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It’s not easy
By Advisor Perspectives
Memo to: Oaktree Clients
From: Howard Marks
Re: It’s Not Easy
In 2011, as I was putting the finishing touches on my book The Most Important Thing, I was fortunate to have one of my occasional lunches with Charlie Munger. As it ended and I got up to go, he said something about investing that I keep going back to: “It’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who finds it easy is stupid.”
As usual, Charlie packed a great deal of wisdom into just a few words. Let’s take the first six: “It’s not supposed to be easy.” While it’s pretty simple to achieve average results, it shouldn’t be easy to make superior investments and earn outsized returns. John Kenneth Galbraith said something similar years ago:
There is nothing reliable to be learned about making money. If there were, study would be intense and everyone with a positive IQ would be rich.
What Charlie and Professor Galbraith meant is this: Everyone wants to make money, and especially to find the sure thing or “silver bullet” that will allow them to do it without commensurate risk. Thus they work hard (actually, study is intense), searching for bargain securities and approaches that will give them an edge. They buy up the bargains and apply the approaches. The result is that the efforts of these market participants tend to drive out opportunities for easy money. Securities become more fairly priced, and free lunches become harder to find. It makes no sense to think it would be otherwise.
And what about the next seven words: “Anyone who finds it easy is stupid”? It follows from the above that given how hard investors work to find special opportunities, and that their buying eliminates such prospects, people who think it can be easy overlook substantial nuance and complexity.
Markets are meeting places where people come together (not necessarily physically) to exchange one thing (usually money) for another. Markets have a number of functions, one of which is to eliminate opportunities for excess returns.
Ed calls me and bids $10,000 for my car. Then he offers to sell it to Bob for $20,000. If Ed’s lucky and we both say yes, he doubles his money overnight. To put it simply, anyone who expects to make money easily trading cars this way either thinks (a) Bob and I are idiots or (b) the market won’t function in a way that enables us to know about the fair value of my car. If these conditions were met, it would be an “inefficient market.”
But if Bob and I have access to market data on used car pricing, Ed’s chances of pulling off this deal are greatly reduced. In most markets, transparency tends to reveal and thus preclude obvious mispricings. (Thanks to the incredible gains in access to data by way of the Internet, this is certainly more true today than ever before.) In my view, this is a good part of the basis for Charlie’s comment: anyone who thinks it’s easy to achieve unusual profits is overlooking the way markets operate. This memo is largely about the challenges they present.
I always thought that when I retired, I would write a book pulling together the elements of investment philosophy discussed in my memos. But in 2009, I got an email from Warren Buffett saying that if I’d write a book, he’d give me a blurb for the jacket. It didn’t take me long to move up my timing.
Columbia Business School Publishing had been talking to me about a book, and when I told them I was ready, they asked to see a sample chapter. For some reason, I was able to sit down – without previously having given the topic any organized thought – and knock out a chapter about the importance of something I labeled “second-level thinking.” This is a crucial subject that has to be unders