Friday 16 September 2011

Guru Speak: Seth Klarman interviewed by Jason Zweig

I have been a great admirer of Seth Klarman since the time I read his book "Margin of Safety". recently, I came across a transcript of an interview that Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal conducted in May 2010. Here are some of the important snippets from the interview.

JZ: What went wrong in 2008, and how did so many Value Investors get hammered?
SK: Value investing doesn’t work all the time, you need to expect periods of underperformance.  In the Pre 08 period, the world was valued on an invisible LBO Model.  Stocks were not allowed to get cheap because of an underlying expected LBO bid.  But when the model got fragmented, the template no longer made sense.  So in order to do well, equity minded investors needed to be more agile in 07/08 and have an opinion on subprime mortgages and the ripple effect.  Bank stocks looked cheap unless you thought their capital would be destroyed.  Also the modern day pressure to be fully invested and on short term performance didn’t help.

JZ: In 1932, Benjamin Graham wrote in Forbes, “Those with the enterprise lack the money and those with the money lack the enterprise to buy stocks when they are cheap.” How did you have the courage, was it easy to step up and buy in the fall of 2008?
SK: “Yes, it was easy.” The critical thing to understand is that securities are not pieces of paper that fluctuate in price tick by tick, instead they are in fact claims on earnings or assets of businesses. If you have conviction in your analysis, you will hold and buy more.  So what do we do to give us conviction? 
1.) Find compelling bargains, not slight bargains. 
2.) Test everything with sensitivity analysis.  
3.) Prepare to be wrong.  
It’s not courage, it’s arrogance, when you buy something, you’re saying you’re smarter than everyone else.  We realize we have lots of smart competition and temper our arrogance with
humility to realize that many things could go wrong.  Our own confidence matters, and we’re highly disciplined buyers and sellers to avoid round trips and take advantage of short term sell offs. Courage is a function of process.

JZ: In Margin of Safety, you were critical of Indexing, is that still the case?
SK: There is no perfect answer.  Yes, I still believe indexing is a horrible idea.  Stocks trade up when they’re added to the index so the index investor is paying up.  I’m more likely to buy the companies kicked out of the index.  For the average person, however, they don’t do enough research to own individual stocks.  The idea of owning stocks for the long run is a disservice to investors, because many of the people are not there for the long run.  Many got out in 2008 when they should have been buying, because the entry point matters most.

JZ: In Margin of Safety, you said commodities were not investments since they do not
produce cash flows, one possible exception being gold.  Do you still feel this way?

SK: I haven’t changed my mind, but that statement was in reference to rare stamps, or fine art, etc.   Valuing collectibles based on a future sale to a greater fool is speculating.  There is no way to analyze what it will be worth in the future.  Land is complicated because it will be valuable to future buyers and it can have cash flows. Gold has been thought of as a store of value but it is just a commodity and therefore it is a speculation.  I own gold because I want exposure to a devaluation of all paper monies.

JZ: Everyone says it’s never the analyst’s fault, but often they don’t stick to this when something goes wrong. How do you screen for Intellectual Honesty in your hiring process?
SK: We ask about their biggest mistake, which doesn’t have to be investing related. But if you say your biggest mistake is wearing mis-matched socks one day, then that’s likely not being intellectually honest.  We ask ethical questions, ask them how they’d respond in morally ambiguous situations, we want to see that they realize conflicts can exist.  We want people who fit in.  One key thing is idea fluency, if I present a thesis I want people to immediately come up with 10 places to look to exploit it, I don’t want them sitting at their desk thinking, “hmm, where should I look?"

JZ: What about the individual investors whose sell orders went off at $0.01? {This question was in relation to computer-based short selling.}
SK: Never use market orders. You’re not a seller at the market, the market changes
too fast.

JZ: Can you define a Value Stock and what is your average holding period?
SK: As for a Holding Period, we buy expecting to hold a bond to maturity and a stock forever.  Now we may turn over quicker if there’s rapid appreciation and the return from the current price doesn’t seem to compensate for the risks anymore.  There’s no such thing as a Value Company.  Price is all that matters. At some price, an asset is a buy, at another it’s a hold, and at another it’s a sell.

JZ: Any Book Recommendations (besides Margin of Safety and Security Analysis, of

SK: Read as much as you can about the markets, economy, and financial history. Never stop reading.  Specific book recommendations include "The Intelligent Investor", Greenblatt’s "You Can Be A Stock Market Genius", Whitman’s "Aggressive Conservative Investor", Anything from Jim Grant (he’s a great thinker, even if his predictions may not turn out right), Roger Lowenstein has not written a bad book, anything from him. Also Michael Lewis, who also hasn’t written a bad book either, but specifically "MoneyBall" which will go down as a definitive book on investing.  Also "Too Big to Fail" is good.
JZ: I’ll add "How to Lie with Statistics".

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