market participants. As in football, you are well-advised to take advantage of what your opponents give you: if they are defending the run, passing is probably your best option, even if you have a star running back. If scores of other investors are rigidly committed to fast-growing technology stocks, your brilliant tech analyst may not be able to help you outperform. If your competitors are not paying attention to, or indeed are dumping, Greek equities or U.S. housing debt, these asset classes may be worth your attention, regardless of the currently poor fundamentals that are driving others’ decisions. Where to best apply your focus and skills depends partially on where others are applying theirs.
25. From our experience, much long-oriented analysis is simplistic, highly optimistic, and sloppy. Short-sellers, by going against the long-term tide of economic growth and the short-term swells of public opinion and margins calls, are forced to be crackerjack analysts. Their work product is usually top-notch and needs to be. Short-sellers shouldn’t be reviled or banned; most should be celebrated and encouraged. They are the policemen of the financial markets, identifying frauds and cautioning against bubbles. In effect, they protect the unsophisticated from predatory schemes that regulators and enforcement agencies don’t seem able to prevent.
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