Howard Marks’ Book: Chapter 1

by on June 20, 2012  •  In Howard Marks

In his recent book, The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor, Howard Marks of Oaktree writes about a lot of different investment topics. I’ve done my best to lift out relevant portfolio management details. Without further ado, below are highlights from Chapter 1, titled “The Most Important Thing Is…Second-Level Thinking.”

Portfolio Management

“Because investing is at least as much art as it is science, it’s never my goal – in this book or elsewhere – to suggest it can be routinized. In fact, one of the things I most want to emphasize is how essential it is that one’s investment approach be intuitive and adaptive rather than be fixed and mechanistic.”

Successful investing involves equal parts sniffing out ideas, effective diligence, and thoughtful portfolio management. Marks’ comments may not have been written to pertain specifically to the portfolio management process, but it certainly applies.

It’s difficult to routinize portfolio management since the process differs by person and by strategy. Tug on one side of the intricate web and you change the outcome in several other areas. Portfolio management, like the “investing” in Marks’ words, is an art, not the science – distilled into a perfectly eloquent formula or model as many academics and theorists have attempted to extract. (Ironically, Howard Marks and I were both educated at the University of Chicago.) Art demands some degree of inherent messiness – constant changes, tweaks, paint everywhere. Art, like portfolio management, requires practice, dedication, and reflection over time.


“No rule always works…An investment approach may work for a while, but eventually the actions it calls for will change the environment, meaning a new approach is needed. And if others emulate an approach, that will blunt its effectiveness.”

“Unconventionality shouldn’t be a goal in itself, but rather a way of thinking. In order to distinguish yourself from others, it helps to have ideas that are different and to process those ideas differently.”

Investment performance is ever forward looking. A strategy or idea that’s worked in the past may or may not provide the same success in the future. Marks’ comments regarding the importance of creativity have broad applications – from idea sourcing to the diligence process to portfolio management technique.

Maintaining that creative spirit, staying one step ahead of the competition (sounds oddly like running a business, doesn’t it?) is crucial to generating superior investment returns over the long run.

Definition of Investing, Benchmark

“In my view, that’s the definition of successful investing: doing better than the market and other investors.”

Here, the definition of successful investing depends upon “doing better than” a certain “market” or “other investors.”

In order to “do better” than something, an investor must identify that something ahead of time – whether it be a single market index or a bundle of indices and other competing funds.

We’ve discussed the topic of benchmarks in the past (see benchmark tag). For example, during the Partnership days, Buffett used the Dow as his primary benchmark, but also showed investors his performance against a group of well-known mutual and closed end funds. Some Brazilian hedge funds use the local risk-free-rate as their benchmark.

The point is: your choice of benchmark can vary, just make sure that you’ve at least made a choice.

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