Does Past Success Change Future Returns?

One of the top money managers and deep thinkers of our time, Howard Marks says the ultimate market truths are:

  1. Public psychology determines price action in short-term perspective.

Psychological and technical factors can swamp fundamentals. In the long run, value creation and destruction are driven by fundamentals such as economic trends, companies’ earnings, demand for products and the skillfulness of managements. But in the short run, markets are highly responsive to investor psychology and the technical factors that influence the supply and demand for assets. In fact, I think confidence matters more than anything else in the short run. Anything can happen in this regard, with results that are both unpredictable and irrational.

2. Most things will turn out to be cyclical and eventually mean-revert.

In investing, as in life, there are very few sure things. Values can evaporate, estimates can be wrong, circumstances can change and “sure things” can fail. However, there are two concepts we can hold to with confidence: • Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical. • Rule number two: some of the greatest opportunities for gain and loss come when other people forget rule number one.

Marks also believes that past performance impacts future performance in a big way:

If everyone likes it, it’s probably because it has been doing well. Most people seem to think outstanding performance to date presages outstanding future performance. Actually, it’s more likely that outstanding performance to date has borrowed from the future and thus presages subpar performance from here on out.

In the quote above, Howard Marks talks about assets. Does the same principle applies to trading and investing systems? In business, when a company has very high-profit margins, it attracts competition, which eventually significantly reduces those margins.

What happens if too many people start to apply the same market strategy? Usually, that same strategy stops to work for awhile. Faced with poor returns, many will move on and try something new. Then, all of a sudden that same strategy miraculously starts to work well again. This is a basic market principle – anything that works well for the long-term, has to go through short-term periods of not working (losing money).

If everyone becomes a value investor, deep value opportunities will become more scarce. They will likely come once every five or ten years near the bottom of big bear markets. Traditional, long only value investing is hard during prolonged bull markets when a lot of money chases very few good opportunities. Warren Buffett realized relatively early in his career that value investing is not scalable. Then, he switched to buying great businesses at reasonable prices. A true value investor is basically forced to look for short opportunities during much of his career while he is waiting for the next bear market to create incredible long opportunities.

What happens if everyone becomes a momentum investor? Does momentum investing stops working or price trends last even longer and deliver even higher returns? Or maybe, trends become shorter in duration, but a lot more intense and as a result, we see moves that used to take a year to happen in one or two months?

When happens if most people become passive indexers? Correlations are likely to rise further, which means that great businesses will become very attractive deals during market corrections and crappy companies will overshoot to the upside during bull markets and eventually turn into great short opportunities.

In the financial world, you have two basic choices:

  1. Stick to one market approach and go through periods of big drawdowns.
  2. Have several approaches and apply the one that best fits the current market.

I am not saying that one of those approaches is right and the other is wrong. One requires less time and efforts. Thr other significantly reduces drawdowns and potentially can deliver higher returns. One is a science and the other is an art. Art is usually a lot harder.

My strategy is to be flexible and adapt to the ever-changing markets.