Mr. Marks, next week Wall Street will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the end of the equity bear market. What are your thoughts when you’re looking back to the dark days of the financial crisis?
Because people play an important role in determining the course of the financial markets, stock prices move like a manic-depressive. Of course, there were some severe fundamental problems in the years 2008 and 2009: The economy was bad, capital markets were closed, and Lehman Brothers and other financials firms went bankrupt. But most people exaggerated that into a belief that the world was ending. In line with that, asset prices were ridiculously low. Therefore, five years ago the key to making money was to have money to spend and the nerve to spend it. In other words: To do the exact opposite of what most people were doing erroneously at that time.
And what’s your take on the stock market today, half a decade later?
Around the beginning 0f 2012 it was clear that a lot of recovery from the crisis had taken place. The economy, investor psychology and the price of credit investments had recovered, and pro risk behavior had started to return to the markets. Because of that, our mantra at Oaktree Capital for the last few years has been: «move forward, but with caution». Although a lot has changed since then I think it’s still appropriate to keep the same mantra. Today, things are not cheap anymore. Rather I would describe the price of most assets as being on the high side of fair. We’re not in the low of the crisis like five years ago. But similarly, I don’t think we’re in a bubble.
This week, the S&P 500 printed a new intraday all-time high. What indicators are you looking at to feel the pulse of the market?
The easy thing to look at is the P/E ratio on the S&P 500. The post war norm is about 16 and the lowest point I’ve ever seen was in the late seventies when it got down to 7. At the beginning of 2012 it was around 11 which was very cheap too. During the financial crisis stock prices went down and then they came back up somewhat. At the same time, company profits moved ahead sharply, which reduced the ratio of price to earnings. So equities were extremely cheap, as I wrote in March 2012 in one of my memos called «Déjà Vu All Over Again». But we’re not there anymore.
So where do we stand now?
Let’s think about a pendulum: It swings from too rich to too cheap, but it never swings halfway and stops. And it never swings halfway and goes back to where it came from. As stocks do better, more people jump on board. From 1960 to the late nineties everybody thought that owning stocks was the way to get rich with no risk. Stocks, which had always gone up 10% a year on average, went up 20% on average in the nineties. Then, from 2000 to 2012 with the burst of the dot-com bubble and later the financial crisis, people fell out of love with stocks, causing them to get too cheap. Now people are in the process of falling in love again. And every year that stocks do well wins a few more converts until eventually the last person jumps on board. And that’s the top of the upswing. But I don’t think that craze is back now. That’s a reason for optimism, because that means more affection can develop.
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