Seth Klarman: It’s Madness To Set Return Targets

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In 2008 Seth Klarman did a great interview with the Harvard Business School to discuss his value investing philosophy, why he believes it continues to work and, why it’s madness to set return targets. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Q. Did you ever waver in your investment style?

A. Never once.

Q. What gave you the resolve to say no to all the other investment approaches?

A. There are several answers. First, value investing is intellectually elegant. You’re basically buying bargains. It also appeals because all the studies demonstrate that it works. People who chase growth, who chase highfliers, inevitably lose because they paid a premium price. They lose to the people who have more patience and more discipline. Third, it’s easy to talk in the abstract, but in real life you see situations that are just plain mispriced, where an ignored, neglected, or abhorred company may be just as attractive as others in the same industry. In time, the discount will be corrected, and you will have the wind at your back as a holder of the stock.

Q. Do you set an annual return target?

A. We think it’s madness to target a return. Return lies in some relationship to risk, albeit there are moments when it’s out of whack, when you can make a high return with very limited risk. My view is that you can target risk versus return. So you can say, I’ll take the very safe 6 percent, I’ll take the somewhat risky 12, or I’ll take the enormously risky 20, knowing that 20 might actually be minus 20 by the time the actual results are known. We just don’t think targeting a return is smart.

Q. You are lead editor of the new edition of Security Analysis, the bible of value investing by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, first published in 1934. Is their advice still relevant 75 years later?

A. At no time since 1934 has it been so relevant given the financial turmoil and distress in the world and the possibility that we could be reliving some sort of serious economic downturn. What’s wonderful about Graham and Dodd is that their advice is timeless. And it is not just about investing; it’s also about thinking about investing. It basically teaches you the questions that you should ask, and it makes endless references to the foibles of human nature in the markets.

Q. Given the recent credit market meltdown, have we made much progress in figuring out how to avoid the pitfalls pointed out by Graham and Dodd?

A. No. What happens is that people always want to believe that this time is different, that there’s something new under the sun, and that through their own ingenuity they can wish away risk. The idea that risk premiums would go to zero, that we’re somehow overcoming human nature, is absurd. The whole reason that our capitalist system works the way it does is because there are cycles, and the cycles self-correct. With too much excess, eventually you get a downturn.

You can read the entire interview here: Seth Klarman, 2008 Harvard Business School Interview.

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