Howard Marks Speaks: Where Does Passive Investing Go From Here?

Oaktree Capital’s (OAK) Howard Marks is one of my favorite investors.

In his latest memo, he covers everything from the FAANG stocks to Bitcoin, but what I found most interesting was his comments on passive investing. I’ve expressed similar views over the years, as have others such as Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman (see “Bill Ackman Makes Some Good Points on the Index Bubble“).

But frankly, Marks says it better. Here’s an excerpt:

Passive investing can be thought of as a low-risk, low-cost and non-opinionated way to participate in “the market,” and that view is making it more and more popular. But I continue to think about the impact of passive investing on the market.

One of the most important things to always bear in mind is George Soros’s “theory of reflexivity,” which I paraphrase as saying that the efforts of investors to master the market affect the market they’re trying to master. In other words, how would golf be if the course played back: if the efforts of golfers to put their shot in the right place caused the right place to become the wrong place? That’s certainly the case with investing.

It’s tempting to think of the investment environment as an unchanging backdrop, that is, an independent variable. Then all you have to do is figure out the right course of action and take it. But what if the environment is a dependent variable? Does the behavior of investors alter the environment in which they work? Of course it does…

The trend toward passive investing has made great strides. Roughly 35% of all U.S. equity investing is estimated to be done on a passive basis today, leaving 65% for active management. However, Raj Mahajan of Goldman Sachs estimates that already a substantial majority of daily trading is originated by quantitative and systematic strategies including passive vehicles, quantitative/algorithmic funds and electronic market makers. In other words, just a fraction of trades have what Raj calls “originating decision makers” that are human beings making fundamental value judgments regarding companies and their stocks, and performing “price discovery” (that is, implementing their views of what something’s worth through discretionary purchases and sales).

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Disclosure: I also happen to be long OAK .

Disclosure: Charles Sizemore is the author of the Sizemore Insights ...

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