Howard Marks' Views On When Markets Will Be Efficient (Hint: Never)

While the topic of Howard Marks’ latest letter is the role of luck in everything from the life one leads to investing, the part we found particularly engaging was his discussion of (in)efficient markets, and why according to him inefficient markets are to be cherished, especially if one knows in advance just how rigged the game is and the skill of the other players.  Here is the key excerpt.

Let me say up front that I have always considered the reasoning behind the efficient market hypothesis absolutely sound and compelling, and it has greatly influenced my thinking.


In well-followed markets, thousands of people are looking for superior investments and trying to avoid inferior ones. If they find information indicating something’s a bargain, they buy it, driving up the price and eliminating the potential for an excess return. Likewise, if they find an overpriced asset, they sell it or short it, driving down the price and lifting its prospective return. I think it makes perfect sense to expect intelligent market participants to drive out mispricings.


The efficient market hypothesis is compelling . . . as a hypothesis. But is it relevant in the real world? (As Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”) The answer lies in the fact that no hypothesis is any better than the assumptions on which it’s premised.


I believe many markets are quite efficient. Everyone is aware of them, basically understands them, and is willing to invest in them. And in general everyone gets the same information at the same time (in fact, it’s one of the SEC’s missions to make sure that’s the case). I had markets like that in mind in 1978 when, on going into portfolio management, my rule was, “I’ll do anything but spend the rest of my life choosing between Merck and Lilly.”


But I also believe some markets are less efficient than others. Not everyone knows about them or understands them. They may be controversial, making people hesitant to invest. They may appear too risky for some. They may be hard to invest in, illiquid, or accessible only through locked-up vehicles in which some people can’t or don’t want to participate. Some market participants may have better information than others . . . legally. Thus, in an inefficient market there can be mastery and/or luck, since market prices are often wrong, enabling some investors to do better than others.


* * *


The Current State of Market Efficiency


Let’s compare the current environment for efficiency with that of the past.


  • Data on all forms of investing is freely available in vast quantities.
  • Every investor has extensive computing power. In contrast, there were essentially no PCs or even four-function calculators before 1970, and no laptops before 1980.
  • “Hedge fund,” “alternative investing,”
    “distressed debt,” “high yield bond,” “private equity,” “mortgage backed security” and “emerging market” are all household words today. Thirty years ago they were non-existent, little known or poorly understood. Today, as I say about the impact of the browsers on our mobile phones, “everyone knows everything.”
  • Nowadays few people make moral judgments about investments. There aren’t many instances of investors turning down an investment just because it’s controversial or unseemly. In contrast, most will do anything to make a buck.
  • There are about 8,000 hedge funds in the world, many of which have wide-open charters and pride themselves on being infinitely flexible.

It’s hard to prove efficiency or inefficiency. Among other reasons, the academics say it takes many decades of data to reach a conclusion with “statistical significance,” but by the time the requisite number of years have passed, the environment is likely to have been altered. Regardless, I think we must look at the changes listed above and accept that the conditions of today are less propitious for inefficiency than those of the past. In short, it makes sense to accept that most games are no longer as easy as they used to be, and that as a result free lunches are scarcer. Thus, in general, I think it will be harder to earn superior risk-adjusted returns in the future, and the margin of superiority will be smaller.


People often ask me about the inefficient markets of tomorrow. Think about it: that’s an oxymoron. It’s like asking, “What is there that hasn’t been discovered yet?” The markets are greatly changed from 25, 35 or 45 years ago. The bottom line today is that there’s little that people don’t know about, understand and embrace.


How, then, do I expect to find inefficiency? My answer is that while few markets demonstrate great structural inefficiency today, many exhibit a great deal of cyclical inefficiency from time to time. Just five years ago, there were lots of things people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and as a result they offered absurdly high returns. Most of those opportunities are gone today, but I’m sure they’ll be back the next time investors turn tail and run.


Markets will be permanently efficient when investors are permanently objective and unemotional. In other words, never. Unless that unlikely day comes, skill and luck will both continue to play very important roles.

* * *

In hindsight, considering just how lucrative the past several years of straight line higher movement in the S&P500 have been to some market participants – especially those E-Trade babies with virtually zero grasp of that fundamental non-common sense concept called valuation (see GMO’s letter earlier) –  one can therefore add one more distinction to Bernanke’s legacy: creating the world’s most inefficient marketplace.

For much more insight from the Oaktree chairman, read the full letter (pdf).


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