Successful investors tend to be unemotional, allowing the greed and fear of others to play into their hands. By having confidence in their own analysis and judgment, they respond to market forces not with blind emotion but with calculated reason. Successful investors, for example, demonstrate caution in frothy markets and steadfast conviction in panicky ones. Indeed, the very way an investor views the market and its price fluctuations is a key factor in his or her ultimate investment success or failure.
Taking Advantage of Mr. Market
I wrote earlier that financial-market participants must choose between investment and speculation. Those who (wisely) choose investment are faced with another choice, this time between two opposing views of the financial markets. One view, widely held among academics and increasingly among institutional investors, is that the financial markets are efficient and that trying to outperform the averages is futile. Matching the market return is the best you can hope for. Those who attempt to outperform the market will incur high transaction costs and taxes, causing them to underperform instead.
The other view is that some securities are inefficiently priced, creating opportunities for investors to profit with low risk. This view was perhaps best expressed by Benjamin Graham, who posited the existence of a Mr. Market.5 An ever helpful fellow, Mr. Market stands ready every business day to buy or sell a vast array of securities in virtually limitless quantities at prices that he sets. He provides this valuable service free of charge. Sometimes Mr. Market sets prices at levels where you would neither want to buy nor sell. Frequently, however, he becomes irrational. Sometimes he is optimistic and will pay far more than securities are worth. Other times he is pessimistic, offering to sell securities for considerably less than underlying value. Value investors—who buy at a discount from underlying value—are in a position to take advantage of Mr. Market’s irrationality.
Some investors — really speculators — mistakenly look to Mr. Market for investment guidance. They observe him setting a lower price for a security and, unmindful of his irrationality, rush to sell their holdings, ignoring their own assessment of underlying value. Other times they see him raising prices and, trusting his lead, buy in at the higher figure as if he knew more than they. The reality is that Mr. Market knows nothing, being the product of the collective action of thousands of buyers and sellers who themselves are not always motivated by investment fundamentals. Emotional investors and speculators inevitably lose money; investors who take advantage of Mr. Market’s periodic irrationality, by contrast, have a good chance of enjoying long-term success. Mr. Market’s daily fluctuations may seem to provide feedback for investors’ recent decisions. For a recent purchase decision rising prices provide positive reinforcement; falling prices, negative reinforcement. If you buy a stock that subsequently rises in price, it is easy to allow the positive feedback provided by Mr. Market to influence your judgment.
You may start to believe that the security is worth more than you previously thought and refrain from selling, effectively placing the judgment of Mr. Market above your own. You may even decide to buy more shares of this stock, anticipating Mr. Market’s future movements. As long as the price appears to be rising, you may choose to hold, perhaps even ignoring deteriorating business fundamentals or a diminution in underlying value.
Similarly, when the price of a stock declines after its initial purchase, most investors, somewhat naturally, become concerned. They start to worry that Mr. Market may know more than they do or that their original assessment was in error. It is easy to panic and sell at just the wrong time. Yet if the security were truly a bargain when it was purchased, the rational course of action would be to take advantage of this even better bargain and buy more.
Louis Lowenstein has warned us not to confuse the real success of an investment with its mirror of success in the stock market.6 The fact that a stock price rises does not ensure that the underlying business is doing well or that the price increase is justified by a corresponding increase in underlying value. Likewise, a price fall in and of itself does not necessarily reflect adverse business developments or value deterioration.
It is vitally important for investors to distinguish stock price fluctuations from underlying business reality. If the general tendency is for buying to beget more buying and selling to precipitate more selling, investors must fight the tendency to capitulate to market forces. You cannot ignore the market — ignoring a source of investment opportunities would obviously be a mistake — but you must think for yourself and not allow the market to direct you. Value in relation to price, not price alone, must determine your investment decisions. If you look to Mr. Market as a creator of investment opportunities (where price departs from underlying value), you have the makings of a value investor. If you insist on looking to Mr. Market for investment guidance, however, you are probably best advised to hire someone else to manage your money.
Security prices move up and down for two basic reasons: to reflect business reality (or investor perceptions of that reality) or to reflect short-term variations in supply and demand. Reality can change in a number of ways, some company-specific, others macroeconomic in nature. If Coca-Cola’s business expands or prospects improve and the stock price increases proportionally, the rise may simply reflect an increase in business value. If Aetna’s share price plunges when a hurricane causes billions of dollars in catastrophic losses, a decline in total market value approximately equal to the estimated losses may be appropriate. When the shares of Fund American Companies, Inc., surge as a result of the unexpected announcement of the sale of its major subsidiary, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, at a very high price, the price increase reflects the sudden and nearly complete realization of underlying value. On a macroeconomic level a broad-based decline in interest rates, a drop in corporate tax rates, or a rise in the expected rate of economic growth could each precipitate a general increase in security prices.
Security prices sometimes fluctuate, not based on any apparent changes in reality, but on changes in investor perception. The shares of many biotechnology companies doubled and tripled in the first months of 1991, for example despite a lack of change in company or industry fundamentals that could possibly have explained that magnitude of increase. The only explanation for the price rise was that investors were suddenly willing to pay much more than before to buy the same thing.
In the short run supply and demand alone determine market prices. If there are many large sellers and few buyers, prices fall, sometimes beyond reason. Supply-and-demand imbalances can result from year-end tax selling, an institutional stampede out of a stock that just reported disappointing earnings, or an unpleasant rumor. Most day-to-day market price fluctuations result from supply-and-demand variations rather than from fundamental developments.
Investors will frequently not know why security prices fluctuate. They may change because of, in the absence of, or in complete indifference to changes in underlying value. In the short run investor perception may be as important as reality itself in determining security prices. It is never clear which future events are anticipated by investors and thus already reflected in today’s security prices. Because security prices can change for any number of reasons and because it is impossible to know what expectations are reflected in any given price level, investors must look beyond security prices to underlying business value, always comparing the two as part of the investment process.
[This is an excerpt from Seth Klarman’s Margin of Safety (p. 22). Seth Klarman is the founder and president of the Baupost Group.]